What are the odds you win the lottery this week? What is the chance two people in a crowded room share the same birthday? And what is the likelihood you roll the seven you need in Monopoly to pass Go, collect $200 and escape that hotel on Boardwalk? So much in life seems random that we may wonder if God is in actually in charge or just lets the chips fall where they may. If you think luck and chance rule your life, you might feel helpless in your circumstances. Does God sit back while physical laws run on auto pilot leaving us to some random fate? What exactly is chance and what does it do?
First, we need some theology – God is sovereign. Nothing ever happens unless He allows it. Because His perfect will is never frustrated by man’s actions, He is never surprised. Jesus said the sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground apart from the Father’s will (Matthew 10:29) and Psalm 139:16 tells us the days of our life are ordained. Job told God “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.” Again, the psalmist wrote “Whatever the LORD pleases He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deep places.” God not only knows everything, but ordains everything because He is in charge.
Soon after Jesus ascended to heaven we saw “chance” in action when the apostles drew lots to replace Judas Iscariot. Barsabbas and Matthias were chosen by the apostles but the final selection was left to God. Peter prayed and then they cast lots. They did not consider this a random choice – they clearly believed that God directed the lot to fall to Matthias. Consider Joseph who acknowledged that even man’s evil schemes fit within God’s sovereign plan when, after his brothers sold him into slavery, God used it for good. God’s sovereignty is central to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If we deny His sovereignty, we deny His deity because without having total control, God would cease to be God. How can God keep his promises if He is not sovereign? We would have no guarantee that the finished work on the cross would bring about the salvation of sinners or that God could defeat Satan.
Chance is simply man’s way of describing the outcomes of events hidden in the mysterious will of God. Chance is not a force and cannot by itself influence anything. It merely describes those things we cannot predict reliably. Roll a die and you have one chance in six that it will come up a five because there are six possible outcomes (a die has six sides). When you flip a coin, you have a 50% chance it will be heads because there are two possible outcomes. We can describe gravity’s action on the coin, the coin’s coefficient of drag in air, and the action-reaction of Newton’s third law when it bounces on the ground and, if it were possible to model all the subtle effects, we could predict the outcome of a coin toss each time. God not only ordained the physical laws acting on the coin as it moves in the air, but He ordained the outcome of the coin toss itself. We flip the coin, but God determines the outcome. We act freely and God acts sovereignly.
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Mathematicians have developed an entire branch of mathematics, called probability and statistics, to treat randomness. This math does not contradict the perfect will of God; rather, it is man’s tool to describe that which is hidden from us, according to rules God has given us. Let’s go back to the simple coin toss. What is the chance of flipping two heads in a row? It is 25% because each flip is independent of the other – the coin has no memory – so it’s ½ * ½ = ¼. You have a 50% chance each time and that’s why you almost never see heads turn up eight times in a row. Engineers use the mathematics of statistics to monitor and control yields in high volume manufacturing environments. Professors grade students on a curve, analysts track data from athletes, economists monitor inflation and the stock market – most anything with unpredictable outcomes can be described using statistics. Probability is used to predict next year’s stock market returns, the payout for winning the lottery and whether or not your child will have blue eyes. Probability and statistics are used to treat large collections of random data and predict future outcomes from that data set. The most famous probability distribution is called the normal curve. It is known formally among scientists and engineers as the Gaussian probability density function, named after a famous mathematician named Gauss. It occurs so often in nature that it is ‘normal’ for data to be described by this function. Students’ test grades are usually normally distributed and when the data is graphed, the resulting curve looks bell-shaped and is often simply called a bell curve with most grades near the middle and some very low and very high test scores. Grading on a curve entails assigning a letter grade to the mean score (at the middle of the bell curve – let’s say this earns a B-) and to earn an A grade requires scoring two standard deviations above the mean. God ordained that a particular student would earn an A and studying was the means by which that student earned the A. It’s interesting to see the harmony between natural laws and the sovereign providence of God.
Einstein famously said “God does not play dice” when speaking of the new quantum physics near the beginning of the twentieth century. This new branch of physics taught that we cannot simultaneously know both the location and momentum of sub-atomic particles with perfect accuracy. We can only talk about the probability of an electron residing within some radius of the atom’s nucleus. The absence of Newtonian predictability in the motion of sub-atomic particles shocked the science world but proved true time and again. As if to mirror His incomprehensibility, God, who cannot be exhaustively known, placed limits on what can be known about the fundamental building blocks of matter, the atom.
We use the math of probability and statistics yet we pray for an outcome. We trust God in His sovereign plan but we see randomness every day. As engineers process signals buried in the noise so we hear music clearly, I want to filter out the noise of false doctrine so you understand the truth of God’s sovereign will – God ordains all that comes to pass and nothing happens without His approval. Our inability to see order in the world at times or to believe that God would actually ordain something as trivial as a coin toss does not change the fact that God actually leaves nothing to chance.