The Amputated Armadillo

The frost on my windows was finally starting to recede as the defrost from my 1987 Pontiac Grand Am started to fulfill its purpose…its destiny—to remove frost from my windows. I was driving back to college after meeting some friends in Sioux City for pizza and a movie. I had spent the last two months debating on whether to transfer from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake to Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. I had weighed the pros and cons and prayed relentlessly. The transfer was coming up…only two weeks away, so I decided to take that opportunity—driving alone under the star-filled January sky—to pray one more time. Sitting and praying at a stop light outside of Lawton, Iowa I suddenly felt the presence of Jesus sitting in the passenger seat next to me. Ten minutes later, I arrived in a cornfield, underneath a large radio tower, several miles off the beaten path. I recall “driving” to that particular destination, however, I don’t know why I did so, and really didn’t feel as if I was in control of my vehicle. I turned off the ignition and watched Orion peek his head above the horizon as if he was sneaking upon his prey while trying to remain unnoticed.  By the time Orion’s belt and sword were in clear view, I knew the answer to my prayers—I was supposed to stay at Buena Vista. I didn’t know why, I still don’t know why…but I had found peace. I turned my ignition, took the wheel back from Jesus, and drove home. For a brief moment, Jesus took complete control of me, and of my car, in order to provide me with a glimpse into God’s plan and purpose for my life.

My favorite novel of all time is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I love all of John Irving’s work, but he doesn’t seem to advocate his New England liberal agenda in Owen Meany as much as some of his other works such as Cider House or Garp. Never before, and never since, have I laughed out loud and cried hysterically from reading a novel. Owen Meany is an unusually small, peculiar, odd-voiced, individual who believes whole-heartedly that he’s an instrument of God. Everything he says and does throughout the book is preparation for some unknown divine purpose. I’m not going to share what that purpose is, because I truly believe everyone should read this book…and I don’t want to ruin it for you. Owen believed, and said it openly, that “God had taken his hands” that his “hands were God’s instruments.” Owen’s belief in God’s omnipotence was so extreme, he felt amputated…like an armless pawn controlled by God in the chess game of life. Predestined for something greater than himself, Owen dedicated his life to God’s sovereignty. This obsession was evident in Owen’s fascination with amputees: an armless totem of the Native American Watahantowet, a dressmaker’s dummy, a beheaded, armless statue of Mary Magdalene, his best friend’s legless housemaid, and a stuffed armadillo with no hands or claws. Owen truly believed that all individuals were under the illusion that they are in control.  All human beings, according to Owen, are just armless, legless, headless pawns. The things our hands do, the places our legs carry us, the words our voices speak are predestined and predesigned by God for a greater purpose—there’s nothing we mortals can do to stop, altar, or manipulate God’s plan.

I’m a theologian from the Reformed tradition, so the doctrine of predestination shouldn’t frighten me so much…but it does. In fact, I’ve been blogging for 5 months now and haven’t even broached the subject. To what degree does God control the ongoings within His universe? The answer to this question immediately trickles down to the next, more pertinent question: Since we’re all undeserved, does God show mercy to some through unconditional election (eternal life in heaven)? Worse yet, does this mean that God withholds mercy to others through reprobation (eternal death in hell)? This is what my friend and colleague refers to as “bear-trap theology.”

One cannot deny the foreknowledge of God and his predestination of the elect:

 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

—Romans 8:28-30

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we were also chosen,having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

—Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12

Upon considering these passages, we have to define what predestination ultimately is and ask ourselves if the belief in God’s sovereignty, His omnipotence, and divine election automatically forces us to believe in reprobation. I don’t believe that it does, and I believe that the doctrine of “double predestination” is unbiblical. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God chooses to hate the majority (or even some) of humankind and destines them to eternal damnation in hell. In fact, 2 Peter 3:9 reads, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Arminius proposed that one’s destiny is based on God’s foreknowledge as to whether someone accepts Jesus or rejects Him. The decision is ours, God knows what that decision will be, and therefore predetermines the outcome based on His foreknowledge. Arminius escaped the bear trap by passing the steering wheel back to the human being. We choose…God just knows what that choice will be.

I like that perspective, but it creates a theology that promotes individualism. We’re inclined to celebrate the individual, his or her decisions, his or her accomplishments, while deemphasizing God’s love, compassion, mercy, and passion to choose us, to adopt us, and to sign his name upon our hearts as our Father. An orphan doesn’t choose who his or her adoptive parents will be. The wonder and beauty of being adopted into God’s family is the fact that God chooses us. To turn the table around—to suggest that we chose to be a part of God’s family—just isn’t as comforting to me.

I believe firmly that God DOES have a plan and purpose for my life. I believe that out of his goodness, grace, and mercy, God adopted me (a fallen, broken sinner) into his family. I also believe that this occurred because of my faith…my free, individual choice to follow Jesus. So which comes first…my faith in Jesus Christ or God’s predestined plan for my life and my adoption into his family? I believe Arminius is correct…God’s election is based upon His foreknowledge of our faith. I’m just not comfortable with the individualistic theology that rears its ugly head within the Arminian tradition. How can we trust in God’s sovereignty, in his desire to be our Father…to choose us as his beloved son or daughter, without diminishing our own free will?

Owen Meany took things too far. We’re not helpless pawns…we’re not handless, clawless armadillos. Perhaps we are pawns with legs. God pushes us in the right direction, occasionally grabs our steering wheels and drives us to a radio tower in the middle of a cornfield, and then He sets us free to drive home. Perhaps it’s a mysterious and wonderful mix of divine sovereignty and human free-will. I’m not sure if I escaped the bear trap, but I’ve come to a point in my life where I have to accept that my God is a mystery. Like a husband who continues to be baffled, surprised, and captivated by the mysterious beauty of his wife, I’ll continue to bask in God’s awesome mystery and accept that there are some things that entrap me…and if God is the trapper—I’m OK with that.

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One response to “The Amputated Armadillo

  • carlsimmonslive

    Yo Shawn: Just for clarity’s sake, by “beartrap” I more meant the attitude most reformers take — i.e., I’m right and even if I’m not I sure as heck can outargue you. But it does include that “airtightness” of Reformed theology, for sure. 🙂

    Re: Calvin/Armin: Sounds like you, I, and my aforementioned buddy Malcolm from back east (whom I now quote) would agree: “It’s both, somehow.” Obviously where we’d each draw the lines would differ.

    And Owen Meany, huh? Hated the first 200 pages, but somehow stuck with it and really liked the rest a lot. Loved Garp and didn’t sweat the liberalism (no doubt at least partially because I was decidedly B.C. when it first came out :)).

    Yr friend and colleague,
    Carl

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