Did Pharaoh Have a Choice? What ABOUT Free Will?

The Pharaoh:  A Man after His Own heart

The Pharaoh: A Man after His Own heart

A few weeks ago, I received an email from my mom with some questions she’d been wrestling with as she read through the stories of Moses and Pharaoh.  I thought they were great questions, one’s I’ve wrestled with (and still wrestle with) about the age-old debate of “free-will” versus “pre-destination.” So for today’s post, I’d like to paste her email and my response to it.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

My Mom’s Email:

I’ve been reading in Exodus about Moses going before Pharaoh.  God tells Moses, like 10-12 times, not to worry….that He will harden Pharoh’s heart so as to show His Glory and Power by doing miracles.  Ok – I understand God has the right to do ANYTHING!  But I’ve always been under the impression that God made us with the ability to “choose”.   So…. I think I’m cool with this story UNTIL the end.  Pharoh, upon the death of his firstborn son, is a broken man.  He literally begs Moses to get out of Egypt and never return….and to take everyone and everything of theirs with him!  He’s truly broken as any parent would be.  To me, it’s a point of surrender.  He can’t stand up to Moses or his God.  BUT THEN………..after this surrender………….God THEN hardens Pharoh’s heart again!    So… what the heck?  Where is the right to choose?  I mean, if he was so broken to beg Moses to leave the country with all his people and their possessions… didn’t God take away that choice?

(you may want to print out and read later.. kind of long!)
hmmm…
well, first i’ll say, “welcome to one of the conversations that’s been raging in protestantism for over 400 years!” this question of “free will” versus “god’s sovereign right to chose” is certainly a never ending debate, it seems.
and this story you’re wrestling through is certainly at the center of much of the division between the two camps. very briefly you have “calvanism” on the one hand (man is completely and utterly depraved and capable of no good thing left to his own. god, in his infinite mercy and grace has decided to CHOOSE for himself a certain percentage of the world to give his grace and forgiveness to. and those who he has chosen have no choice but to eventually respond to his grace. it is ALL god’s doing, because man is completely depraved. and once they’ve responded, they are his forever no matter what. inversely, god has then chosen the rest of the world to NOT respond to him, and has essentially banned them from all hope).
and then, on the other side you have “armenianism” (man is messed up, for sure, but not completely and utterly. there are parts of us that are not all together completely garbage. god, in his infinite mercy and grace, has given us the ability to choose for ourselves what is right/wrong. he offers unlimited grace through his son for all the world, and hopes that the world will respond with humility and acceptance. god reaches down and man reaches up. man also has the option to refuse.)
it should be said that BOTH sides are probably very evenly matched in terms of “who has the most scriptures to back them up,” or “who has the most theologians throughout history who believes the same way.” it’s really never going to be SETTLED, in my humble opinion.
and of course you have hybrids… people who adopt a little calvinism and a little armenianism…
your church (sacc) is whole-heartedly armenian.
your old churches (first and north albany baptist) were undoubtedly whole-heartedly calvinsm (usually goes with the “baptist” tradition).
so, after all that overview, i basically end up by saying: i don’t know.
and MAN what a freeing position that has been the past 5 years!
i used to think we HAD to have this figured out… that it was SO important, and you had to choose a side and be able to defend it well.. etc, etc…  but now, i’m perfectly comfortable saying “i just don’t know.”
let me add that i’m NOT saying that wrestling with this stuff is somehow un-important, for it most certainly is. but wrestling with, and studying, and dialoguing about are all very different than the mind-set of being convinced that one whole perspective is right over and against the other, and so we must figure that out and be on that side (which is how i used to think/feel).
if just reading the story in exodus isn’t confusing enough, check out romans 9:14-24
14. What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!
15. For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16. It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.
17. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
18. Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
19. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?”
20. But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ “
21. Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
22. What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction?
23. What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory–
24. even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
stressful, kinda, isn’t it?
add to it passages like ephesians 1:3-12
3. 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.
4. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love
5. he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will–
6. to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
7. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace
8. that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
9. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,
10. to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
11. 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,
12. in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
and now the average head is spinning…
so HAS god chosen US before the world began, and NOT chosen others? has he even created some people specifically as “objects of wrath, prepared for destruction?” and who are we, as the clay, to complain if the potter wants to take some of the clay and make pretty pots and take other clay and toss it away?
on one hand, it most certainly seems that god is the one that does the choosing, the selecting, the preparing…
counter that with passages like:
2 peter 3:8,9
8. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
9. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
1 john 2:2
1. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
2. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
as well as stories in the old testament where guys like abraham actually talked god out of what he had planned to do… and sorta just the general feel and mission of jesus’ life, and you can begin to see a picture where god is truly interested in the whole world… not just a select few… and man does have choices and those choices do make a difference.
there any many more passages for both camps, and like i said, both sides have compelling arguments and godly men/women throughout history in support.
i doubt that was much of any help.. mostly just information.
but if i WERE to offer SOMETHING regarding my own thoughts and opinions, i’ll say this…
people often say the phrase: “God is in control.”
and i’ve never quite understood why.
a quick look in the bible will reveal that this phrase never shows up (please correct me if i’m wrong, which i could be). in fact, 1 john 5:19 says that, “we know that we are the children of god, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”
so, while on one hand i think i understand what people MEAN when they say that, i still have to back up and say, “let’s make sure we’re not saying SOME things about god that he doesn’t necessarily say about himself.”
i think that we (speaking of people living in the modern world, post enlightenment and age of reason) are accustomed to thinking and reasoning things out in a very specific way. and when we think about things like “god being in control” or “god hardening someone’s heart,” we think about it in a very modern way. for us, control is thought of in terms of: push this button and this will happen; pull this lever and this will move… a very direct mechanistic sense of control, driven by life in the age of machinery. contrast that with people in ancient times, and maybe their concept of “control” was less like a machine and more like how a shepherd “controlled” his herd… guiding, influencing, prompting… but not a direct hands-on, giving-no-choice sense of control.
furthermore, what if the very phrase or idea of god “hardening pharaoh’s heart” wasn’t as direct as we think it? what if it wasn’t really god pushing the “harden” button, and forcing upon pharaoh this inability to be anything different?  maybe we place too many “modern” assumptions into phrases like “god hardened his heart.”
to illustrate what i’m saying, turn the phrase around: what if you were to say that god “softened his heart.” using this phrase, imagine this scenario: corina is a very likable young girl who loves to do nice things for other people. over the period of her life, she has found more and more joy out of doing things for other people, and often cares very little for her own needs. corina loves god and pursues him with all her heart and soul. she often asks god to help her be more giving, caring,and loving. as an answer to those prayers, through the years corina finds herself in situations that allow her to use the power of the spirit within her to love, give and care for others. after doing this for so many years, by time she’s 55 years old, if she is walking down the street and sees a small child all alone in an alley, crying, with barely any clothes and no one around taking ownership of it, does corina really have a “choice” in what to do? might it be said that her very disposition, her very core, her very essence compels, forces, pushes her to do something for the child? and might someone say of corina that god has “softened her heart?” not in the sense of pulling the “soften” lever and watching it automatically change corina, but in the sense of being faithful to her service and love all these years he has given her more of his spirit to be and do what she wants to be and do? i would think very much that corina, at this point, has no choice. she can’t NOT help the child. her very being would not have room for that.
in a similar sense, could it be said of pharaoh (or anyone evil, for that matter) that he spent his life in power, greed, lust and evil. caring only for himself. indirectly praying to god that he would leave him alone and let him rule his own life, his own people. caring more for himself than for other people. and might god just be so compelled as to grant him his wish (like we read in romans 1)? might we say, in a sense, that god hardened his heart? not because he pushed the “harden-heart” button and made it happen instantly, but because he let pharaoh make decisions as to what sort of person he would be? so then, if this is the very core, the very essence of WHO pharaoh is, couldn’t you say that he really had no choice BUT to deny moses, to lie to moses, to pursue the israelites and hunt down the very people he just set free? how could he do anything different?
maybe in this scenario you find a delicate balance of both man choosing and god choosing. free will and divine determining.
i hope this helps (although i can’t really imagine it doing so!

My Response:

(Please excuse the lack of capitals and punctuation… I tend to ignore all that when typing casually)

hmmm…

well, first i’ll say, “welcome to one of the conversations that’s been raging in protestantism for over 400 years!” this question of “free will” versus “god’s sovereign right to chose” is certainly a never ending debate, it seems.

and this story you’re wrestling through is certainly at the center of much of the division between the two camps. very briefly you have “calvanism” on the one hand (man is completely and utterly depraved and capable of no good thing left to his own. god, in his infinite mercy and grace has decided to CHOOSE for himself a certain percentage of the world to give his grace and forgiveness to. and those who he has chosen have no choice but to eventually respond to his grace. it is ALL god’s doing, because man is completely depraved. and once they’ve responded, they are his forever no matter what. inversely, god has then chosen the rest of the world to NOT respond to him, and has essentially banned them from all hope).

and then, on the other side you have “armenianism” (man is messed up, for sure, but not completely and utterly. there are parts of us that are not all together completely garbage. god, in his infinite mercy and grace, has given us the ability to choose for ourselves what is right/wrong. he offers unlimited grace through his son for all the world, and hopes that the world will respond with humility and acceptance. god reaches down and man reaches up. man also has the option to refuse.)

it should be said that BOTH sides are probably very evenly matched in terms of “who has the most scriptures to back them up,” or “who has the most theologians throughout history who believes the same way.” it’s really never going to be SETTLED, in my humble opinion.

and of course you have hybrids… people who adopt a little calvinism and a little armenianism…

your church (sacc) is whole-heartedly armenian.

your old churches (first and north albany baptist) were undoubtedly whole-heartedly calvinsm (usually goes with the “baptist” tradition).

so, after all that overview, i basically end up by saying: i don’t know.

and MAN what a freeing position that has been the past 5 years!

i used to think we HAD to have this figured out… that it was SO important, and you had to choose a side and be able to defend it well.. etc, etc…  but now, i’m perfectly comfortable saying “i just don’t know.”

let me add that i’m NOT saying that wrestling with this stuff is somehow un-important, for it most certainly is. but wrestling with, and studying, and dialoguing about are all very different than the mind-set of being convinced that one whole perspective is right over and against the other, and so we must figure that out and be on that side (which is how i used to think/feel).

if just reading the story in exodus isn’t confusing enough, check out romans 9:14-24

14. What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!

15. For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

16. It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.

17. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

18. Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?”

20. But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ “

21. Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

22. What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction?

23. What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory–

24. even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

stressful, kinda, isn’t it?

add to it passages like ephesians 1:3-12

3. 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.

4. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love

5. he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will–

6. to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

7. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace

8. that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.

9. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,

10. to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

11. 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,

12. in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

and now the average head is spinning…

so HAS god chosen US before the world began, and NOT chosen others? has he even created some people specifically as “objects of wrath, prepared for destruction?” and who are we, as the clay, to complain if the potter wants to take some of the clay and make pretty pots and take other clay and toss it away?

on one hand, it most certainly seems that god is the one that does the choosing, the selecting, the preparing…

counter that with passages like:

2 peter 3:8,9

8. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

9. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

1 john 2:2

1. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

2. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

as well as stories in the old testament where guys like abraham actually talked god out of what he had planned to do… and sorta just the general feel and mission of jesus’ life, and you can begin to see a picture where god is truly interested in the whole world… not just a select few… and man does have choices and those choices do make a difference.

there any many more passages for both camps, and like i said, both sides have compelling arguments and godly men/women throughout history in support.

i doubt that was much of any help.. mostly just information.

but if i WERE to offer SOMETHING regarding my own thoughts and opinions, i’ll say this…

people often say the phrase: “God is in control.”

and i’ve never quite understood why.

a quick look in the bible will reveal that this phrase never shows up (please correct me if i’m wrong, which i could be). in fact, 1 john 5:19 says that, “we know that we are the children of god, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”

so, while on one hand i think i understand what people MEAN when they say that, i still have to back up and say, “let’s make sure we’re not saying SOME things about god that he doesn’t necessarily say about himself.”

i think that we (speaking of people living in the modern world, post enlightenment and age of reason) are accustomed to thinking and reasoning things out in a very specific way. and when we think about things like “god being in control” or “god hardening someone’s heart,” we think about it in a very modern way. for us, control is thought of in terms of: push this button and this will happen; pull this lever and this will move… a very direct mechanistic sense of control, driven by life in the age of machinery. contrast that with people in ancient times, and maybe their concept of “control” was less like a machine and more like how a shepherd “controlled” his herd… guiding, influencing, prompting… but not a direct hands-on, giving-no-choice sense of control.

furthermore, what if the very phrase or idea of god “hardening pharaoh’s heart” wasn’t as direct as we think it? what if it wasn’t really god pushing the “harden” button, and forcing upon pharaoh this inability to be anything different?  maybe we place too many “modern” assumptions into phrases like “god hardened his heart.”

to illustrate what i’m saying, turn the phrase around: what if you were to say that god “softened his heart.” using this phrase, imagine this scenario: corina is a very likable young girl who loves to do nice things for other people. over the period of her life, she has found more and more joy out of doing things for other people, and often cares very little for her own needs. corina loves god and pursues him with all her heart and soul. she often asks god to help her be more giving, caring,and loving. as an answer to those prayers, through the years corina finds herself in situations that allow her to use the power of the spirit within her to love, give and care for others. after doing this for so many years, by time she’s 55 years old, if she is walking down the street and sees a small child all alone in an alley, crying, with barely any clothes and no one around taking ownership of it, does corina really have a “choice” in what to do? might it be said that her very disposition, her very core, her very essence compels, forces, pushes her to do something for the child? and might someone say of corina that god has “softened her heart?” not in the sense of pulling the “soften” lever and watching it automatically change corina, but in the sense of being faithful to her service and love all these years he has given her more of his spirit to be and do what she wants to be and do? i would think very much that corina, at this point, has no choice. she can’t NOT help the child. her very being would not have room for that.

in a similar sense, could it be said of pharaoh (or anyone evil, for that matter) that he spent his life in power, greed, lust and evil. caring only for himself. indirectly praying to god that he would leave him alone and let him rule his own life, his own people. caring more for himself than for other people. and might god just be so compelled as to grant him his wish (like we read in romans 1)? might we say, in a sense, that god hardened his heart? not because he pushed the “harden-heart” button and made it happen instantly, but because he let pharaoh make decisions as to what sort of person he would be? so then, if this is the very core, the very essence of WHO pharaoh is, couldn’t you say that he really had no choice BUT to deny moses, to lie to moses, to pursue the israelites and hunt down the very people he just set free? how could he do anything different?

maybe in this scenario you find a delicate balance of both man choosing and god choosing. free will and divine determining.

i hope this helps (although i can’t really imagine it doing so!)

4 Responses to “Did Pharaoh Have a Choice? What ABOUT Free Will?”

  1. Corissa

    I’m happily in the middle. Here are some of my thoughts:

    If you think of it too, we all go through a stage of anger in our grief. So, there’s also that point that his grief turned into anger toward Moses and toward Moses’ God for allowing that to happen which in turn people can make the choice to either run to God or turn away from God. And obviously Pharaoh turned away from God. I believe we do have a choice but I also believe that sometime God chooses to use people to show his glory and make it know to a bigger mass than just the one.

    Yes, I do agree with the last part, too. People form habits, good and bad habits. I think you’re right that when we are constantly doing something good we are compelled to do that good. But just because we are compelled doesn’t mean we always choose to do something about it, sadly, because our human nature sometimes gets the best of us. But I really like your point about Pharaoh, he was selfish he lived it day in and day out and never seemed to want to change. I believe we have a choice up to a point. If we continue down a bad path after countless times that God reveals himself to us and offers us his forgiveness and we are constantly refusing it and resisting God eventually we harden our hearts towards God and therefore God chooses those individuals to show his might and power to the masses to those who still have an open mind and heart toward him.

    Now as far as 1 john 5:19, “we know that we are the children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” I believe that we are children of God, we are not of the world once we except Christ into our lives. God calls us to be of Him and His Spirit. (Romans 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.) Therefore, in 1 John, when he says …the whole world is under the control of the evil one, he could be talking about those who are not of the Spirit.

    There is also the verse 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:
    17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

    It is when we except Christ into our lives that we are truly free right? So therefore, maybe it is then we have the freewill. Because we’ve allowed Christ into our lives He is continually revealing to us what is right and what is wrong, so we have a choice.

    Those are my thoughts on the subject. This whole subject makes me think of “Paycheck”. I love this quote from it:
    “Seeing the future will destroy us. If you show someone their future, they have no future. If you take away the mystery, you take away hope.”

    Reply
  2. Random Person

    I think I’ve only recently become comfortable with “I don’t know.” This very same question your mom had is one I hated not knowing the answer to. You’re right. It’s very freeing to finally become comfortable in my limited ability to comprehend all the mysteries of God.

    On a similar note, I arrived at the same conclusion on many other questions I’ve had as well. As it has been at the forefront of many social/political debates, the one question I wrestled with often in recent years has been “If homosexuality is a sin, why would God allow someone to be born gay?” Of course there are still many people who are convinced that it’s a choice and I suppose I can’t help them there, but I’ve come to a different conclusion. Regardless, I couldn’t really answer why God would “allow” someone to be born with a sexual preference that is defined as a sin in his word. I still can’t. Maybe this is an “I don’t know” kind of answer. And I’m ok with that.

    Reply
  3. Karen

    Very well stated, Colby. This debate has been going on for centuries – and it will continue to go on until the Second Coming. As control focused people – it is hard for us to swallow the Sovereignty of God and the verses like Rom 9 and Eph 1.

    Personally I am very comfortable with knowing that God is in charge of my salvation. If it was up to me – I wouldn’t be where I am today. I have great comfort and confidence knowing that He has brought me through difficulties (including times of disobedience) because He is faithful to do so. Not because it’s up to me.

    You still need to read Decision Making and the Will of God!!! The perspective that it offers on God’s Sovereign Will, God’s Moral Will, and God’s Individual Will may change the way you look at this.

    Until the debate is solved – I am working to be the best version of the pot that the potter has chosen to mold me into.

    Reply
  4. Dan

    Enjoyed your thoughts, thanks. I realize I am just a few years late on my reply here, but I am hoping that you will still see this and that it will add yet another perspective for you to consider.

    C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity likens the human lot as being passengers on a ship. We are free to do whatever we like, but in the end we all will be taken to wherever the captain wants to take us.

    What Lewis does not mention is that each passenger (each Christian) has the freedom to jump ship and die if they do not trust the captan (Captain Jesus). The Bible is clear that God wants to save us ALL. He has “predestined” each of us to live forever, but we can choose to “jump ship” and die if that is what we really want to do.

    Jesus, our ship’s Captain, will take us to Heaven unless we choose to resist His free gift of salvation and jump ship.

    Reply

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