We teach our children to anticipate the results of their actions. I call this "practical prophecy." They can't know with certainty, but they should be able to anticipate that hitting baseballs in the front yard is likely to break a window.
This is the essence of accountability, isn't it? We can't hold children responsible for their choices until they understand cause-and-effect.
Our knowledge, however, is imperfect, to say the least. But Jesus said that God is perfect, and expects us to aim for that same goal. One meaning of "perfect" implies completeness; another suggests that there be no errors.
How perfect is the foreknowledge of God? This question is the source of great anxiety and many potential errors in our understanding of our Father.
When bad things happen, many people believe that it must be part of God's plan; he, knowing all things past, present and future, must have known this thing would happen.
Since he is all-powerful, and he did not prevent this great evil, it must have been his will that it happen.
And since he is good, what seems evil to us must be good on some level beyond our understanding.
This idea is in the English language in the old phrase "God willing" — whatever plans we make, they are contingent on the will of God.
Many believe that everything that happens is the will of God. Either he causes it, or he is content that it happen. If we only understood his purposes, we would understand that all things are good.
The problem comes with the idea that God knows everything and planned everything to the last detail. This idea crops up constantly in LDS folk doctrine — "I know God has a plan for me," we say. And this is true — but not necessarily in the way we might think.
I've heard some Mormons say that we were shown something like a movie of our entire lives before we came to this world, and we agreed to it.
Others don't go so far, but they believe that important events are part of God's individual plan for our lives; he sent these events or people into our lives.
Thus when God tells his prophets what will happen, it's either because the entire future is open to God's view, or because he causes everything and therefore he can safely predict what he is going to do.
I've been thinking about this since I was a kid, and at various times I've held almost every shade of opinion on the matter. But always I came up against the serious problem of how to reconcile human free will with God's perfect foreknowledge.
For a time, I believed the explanation that God knew us so well in premortality that he could join together all the choices that all his children would make through all of human history and figure out the end from the beginning.
Then I did a little math (in my feeble way) and calculated that to know all the causal webs through all of human history, from storms and climate and earthquakes to every decision of every human being, would require more bits of information than there are molecules in the universe.
I might be a little off, of course, since my data are incomplete, but I thought: That's an awful lot of trouble to go to. Couldn't God have an easier way to deal with foreknowledge?
Then there's the idea — neoplatonic, and definitely not a doctrine of the Restoration — that God stands outside of time, living in an eternal "now."
The problem is that such a concept of God is as good a way of defining atheism as I can imagine. Time and causality are inescapably linked. For God to not exist in time is to say that God cannot actually do anything, because that would require that he exist in time.
There was a moment before he acted, and then he acted, and now his action is in the past.
We believe in eternal progression, and a progressing God is not outside of time.
(Please don't write in with all the sophistries designed to explain the "timeless" God, or with "higher" math invoking multiple dimensions — trust me, I've heard them all, and they still come down to the nonexistence of a God who is actively involved in the universe of causation.)
In recent years, I've reached the conclusion that while I cannot, from scripture or by reason, determine the truth of the matter, there is a way to account for the foreknowledge of God without compromising our freedom or requiring that God have everything nailed down in every detail in advance.
God does have a plan for each and every one of us, and we agreed to it. It's called our "second estate" (Abraham 3:26). As long as we are in mortality and have the power to act, we will live lives that perfectly fulfill the purposes of God.
God has given us a world in which things happen according to natural laws. This includes the natural laws that govern the behavior of the natural man, as well as the spiritual laws that govern the children of God.
Regardless of what happens to us, God judges us by what we do in response. People who live through horrible trials that most of us shudder to imagine will reveal their true character in those times of duress.
But people who seem to lead charmed lives where only good things happen to them manage to have just as many opportunities to be wicked and miserable, and as many to be good and kind.
As for God's larger plans for the history of nations, he knows human nature.
Societies that behave in certain ways destroy themselves — history shows it again and again. It does not take specific foreknowledge for the Lord to make such prophecies.
Plus, God knows what he is going to do. As often as not, prophecies are actually promises: I will do this, he says, and I will do that. These prophecies will be fulfilled because God will keep his word.
To my way of thinking, this is all the foreknowledge required for God to be perfectly just and loving, and for this life to do a perfect job of testing us while leaving us morally free to choose according to our uncreated, eternal nature.
God has given us a world in which he intervenes only rarely, when his special purposes require it. We are utterly free to be who we are, no matter what happens to us (Alma 14:11).
God's plan for us has no errors in it, though we are free, during mortality, to err to our heart's content. For in this life we cannot cause any eternal harm except to ourselves (Matthew 15:11).
God's perfect foreknowledge needs to be no more than this: In this life, we will freely show who we are, so his judgment will be just. That is the end, and he knew it from the beginning; all his promises are fulfilled in this.
If it happens that God's foreknowledge is much more detailed than this, I will be neither surprised nor disappointed to discover that my thinking on this matter was wrong. This is merely the simplest view I've found that provides for the justice of God and the freedom of men.
Contact Orson Scott Card by visiting www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.
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