“Can God make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?” The question makes me smile, not simply because of the sincerity on my child’s face as he asks, but because I remember the first time I heard it. To a child who has been taught that God is all-powerful and can do anything, the question is a true mind-bender. How does a child process that question? Because either answer, yes or no, requires an explanation.

I remember not simply pondering the weight of the question itself but thinking, as I posed it to the adults in my life, I was giving them a real intellectual hurdle too. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I got a good answer from anyone. My own response to my son was probably less than awe-inspiring. 

After much time spent considering this riddle, I’d argue the answer is no. Not because God’s creative ability is in any way deficient (look at the world around us, the incredibly complex and immense universe; God’s creative ability is nearly beyond our ability to observe, let alone comprehend), nor because God’s power is somehow contained or limited.

The God who created the world and holds it up by the power of his word, doesn’t require arms to lift anything. The power that creates is the same power that lifts. God’s creative power is not separate from his active power. But even that answer is, in probably more ways than one, unsatisfying . . . especially to a child. What it does, though, is to raise interesting, related questions.

What can, or can’t, God do? And why does, or doesn’t, he?

This question recently came up in church. A friend asked our group, “If God wants us to be mature in our faith and to exhibit the character and qualities of Jesus, why doesn’t God simply make us mature when we decide to follow Him?” To put it another way, why isn’t spiritual growth immediate and complete?

There was much discussion after the question. Some people seemed to be confused by it, others were happy to weigh in. Most replied with varying versions of “God wants us to learn the lessons of the journey to maturity.” The asker, not satisfied with these responses, and much like children do, followed that with, “Why?” Why couldn’t God just teach us all the lessons of the journey in the same finger snap that makes us mature? He left the group unsatisfied. I assume there was something else behind the question, some situation that life was handing him that led him here.

But, what if the answer is, “Because he can’t.”? 

Of course, there are some things God can’t do. In his perfect holiness (Isaiah 6:3; 1 Peter 1:16), God cannot sin. Scripture specifically says that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Because God is just, he cannot overlook sin. In theological and philosophical terms, it’s phrased like this: “The only thing God cannot do is act contrary to his nature.”

So, what does that have to do with spiritual growth? God doesn’t force spiritual growth in a person not because he doesn’t have the power, but because to do so would be to violate his own character and decree. What decree? That humanity should have free will.

Spiritual growth is the product of the work of God in our lives and our choices. What we learn, how we grow, and what the Spirit does to transform our character more and more like Jesus relies (though not exclusively) on our choices. For God to unilaterally make us grow would be to remove the ability to choose and, in essence, force growth upon us.

In theology and philosophy, there is a concept called the “best possible world” (rooted in the thought of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz). Basically, this thought is that what exists is the best possible world that God could have created. Part of this best possible world is a voluntary relationship between humanity and God. God could have created robots or automatons that simply gave the appropriate pre-programmed response to whatever input was received. But he didn’t. God, wanting a willing relationship with his creation, created humanity with the ability to choose, because that was the best possible world. 

Free will becomes fundamental to our identity as humans. This makes it an inviolable, unbreakable trait. God cannot subvert our free will without making us something less than he created us to be. If God were to override our free will, compelling us to be or do something (which isn’t to say he cannot be persuasive . . . but that may be another conversation), that would not only violate our identity as humans, but it would also seem to call into question God’s own pronouncement of the goodness of creation.

God decreed that humanity should have the ability to choose. He will not, cannot, violate his decree, even for a good end.

It’s important here to acknowledge that there isn’t the verse that we might want to read about free will. (There are a lot of verses we’d probably like to read that don’t actually exist.) You know, that one perfect verse proving, without a doubt, without room for debate, our side of the argument. Human free will is a theological conclusion reached through following the stories of Scripture. An overly simplistic argument for the free will of humanity is simply the number of times God commands something to be or not be done, and humans either do or don’t do that very thing. Humanity is created with the ability to defy God not just in principle, but in actual explicit actions. Not to mention, so much of the Christian story is based on the idea that God wants a relationship with us. A relationship requires both people to be able to choose to be in relationship. If God overrides our free will entirely to make us mature, he is no longer loving us or inviting us to love him in return.

This is at the root of the story of Job. Of course, the story of Job wrestles with the question of the goodness of God in the difficulties of a broken world. But another aspect of Job’s story is that it’s a story of relationship. It’s a story of God betting Job will choose his relationship with God despite Job’s external circumstances. For the wager to be real, Job had to have the innate (and inviolable) ability to choose how he would respond to the situations given to him. That was the bet. Satan bet that when everything that made choosing to worship God easy was taken away, Job would choose to do what his wife encouraged him to do, “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). God, on the other hand, wagered Job would choose to remain faithful to God even though life fell apart in ways that were contrary to how Job understood God. Job’s choice to remain faithful to God is part of what makes Job’s story an example for us. In the end, Job doesn’t receive the explanation he wants. Instead, he’s given a clearer picture of who God is, and in response, Job despised himself and repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). Job’s ultimate response, not only to the circumstances he endured, but to the “explanation” God gave, was to be amazed by God’s power and to submit to God. Repentance for Job is an act of restoration—it repaired the fractured relationship between him and God. 

Choice is at the root of human creation.

Rather than a test of morality, Adam and Eve faced a test of relationship. Would they choose God, or would they choose themselves? God had already chosen them. He had created them and given them everything they needed, not just to survive, but to thrive in their (literally) new world. The presence of the tree gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to choose God in return (again, a requirement of true relationship).

The choice was there, and it was real. The fundamental reality of free will is inherent in the consequences God laid out to eating from the Tree of Knowledge. “You shall not” is not a programmer’s coding; it’s the loving encouragement of a creator who wants his creatures to choose relationship with him.

 There are, of course, several “yeah, but” and “what about” questions. Some passages in Scripture seem to push against the idea of free will, and seem to suggest that God can indeed override our ability to choose (and has). “In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him” (Prov. 21:1). This accounts God “hardening” Pharoah’s heart so that he will not let Israel go. Even the description of the inspiration of the prophets (1 Peter 1:20) could be read to suggest that God does what he wants, regardless of what humans want.

But there’s something to consider: a distinction to make between influence and control. We know that God, through a variety of methods, not least of which is the working of the Holy Spirit and the winsomeness of his love, works in our hearts and minds. God certainly works in such ways as to encourage us in directions that accomplish his will. But this influence, this encouragement, is not the same as control. God urges us in ways that are both good for us and glorifying to him, but he doesn’t coerce us to do anything. The long history of sinful people stands as a repeating example of the truth of our free will.

 Free will brings with it all kinds of consequences, as it has since a piece of forbidden fruit was eaten in humanity’s first home. We experience the effects of our own choices and the choices of others. We wish that God would do certain things, not realizing that for him to do so may violate our basic humanity.

Why doesn’t God? In some circumstances, the answer may well be, “Because he can’t.” Not because he’s not powerful enough or creative enough or fill-in-the-blank, but because he may be presenting us with an opportunity to respond to his love by choosing him in return.