In the recent Academy Award-winning movie Arrival, one character asks another a compelling question: If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you make different choices?
Being able to see the future, or to go back in time to rearrange the past (which can amount to the same thing), is a staple of science fiction—from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine to the Back to the Future trilogy.
“Time paradoxes”—Can you really change the course of history, or is there only one path, one fate?—show up in movies as diverse as 12 Monkeys, Source Code and Deja Vu, and the answers vary from “yes” to “maybe” to “no.”
Not all of us share a taste for such fictional fare, but almost all of us raise the same issue. “If I only knew!” we say when facing a tough decision—about employment, or romance, or parenting. We think—How could we not?—that if we could only see clearly into the future, we would make much better decisions than we can as we actually exist: backing into the future, knowing only the past, and that only sketchily.
People who believe in God can feel this sort of question even more acutely, because we believe that God does know the future and could, indeed, tell us anything we would like to know. Rarely, however, does God lift the veil and show one of his people what is actually going to happen. Why not more often?
In my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil, I explore this question in some detail. For today, however, let’s consider just one problematic case.
My paternal grandparents were married for more than 50 years. During that long time together, my grandmother developed multiple sclerosis (MS). It got bad enough fast enough that my grandfather retired early from the job he loved and devoted himself instead to my grandmother’s care. He stayed by her side for many years until she died in her late 70’s.
Would my grandfather, as a young man bristling with energy and ambition, have decided to go ahead with his wedding had an emissary from the future shown him what marriage to that woman would mean?
For her part, would my grandmother, as a young woman shining already with kindness and faith, have decided to go ahead with her wedding had an emissary from the future shown her that marriage to that man would mean coping for years with an angry alcoholic whose fierce temper would be molded into gentleness only through two decades of his caring for her during her long, slow decline?
If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you make different choices?
In the mercy of God, we do not see our lives that way. In one of God’s chief accommodations to our limitations, God does not burden us with such a heavy load of knowledge.
Instead, God asks us each morning, “Will you trust me for this day? Will you believe, again, that I love you, that I intend for you only the greatest good, and that whatever happens today, however joyful or painful, easy or hard, will occur only within my good plan to bless the whole world, including you?”
For if we could see the whole course of our lives, who could possibly be sure that changing that course would bring better results? George Bailey finds out in It’s a Wonderful Life that many of his life’s unwelcome elements have resulted in a harvest of blessing for himself and for everyone he loves. Would he truly have wanted the awesome responsibility of rewinding his life and making different choices?
God knows what an unfathomable jungle of forking choices lie before us, and asks us to trust God’s goodness instead of wanting to make every choice ourselves.
That was the first choice our ancestors made in the Garden of Eden, and it is the choice we make every hour of every day.
Decide on our own, or trust and obey?