Photons, Freedom, and Sovereignty

I was recently having a great conversation with some folks about the relationship between God’s sovereign reign over his creation and human freedom. The question was posed to me: “What are the percentages?”
“The what?”
“The percentages. What percent of the sovereignty do we have in our decision making and what percent does God keep for himself?”

It is a fair question and it makes total sense. This is how our world works every single day. Either your boss defers the decision to you or he keeps the last word for himself. You both don’t have total freedom of the decision. Either the child gets to decide what he will wear out that day (in which case it will probably be pajamas) or the parent decides for them (in which case it probably will not be pajamas). They both cant have total freedom of the wardrobe selection. It doesn’t work that way.

It struck me that this is probably a very common view among Christians today. We assume freedom is a zero sum game. Either God is in control of everything and we humans have no real free will, or God has carved out a slice of the “sovereignty pie” and handed it over to us to live as we wish but in doing so he surrendered control of that slice of his creation.

So, what are the percentages?

The fact of the matter is that the Bible never once assumes that human freedom and God’s sovereignty are mutually exclusive.

The writers of the Bible unashamedly claim we are completely free and God is completely sovereign – often in the same chapter, sometimes in the same sentence.

Consider just one:

Philippians 2:12-13
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

So which is it? Do I work or does God? What are the percentages?

It is clearly 100% of both. This assumption is found again and again from Genesis to Revelations. The compatibility of freedom and sovereignty is the common assumption of every single Biblical author. It is what the Bible teaches.

I admit (freely ?) that there is deep mystery at work here. We will not be able to tie a nice bow on this and settle a centuries-long debate. Instead of failing at that task, lets just step back for a minute and consider each side separately.

If we think only about free will for a moment, the concept makes complete sense to our everyday experience. There is no deep philosophical puzzle. No tension. We wake up, make some decisions during the day, act on those decisions and eventually go to sleep. Easy.

Likewise, if we consider God’s sovereign rule over his creation, it makes complete sense that the author and creator of the cosmos would retain control over what he has made. It is true of authors and their novels, musicians and their music, inventors and their machines. If you make it, you can control how it functions and operates. No mystery here either.

Considered alone, human free will makes total sense and God’s sovereignty makes total sense. But as we focus in on one, the other becomes more and more fuzzy. It is difficult for us to hold both in our minds at the same time. We have trouble fitting them into the same equation.

Now that we put it like that, however, this sounds exactly like something that happens in our physical world every single instant across the universe.

Turn off your lights.
Now turn them back on.

What is light made of? The small packets of energy that ‘carry’ light are photons. Photons behave in the same way – have all the same properties – as other particles in our physical world. However, light also functions as a wave. It has all the properties and behaves in the same way as other energy waves (sound, heat) in our physical world.

So which is it, a particle or a wave? What are the percentages?

Werner Heisenberg (German physicist in the 1900s) discovered the Uncertainty Principle that applies to the measurement of light. The principle effectively states that we can measure the exact position of a photon (particle) OR we can measure its speed (wavelength). We cannot have precise measurements of both at the same time. As one comes into focus, the other gets more blurry, and visa-versa.

We know, on mathematical authority, that both these measurements exist and are equally real. Light is 100% photon and 100% wave. Each makes sense when we examine it alone. However, it is physically impossible to hold both qualities in our mind at once, there is not a single equation that both can fit in.

I find this illustration helpful. You may not, in which case I apologize for wasting your time on this blog post, but things like this help me approach the mysteries of God with a proper humility and perspective.

The freedom / sovereignty relationship is a mystery of grand proportion, to be sure. We will never grasp the whole picture. But it is the height of arrogance to claim that since both parts cannot be understood together that one of them must be false. I agree that they don’t fit in the same equation in our little minds. I disagree that this is any threat at all to the clear Biblical teaching that both are 100% true.

After all, if we are comfortable with mystery in our physics equations, we ought to be comfortable with a little mystery in our understanding of the eternal, powerful, creator of the universe (the creator of those very laws of physics we cant quite hold in our minds all at once).

Thanks for reading.

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