The great Caveat in God accomplishing his will: us

December 3, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 10:57 am   Category: Theology

A couple months ago, the was a discussion at ZD about obedience and blessings. I said I thought there was a scripture which said God had to make exceptions for us when we fail to do what he says.

The scripture I was thinking of was D & C 103:31 which says:

Behold this is my will; ask and ye shall receive; but men do not always do my will.

In Context, this is the Lord telling Parley Pratt and others to get together a group of 500, as this is his will, but then he makes the above notation and haggles himself down to 100 men.

So the scriptures say seek and ye shall find, knock and it will be opened, ask and ye shall receive, except when people are involved, as they do not always do God’s will.

In context of the conversation at ZD this means that Man can force God to change his plans, as man disobeys God.

Interestingly, this scripture also implies that in this instance God did not know whether 500 men would or would not do God’s will in the future. A God “outside of time” would not have had such a problem, it seems to me.

Finally, this scripture, while not renouncing determinism, does imply we either are not or can not be completely determined by our God. This suggests Libertarian Free Will.


  1. “Finally, this scripture, while not renouncing determinism, does imply we either are not or can not be completely determined by our God. This suggests Libertarian Free Will.”

    That’s quite the stretch. For the record, Determinism does NOT suggest otherwise.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 3, 2007 @ 1:20 pm

  2. When I served in a bishopric we occasionally issued callings to people fully expecting to be turned down. We issued the callings anyway because we felt it was the Lord’s will that we do so. Perhaps it was important for the people to hear that the Lord still expected something of them. Anyway, they always turned down the callings as we expected, and I hardly think that we knew these people better than the Lord did. We usually ended up calling them to something else instead.

    How is D&C 103 any different? The Lord could be telling Pratt and company what he expects, knowing full well he won’t get it. But perhaps it was important that Pratt and company make a good faith effort to get the full 500. Maybe if they had only tried to get 100 from the beginning, they would only have gotten 20.

    So I don’t think it follows that the Lord did not know how many would do his will. I suspect he was simply engaging in some gamesmanship to maximize that number.

    Comment by Last Lemming — December 3, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  3. Jeff G: I think I am missing something here. ” Determinism does NOT suggest otherwise” than what?

    LL: Why would the Lord need to engage in gamesmanship if he knew how many would accept and who would accept, why would he not just send his servants to who he knew would accept? If the Lord knows how many, but not who, then he doesn’t know the future perfectly or he doesn’t care intimately about his individual children.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 3, 2007 @ 2:52 pm

  4. In Fast and Testimony meeting yesterday an 18 yr. old young man told the story of a missed opportunity to perform an act of service that he felt the spirit directed him to do – but he didn’t do it. He was somewhat distraught at this sin of ommission. The next two testimony bearers stood and told him he need not feel guilty and need not repent – that God’s will must have been fulfilled in this circumstance – one ‘testified’ that it must have been God’s will that someone else perform the service. The idea that “men do not always do my will” seems to becoming a foreign concept to a lot of modern mormons. Everything, it seems, has to be incorporated into Gods’ will. I think its a way to avoid personal responsibility. This was discussed in a following sunday school class and I suggested that this young man did indeed miss an opportunity to follow the spirit, sinned -although a common sin – and needed to repent – and that his public confession was probably the end of his repentance. This was met with responses that I was being harsh. Is it just my ward? Or is it me being harsh?

    Comment by Hal — December 3, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

  5. Sorry ’bout that Matt. I don’t see how Determinism is at all incompatible with the verse quoted in your post. You say that the verse suggests LFW, while I see it as being completely and entirely neutral on the matter. Of course, I don’t expect you to devote much attention to this point, since the freewill debate is clearly not what you post is supposed to be about, so feel free to ignore what could possibly amount to a small threadjack.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 3, 2007 @ 3:01 pm

  6. God sets the bar pretty high sometimes. I am a little with LL on this. Things can change based on the expectations placed on us. And asking for 500 may yield better results than asking for 100. This does not necessarily mean that His purposes were not ultimately met, nor that the results were not known in advance.

    I think your answer in #3 (to LL) is a bit over the top. His direction may have yielded the best results or met His purposes best. He may well have known exactly how this episode would play out. And I fail to see how this shows a lack of care.

    This may be a case of a necessary test to see how people react to the efforts of God’s chosen servants. The possibilities are enough to give God the benefit of the doubt.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — December 3, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

  7. why would he not just send his servants to who he knew would accept?

    When they ask for volunteers at the cannery, I am much more likely to raise my hand if they are asking for an unreasonably high number than if they are asking for a number I assume they can easily fill without me.

    Comment by Last Lemming — December 3, 2007 @ 3:13 pm

  8. Hal:

    I guess I would go with a fine line there, as it can be very difficult sometimes to distinguish the spirit from the self so I can understand the boys failing to follow a prompting. But I definitely don’t think it was God’s will for him not to follow the prompting. If the Young Man was certain it was a spiritual prompting, I’d say you are spot on.

    Jeff G: I agree that it is neutral on Determinism (as I stongly believe we are determined beings. THe Paradox is I also believe we have free will. I haven’t resolved this to my own satisfaction) Perhaps I should have stopped at saying we are not or can not be “completely determined by God”, leaving it open to our being determined by other beings as well as determined by ourselves.

    But if this is a test, then we have the potential to fail the test, which holds to the primary point of this post, that we can in fact undermine God’s will and force him to change his plans, as his plans for us are for us to be with him forever. Unless you think life is about weeding outthe bad ones rather than bulding up the good ones?

    This is possibly true, but it relies on God seeing the probable future and not the absolute future.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 3, 2007 @ 4:37 pm

  9. Matt W.,

    Theological determinism (the doctrine that God determines everything that comes to pass) is a radically different concept than causal determinism (the doctrine that future states are perfectly determined by prior states).

    Causal determinism seems to be the default semantic for the unqualified form of the term these days, so if you really mean theological determinism you should probably qualify it appropriately.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 3, 2007 @ 6:31 pm

  10. In order to exercise faith we need to know and act upon the basic doctrines regarding God’s attributes. One attribute is that he is omniscience. To have the idea in our mind that he doesn’t know all things will strip us of the kind of faith we need to receive the 1st and 2nd Comforter.

    When I read scriptures as Matt has pointed out in this discussion, I realize that the Lord is willing to reason with us as men reason, otherwise we wouldn’t understand.

    …when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may aunderstand.

    D&C 50:12

    Comment by Jared — December 3, 2007 @ 7:41 pm

  11. Finally, this scripture, while not renouncing determinism, does imply we either are not or can not be completely determined by our God. This suggests Libertarian Free Will.

    That doesn’t follow if God isn’t the creator of the universe ex nihlo. It does follow for a Calvinist, given the ontological view of creation. However if God, like us, is within the universe then this scripture says absolutely nothing about LFW.

    Comment by Clark — December 3, 2007 @ 7:43 pm

  12. Mark D.- an important distinction, to be sure. Thanks for the help.

    Jared- God knows everything that can be known. I simply contend that there are somethnigs which can not be known. I think believing in a God that isn’t really God (say one that creates ex nihilo, or who can create a world where people don’t suffer, or who knows whether or not we are saved even before we were born) strips us of the faith we need to be happy and thus reach the celestial kingdom. Whether our expectations are too low or to high, they are false expectations, right?

    Clark- I am sort of back pedaling on that one. It is atleast fair to say that it shows that our free will is at least independent of God’s will for us.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 3, 2007 @ 8:05 pm

  13. Matt,

    “who knows whether or not we are saved even before we were born”

    Brigham Young and others have taught that devils are needed as well as those who will inherit the various degrees of glory.

    Among God children there needs to be “characters” who will fill the kingdom, including those who will have no kingdom, but are necessary to fulfill the law of opposition in all things. Otherwise, things would be out of balance.

    The question then becomes how does God accomplish this kingdom building? Does He know from the very beginning who will be who? I think the evidence is yes, He does, because the Firstborn was a being who He knew would be the Savior.

    I’m getting way out there with speculation, but this is fun and I think the Lord approves of us searching, and reasoning as long as it doesn’t produce contention, create doubt, and offend the spirit so that our prayers are hindered.

    Comment by Jared — December 3, 2007 @ 8:24 pm

  14. Matt W.,

    In the general theological community, this assertion is the most prominent attribute of what is known as Open Theism. There are a number of good books available that defend the proposition of non-exhaustive foreknowledge (among other related attributes) using evidence from the Bible.

    Notably, there are numerous scriptures that refer to God changing his mind, the conditional nature of prophecy, and so on (cf. Exodus 32:7-14, Jer 18:7-10). The key point is that it is hard to see how God could genuinely have a relationship with us if that were not the case.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 3, 2007 @ 11:26 pm

  15. Jared: Among God children there needs to be “characters” who will fill the kingdom, including those who will have no kingdom, but are necessary to fulfill the law of opposition in all things. Otherwise, things would be out of balance.

    Huh? What on earth are you talking about? Are you advocating predestination here or something? As far as I can tell that entire paragraph is utterly false.

    (I suppose you allow for that possibility when you admit you are wildly speculating later though…)

    Comment by Geoff J — December 3, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

  16. Brigham Young and others have taught that devils are needed as well as those who will inherit the various degrees of glory.

    I think that is one of the most perverse ideas I have ever heard. It reeks of double predestination – the idea that God condemns some to an endless hell because his glory is increased thereby, implying that God places a cash value on an actually everlasting damnation.

    In addition, it is a direct contradiction of 1 Tim 2:4-6 as well as 2 Ne 9:21.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 3, 2007 @ 11:40 pm

  17. Matt: (8)

    Who are we to say what God’s plans ultimately were? What appears to be a change may have been the plan all along. The fall may be an example of this.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — December 4, 2007 @ 7:03 am

  18. Jared: absolutely nothing wrong with speculating, so long as we don’t allow our speculation to dictate what our doctrines are.

    I believe that God does know everything that can be known, and that he is imminent. (present to all things) However, I am fairly certain there is not one single future that exists, as that would deny us our agency, I think. I believe there is an infinite number of possible futures, and yes, God knows all the circumstances and variables in our present, and would be able to make predictions with alarming accuracy (especially if humans are completely causally determined beings, but I don’t believe they are. I actually opt for a form of currentlylimited LFW, I guess) Anyway, if there are infinite possible futures, that means more futures and options than God could count, so it would be impossible for him to know every single aspect of the future.

    Anyway, I personally stand by my position that schools, like this life, are to make us smarter, and not to weed out the stupid ones. God loves all his children, and sincerely wants all of them to be saved, even the ones who either are now or will be sons of perdition.

    Mark D.and Geoff J- thanks for the assists. And Mark D., I guess you can call me an Open Theist, but I’ll probably say something very “Closed Theist” in the near future. I am a flip flopper…

    Eric: I’m not sure what you are saying. I’m sorry. We’re God’s Children, who have a prophet of the Lord and the Scriptures. I believe God himself has given us ample enough information to know, generally speaking, what his plan is. I doubt that is what you meant though.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 4, 2007 @ 7:32 am

  19. No Matt. In a specific plan, like the 500 people you mention in your post, or the failed trip to Canada to sell the Book of Mormon copyright, or how many righteous people need to be found to save a city from being destroyed, or do not eat the fruit of that tree, etc. We may think that God has changed his mind because he guessed wrong, or free agency threw a wrench into the plans or whatever. Who are we to say the God did not know these things were going to work out that way to begin with?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — December 4, 2007 @ 10:06 am

  20. Eric, I hope I didn’t come across to harsh in my previous response. I was just getting confused.

    In the text God says it is his will that Parley and Lyman not return until they have 500 people, but then says they can settle for 100 because people do not always do God’s will.

    In reality, I guess there are three possible takes

    1. God doesn’t know how many people are going to answer the call.
    2. God does know, but Joseph is his vessel and the 500 to 100 correction is God correcting Joseph mid revelation.
    3. God is telling the saints he really wants them to have 500, but he knows he’s going to get less than that, though he wishes it were more.

    I will free admit that all three of these readings are viable, and I beleive you probably would be happy with 2 or 3.

    In any case, I think my central thesis still holds that because of Man’s agency, God doesn’t always get his will. Do you agree?

    Comment by Matt W. — December 4, 2007 @ 11:07 am

  21. et al

    The greater ones island of knowledge is the greater is his/her beach of wonder (paraphrase).

    I remember how challenging the temple was when I first encountered it. I also remember the challenge of encountering the doctrines contained in the journal of discourses and other sources from the 1800’s. I spent years trying to put it together until I finally decided to deal with the real issues of mortality and that is acquiring the gift of the Holy Ghost—the First Comforter and all that is associated with this gift (including the reception of the 2nd Comforter). I’ve concluded that this is the single most important area we as followers of Christ, while in mortality, need to focus on.

    When it comes to the “beach doctrines” I currently belong to the school of thought that does not allow me to limit God in any way when it comes to his omniscience. The scriptures, based on my knowledge and understanding of them, doesn’t allow it.

    When I consider the vision given to Moses (Moses 1:25-42), for example, where he is shown every particle of the earth and every person who would ever live upon the earth, I am moved to conclude he is perfect in knowledge. Then add to that the revealed fact the past, present and future are continually before Him(D&C 130:7)—well that wraps it up for me.

    Mark D. –I have trouble with the idea as well.

    Matt-thanks for your post

    Comment by Jared — December 4, 2007 @ 11:50 am

  22. Notably, there are numerous scriptures that refer to God changing his mind, the conditional nature of prophecy, and so on

    Of course a person who accepts a block universe (which is not the same as determinism proper) can argue that God changes his mind, offers conditional prophecies and so forth. So none of these are terribly compelling.

    I’d say that the strongest argument for LFW and Open Theism arises out of the nature of responsibility. Indeed I’d say that is the only real argument for it.

    Comment by Clark — December 4, 2007 @ 2:23 pm

  23. Sure Matt. He would like for us all to be exalted, but knows that won’t happen. But I do not think it is because he is surprised or is guessing wrong.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — December 4, 2007 @ 3:07 pm

  24. Clark: Isn’t the nature of interpersonal relationship such that it requires a choice that isn’t mandated by mere natural causes (like for amoebas and animals) to freely enter a relationship? That seems to be a compelling argument for LFW if you accept that such relationships are unique and definitive for humans. Further, isn’t the fact that we are given choices and made free to choose for ourselves at least a fairly strong indication of LFW (even if it were the case, contra factum, that choosing for ourselves may not logically necessitate such self-determination)?

    Comment by Blake — December 4, 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  25. Clark,

    The arguments I mentioned are not for LFW per se, but rather against exhaustive foreknowledge and a largely metaphorical conception of divine personality.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 4, 2007 @ 4:32 pm