“How’s your mother?” I asked.
I knew that Donald’s mother had recently been widowed and was in declining health. His answer wasn’t what I expected.
“I’ve been witnessing to her about Christ and after all these years I think she’s finally starting to get it. She’s asking me now about salvation and thinking more and more about what lies ahead. I’m trying really hard to bring her to Christ. What more can I do?”
Donald was concerned about his mother’s relationship with God and where she would spend eternity. What would you have answered his question? Your answer would depend on how much responsibility you think Donald has for his mother’s relationship with God, how much responsibility she has, and what role God plays in it all. Behind that would lie your answer to even bigger questions: Do we have a choice about what happens to us? Are we predestined to heaven or hell?
And your answer to those questions will shape your answer to other questions about the purpose of your life and the future of the world. Does it matter how you live your life? How much freedom do you have? Is there hope that there will ever be peace and justice in the world? Why should you even care? In fact, does your life matter in the grand scheme of things or is it just a drop in the bucket?
All those questions are raised by the story of Jacob and Esau. God had promised their grandfather Abraham he would be the father of a great nation, and by him all the nations of the world would be blessed. God’s plan was to use the descendants of Abraham to bring the entire human race back to God. The relationship had been severed by the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and ever since the power of sin had kept human beings from loving God and living the lives God intended for them.
Abraham had a son, Isaac, but Isaac and his wife Rebekah couldn’t conceive a child. They had been married 20 years. It looked as if Abraham would have no more descendants. It looked like God’s plan was stymied. But Isaac prayed to God, and Rebekah conceived twins.
The twins struggled with each other from the time they were in the womb. As is so often the case, it was the woman, Rebekah, who bore the pain of the struggling males. She cried out to God and asked why she had to endure the terrible pain of her pregnancy. God replied that her pain foreshadowed the struggle that would ensue between the descendants of her sons, a struggle that continues to this day between the descendants of Jacob (whose name was later changed to Israel) and their neighbors in the Middle East. When the time came for the twins to be born, Esau was the first, but Jacob was right behind him, grabbing onto his heel. In fact, the name Jacob means “He takes by the heel.”
It was important which twin was born first because in those days the firstborn son received the inheritance of the family. So Esau was in line to receive God’s promise to his grandfather Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. Jacob resented that from the start, and to make the sibling rivalry even worse, the parents played favorites. Isaac the father preferred Esau and Rebekah the mother favored Jacob.
After the twins were grown, Jacob, still resentful and scheming, took advantage of his brother’s weakness and extorted him out of his birthright. One day Esau came in from hunting in the fields and he was famished. He asked Jacob for some of the lentil stew he was cooking. Just try to imagine what kind of resentment there must have been between those brothers that Jacob wouldn’t just give Esau some of his food for the asking. Jacob took advantage of his brother’s weakness. He said he would give him some stew if Esau gave him his birthright. Esau was one of those rash people who don’t think beyond the moment. He reasoned that his birthright wouldn’t do him any good if he starved to death. So Esau gave up his place in God’s great plan for humanity in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew.
Where was God in all that? God had promised Abraham that God would use his family to bring the world back to God. Did God know how dysfunctional that family would be? God’s plan rested with this set of twins, one of whom cared so little about his birthright that he sold it for a mess of pottage, while the other got the blessing by deceit and trickery. Did God’s plan depend on those people? Or did it matter what they did? Was God going to fulfill God’s plan no matter what they did? Those are the same questions behind Donald’s query about his mother. They’re the same questions you and I ask: If God has a plan for the world, for my life, what is God’s responsibility for it? What is my responsibility?
People have been wrestling with those questions for thousands of years. In fact, the different answers to those questions help explain why there are so many different kinds of churches. One answer has been that everything depends on God and there is nothing human beings can do to alter God’s plan. That has been the emphasis of our spiritual heritage known as Calvinism. Historically we Presbyterians have emphasized the complete sovereignty of God. We have affirmed there is nothing outside of God’s control. A strict traditional Calvinist would answer Donald by saying, “If God intends your mother to be saved, don’t worry. God will see that it happens.” That view is a source of great comfort, especially in times of trouble. Knowing God has a plan for us, and nothing is stronger than God, we find hope and strength to endure pain, suffering, and death. The downside of this view becomes apparent when we try to explain why some people don’t accept God’s love and do evil. If nothing is outside God’s plan, then that must mean God intends some people to be bad and has them consigned to hell from the time they’re born. And most of us are uncomfortable with that. How could a God of love and grace choose some people to be saved and others to be damned?
Some have solved that problem by concluding that God saves everyone, regardless of their relationship with God. That is the view most often associated with Unitarian-Universalists. If God truly is all-loving and all-powerful, God will ultimately overcome our resistance and save us in spite of ourselves. In the end all people will be joined to God no matter how bad they are or how much they despise God because that’s the way a God of love acts. The problem with that universalist view is that it doesn’t give us any freedom to accept or reject God’s love. God draws us into a relationship with God whether we want it or not. And that makes us pretty insignificant. If it doesn’t matter what we do with our lives, then why bother? And we know that some people don’t want anything to do with God. You remember what Huckleberry Finn said when Miss Watson told him that if he were a good boy he would go to the good place. “Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going,” Huck said, “so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.”
Whereas we Calvinists have historically emphasized God’s responsibility in carrying out God’s plans, others, like Roman Catholics, have put greater emphasis on the human side of the equation. Some of you who were raised Roman Catholic remember going to confession and receiving the prescribed penance for the forgiveness of your sins. The good thing about that way of understanding our relationship with God is that it affirms our responsibility. It clearly makes a difference what we do. The popularized and simplified version of this is Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” The problem is that God also helps those who are helpless. In fact, God helps scoundrels. Jacob was no paragon of virtue, but God blessed him in spite of his cunning and trickery.
A variation of this view is the one you hear if you spend any time watching television evangelists. This is the view that God is just waiting to save us if we’ll only let Jesus in our hearts. This perspective affirms that what happens to us is up to God, but first we have to walk down the aisle at the altar call. The implication is that God is powerless to do anything for us until we take the first step and give God permission. And it leaves you with that worry, “Have I really trusted enough? Have I truly opened my heart to God? Did I know what I was doing when I said I gave my life to Christ, or was I just fooling myself?”
All of those answers to the question of who is responsible for our relationship with God give partial answers. None of them is completely adequate. One thing that’s helpful about the story of Jacob and Esau is the way it illustrates the complex and intertwined relationship between God’s actions and ours. God did have a plan for Abraham’s descendants, and God saw that it was carried out in spite of the turmoil in his family. At the same time it mattered what people did. Human beings aren’t puppets with no freedom and no responsibility.
Jesus is the culmination of that promise God made to Abraham. Jesus is the descendant of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob through whom God has blessed the whole world. He is proof that nothing can divert God from the loving purposes God has for God’s people. God is working out God’s purpose to bring the whole creation back to God, and nothing, not even the power of sin and death, can stop it. The resurrection is a foretaste of what is to come, when God restores the entire creation to the way it’s meant to be.
At the same time Jesus shows us how much each one of us matters to God. We matter enough that he would die for us. When he calls us to follow him, he gives each one of us an important part in his work in the world. The work he gives us isn’t to convince people that if they would only obey God then God would love them. Our task is to show the world that God does love us, each one unconditionally. That lets us speak to those who don’t believe as our equals, all imperfect sinners before God, none deserving God’s grace. We can freely share what we know, that God loves us and has a purpose for us, but we don’t have to feel burdened to make converts of those who don’t believe. We show God’s love as we help those in need, care for the poor and hungry, treat all people with honor and dignity and respect.
My response to Donald when he asked what more he should be doing to convince his mother of Christ’s love was this: “Donald, God is merciful and God is just. Do your best to let your mother know just how important Christ is to you, but remember it’s between her and God what she does with it.” St. Ignatius said it another way: “Work as if everything depended on you. Pray as if everything depended on God.” It’s God’s responsibility – and ours.
 A helpful outline of the doctrine of predestination, along with its strengths and pitfalls, is found in chapter 7 of Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition¸ by Shirley C. Guthrie (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1994.