Many people yearn to make sense of their lives and this world. Why do things happen the way they do? Is it part of a plan? Is there no plan? Using the analogy of a train plodding its way along, there are at least three ways people often think of this world and their place:
- The runaway train. It hurtles down a track without a controller at the wheel—whatever happens happens. This is the way of scientism and secular humanism. There is no plan, no purpose, no guiding hand—malevolent or otherwise. There is just random meaninglessness.
- Fate. The train that is this world is controlled by an impersonal, uncaring, disinterested, and faceless controller we don’t know, can’t see, can’t fathom. This is “blind luck,” Fate, Destiny.
- The Good Controller. This is the Christian answer. This is the true God. He controls the train. Under His control, you can see Him, know Him, love Him, trust Him—and He makes Himself available to anyone who wants Him.
Christians need to know—to really know—that you, your life, your circumstances, aren’t an accident. Your life isn’t the result of an impersonal, uncaring Destiny. God knows, sees, cares, drives the train that is your life, my life, all of our lives. One life touches so many others,1 and the confluence of all the events, circumstances, actions (good or bad) in this world work together to bring His story closer to home—His train closer to its station.
The account of Paul’s voyage across the Mediterranean and shipwreck on Malta confronts us with this truth. I didn’t know how to preach the passage. It’s a tough narrative. What are Christians supposed to do with it? If they’re ever imprisoned on a ship headed from Caesarea to Italy, are they to make sure to stay the Winter in Crete? Is that God’s message in that passage (Acts 27:1 – 28:10)?
Then I thought about God’s assurance to Paul that he would indeed testify about Christ in Rome (Acts 23:11). I thought about providence, about God’s rule over this world, and then I thought of the bizarre confluence of events that had to happen to put Paul on that ship from Caesarea that day (Acts 27:1):
- Paul could have not gone to Jerusalem. Folks begged him to not go. I likely wouldn’t have gone, I’m not ashamed to say.
- Paul could have not gone to the temple that day. He only went to placate James—to please a Judaizing faction within the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:20-26). What if he’d gone the next day, instead?
- What if the Jewish zealots hadn’t made an oath to kill Paul (Acts 23:12-15)? They might have then sorted the matter out in Jerusalem.
- What if Paul’s nephew hadn’t caught wind of the death plot (Acts 23:16)?
- What if Lysias, the Antonia garrison commander who received word of the plot, had been a fool and ignored the threat?
- What if Paul had offered Felix a bribe (Acts 24:26)? I might have done!
- What if Paul hadn’t appealed to Rome two years later (Acts 25:10-11)?
- What if Festus, newly arrived in Judea, had persuaded Paul to be tried at Jerusalem?
What circumstances, actions, and willful decisions had to coalesce together to produce Paul boarding that ship from Caesarea, that day? What similar gelling of decisions, actions, and circumstances have produced your life? Your situation? Is there a Good Controller driving this train, or is it just plunging on blindly—a runaway train bound for heaven knows where?
As I mentioned, I believe you have three choices:
The Christian story says God is the Good Engineer—the Good Controller. He sees. He knows. He cares. He shepherds this world along towards His goal—a kingdom community with restored relationships all round.
Consider what you know about the Scriptures in light of two questions:
First—does Scripture give us the impression that we’re supposed to laze around, eating ice cream, because “God’s in charge”?
No—it takes disciplined effort to obey God! Jesus is genuinely frustrated by our decisions to oppose His Gospel offer (Lk 10:8-16). Paul says we’ll only see the kingdom after much persecution (Acts 14:22). Peter urges us to be a light among the pagans (1 Pet 2:11ff), which suggests we can decide to do otherwise! And then again we have the unique confluence of people, circumstances, and willful decisions that brought Paul to that beach in Malta.
This means your life is a result of choices you’ve made and choices other people make that impact you—our choices do matter!
Second, does this then mean that God is a spectator who simply watches the world from the outside—like a visitor at a zoo?2
No—all this happened because God wanted Paul to go to Rome (Acts 23:11, 27:24). Jesus had to be rejected and crucified. The Assyrians had to crush the Northern Kingdom. The Babylonians had to destroy Judah. The Medo-Persians had to destroy Babylon.
So, your life is also a result of choices God has made that shape and impact the choices you and other people make.3
- Paul went to the temple that day because he was accommodating James, who was accommodating a noisy faction within his congregation.
- Jews from Asia “happened” to be there that day (Acts 21:27).
- Paul decided not to bribe Felix, so he stayed in custody for over two years.
- The knowledge about the assassination plots in Jerusalem no doubt factored into Paul appealing to Caesar—he didn’t feel he would get a fair shake in Judea!
- It was Paul’s extensive travel experience, including being shipwrecked thrice and adrift in the open sea for over 24 hours, that gave him credibility with Julius, the detachment commander who escorted him to Rome (Acts 27:42-44; cf. 27:9-10, 21-26, 31-32, 33-38).
- It was Julius’ entire upbringing that shaped him to respect Paul’s integrity and keep him alive as the ship foundered on the shoals in St. Paul’s Bay (Acts 27:42-44).
- It was Paul’s innate kindness to help gather firewood after the shipwreck that resulted in the viper bite, which resulted in him healing many Maltese islanders.
Is this all an accident? A coincidence? Does this train have a controller at the wheel, or doesn’t it? If you’re a Christian, you must believe it does.
I want to leave you with something much more personal than philosophical axioms, so here it is—providence is about election, not metaphysics.4 Here’s what I mean:
If you’re a Christian, then God is your heavenly Father—think on that!—and you’re His adopted son or daughter, and Jesus is your brother (Heb 2:11). This means it’s the Father’s job, His aim, and His burden to take care of you. Away with cold abstractions about aseity, being “without passions,” or about immutability, or chilly syllogisms. Save these for the lecture hall—I’m talking about real life, for real people, in the real world.
- If you’re a Christian,
- then God is steering your life, shepherding it along as part of His story
- you’re part of that new kingdom community He’s making, so you and all His children can have a perfect relationship with Him in the better world to come
This means you aren’t a pawn, a chess piece, or a cipher on a divine spreadsheet—He chose you, rescued you, and sent His Son to die for you to make you a sibling. That means you’re not a dog tied to a cart, being dragged unwillingly along the path of a cold Fate or faceless Destiny.5 Good Fathers never do that to their children, and God is the best Father. Why do you think He revealed Himself with this title?
You might ask, why isn’t my life better, then?
Little children don’t understand why parents do what they do—no candy, go to bed early, stay away from “that friend.” The kids don’t understand because they view “fairness” from their little perspective—we know the “right view” is from the parent’s perspective! We can’t see the bigger picture, but if God is the best Father, then He knows what He’s doing. Psalm 23 doesn’t say, “I’ll never have troubles again!” It says, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me!”6
God never promises a care-free life. He does promise that He’s the Good Controller, steering the train towards the right station, in the right way, for the right reasons. Trust and rely on your Heavenly Father.
Your life isn’t an accident. Your circumstances aren’t an accident. You aren’t an accident. You did things (good and bad). People did things to you (good and bad). And God has a plan in and through it all.
Your life isn’t an accident. Trust the Good Controller to bring the train home.
1 Yes, I’m paraphrasing Clarence, the angel (second class) from It’s a Wonderful Life.
2 Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:150.
3 French Confession of Faith (1559), Article 8, from Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, p. 364. “… he hath wonderful means of so making use of devils and sinners that he can turn to good the evil which they do, and of which they are guilty.”
4 Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:149ff.
5 Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:157.
6 Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:155.