As we study history we observe an interesting recurring theme. Often small, seemingly insignificant things later have a profound effect upon the course of mankind. If that one small thing, or perhaps a few small things had not happened or had happened differently, our history would not have turned out as it has.
For example, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the sparked that ignited a major conflict that became known as World War I. Had that one event not taken place, it's possible there may not have been a war that eventually engulf the entire world and caused the death of millions of people.
When that bloody conflict ended, it was the overly harsh terms of Germany's surrender that was the impetus that drove Adolf Hitler to avenge Germany's humiliation by the victors. Had the terms of surrender been more reasonable, Hitler would not have had the excuse he used to whip up German sentiment into a frenzy that allowed him to build his National Socialist Party into a nationwide movement.
It was the writings and philosophy of Karl Marx in 1848 that inspired Vladimir Lenin to start the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 which ultimately led to the formation of the Communist Soviet Republic. Had Marx never written about his theory of a utopia civilization, there would have been nothing to inspire Lenin to start a communistic society. And if there hadn't been a Soviet Union, there wouldn't have been a Cold War, with its nuclear arms race, not to mention the seven million Russian peasants who were deliberately starved to death under Stalin's reign.
Saddam Hussein was raised by a brutal uncle, who severely beat him almost on a daily basis. From this uncle he learned violent brutality and learned how to survive in spite of it. It was these lessons he learned in his early youth that he later employed to climb his way up the political system to become the brutal dictator of Iraq. Had he been raised by a less dictatorial and kinder father, Saddam might have become a much less menacing adult and both the Gulf War and the Iraq War might have been avoided.
As a child, Margret Sanger witnessed a brutal beating of her mother by two vagabond drifters that left an unforgettable and indelible impression on her young mind. Later in life, that incident led her to formulate the idea that undesirable people should be eliminated from society or, at the least, that such people should not be allowed to reproduce by having children. Margret Sanger is the person who developed the idea of eugenics and became the founder of Planned Parenthood, both of which were designed for the sole purpose of getting rid of undesirable people. Today, Planned Parenthood has been responsible for the deaths of millions of unborn babies. Had that one beating not occurred in her early childhood, Margret would not have been such an ardent crusader for implementing these programs of death.
Going back further in time, we find that it was Martin Luther's determination to reform the Catholic Church that led to a Protestant revolution, which inspired religious dissent in England by a group of Puritans, which caused them to become persecuted for their beliefs, that motivated some of them to resettle themselves in America, thereby establishing the New England colonies. And all this happened because of one man, Martin Luther.
Luther didn't want to start a reformation movement. Initially, his only desire was to bring the Catholic Church back to the teachings of the Bible as he understood it. Had he remained quiet about his views or lacked the courage to stand up for what he believed, there would never have been a Protestant Reformation and all the things that later came about because of the movement that Luther's rebellion started.
And as we look at all of history we find hundreds of similar such situations where, if one thing had not happened or had happened differently, the history of the world would not be what it is today. That understanding leads us to one of two inescapable conclusions. Either life is nothing more than a series of random, unplanned, accidental coincidences, or there is a reason why things happen as they do. Either life is just a game of chance where what happens is determined by something as unpredictable as the roll of the dice, that man is at the mercy of sheer luck, both good or bad, or God has a plan, a purpose, a designed destiny for mankind and that He has the power to carry out His desires despite whatever man does or does not do.
Since the time of Constantine in the early fourth century, it was believed that kings came to power because of the decrees of God. This, in turn, led to the idea of "the divine right of kings" which taught that kings came to power because God - who is divine - willed them to rule. It was for this reason that they felt their power over people was given to them by divine decree. And they also felt that the opposite was just as true, which is that if God didn't want them to be king, then they would have never been placed on the throne.
The Pilgrims who came to America in 1620 felt they were being guided by the hand of God to a place where God wanted them to live. Our Founding Fathers strongly believed in "divine providence" which they defined as "God's interposition in the affairs of men." By 1776, at the end of the document that declared America's intention to become independent of English rule, the signers wrote: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
During the Revolutionary War our Founding Fathers prayed often to God for help and they saw many miracles happen as a result of their prayers. In fact, it was a miracle that a nation with no navy and an army made up mostly of farmers with no fighting experience, and who used everyday hunting rifles for weapons could have defeated the most powerful military in the world at that time, a military made up of well disciplined and seasoned soldiers, armed with the most advanced weapons of their time, and commanded by career generals who had distinguished themselves in battle.
Christians believe in a God who is so powerful that He created the heavens and the earth and is able to control the entire universe. If that is true, then He certainly has the power to stop or prevent one small event that could have far reaching effects upon the course of history. If He chooses not to make that one minor alteration, then we are left with the inevitable conclusion that all the wars, bloodshed, and sufferings that has happened throughout human history has not been the result of a random set of accidental coincidences gone bad but rather is a deliberate orchestration by God in order to bring about His holy purposes.
But if that is true then that raises the question of whether man is free to determine his own destiny by the choices he makes or if his destiny has already been made for him and that there is nothing he can do to change what God has already decreed? Put another way, is man truly free to make his own decisions or is he merely a puppet whose life is meant to follow a pre-written script that he has no real choice but to follow?
This is the age old debated between free will versus predestination and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides of this question.
One of the basic tenants of Christianity is that of free will, meaning that God has given man the freedom to decide for himself what he wants to do. As Lehi taught his children, "And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon. Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. (2 Nephi 2:26, 27).
If this wasn't true then our salvation would not be granted according to man's ability to accept Christ but would be determined according to the will of God who would decide who should be saved and who should be damned. Although this doctrine is taught in some Christians faiths, it is widely rejected by the great majority of others, and the Bible itself clearly teaches that we should "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31). But if a person's salvation is already predetermined at the time of their birth, then there is no need for them to believe.
However, another basic tenant of Christianity is the belief that God knows all things, including what will happen in the future. So certain are these predictions that God has written them down and Christians accept these divine prophecies as being absolutely correct in every detail. But how can prophecies made thousands of years before they happen be so accurate if man has the freedom to make his own decisions? To better understand this paradox, let's look at some examples.
Jesus prophesied that the great temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed so completely that there wouldn't be one stone left upon another (Mark 13:2). Paul foretold the time would come when there would be a falling away from the gospel of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Isaiah prophesied that the kingdom of Judah would be destroyed and taken into captivity but that a remnant would return (Isaiah 10:20-22).
Nephi not only saw the complete destruction of his descendants that would happen a thousand years later but even knew the approximated time when it would happen. He saw the entire ministry of Jesus Christ six hundred years before it happened and saw how the church of Christ would quickly fall into apostasy. He saw Christopher Columbus come across the Atlantic Ocean to discover America and he also saw the restoration of the gospel that would happen twenty four hundred years in the future.
The entire book of Revelation is one giant revelation giving numerous details of what will happen in the last days before Christ comes again. Some biblical scholars say that in his account of the future John described seeing armored tanks, planes, and missiles, that didn't even exist in his era. No knowing what to call these unimaginable machineries of war he described them using the common images of his day.
The greatest of all prophecies was how God would send a savior, who would be born to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), be of the house of David and come from Bethlehem (John 7:42), be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23), come out of Egypt (Matthew 2:13), be whipped and wounded (Isaiah 53:5), made his grave with the rich and the wicked (Isaiah 53:9), and not have any of his bones broken (John 19:36; Psalm 34:20). In every detail, each of these prophecies happened exactly as they were foretold.
It is prophecies like these that give physical evidence that God knows exactly what will happen in the future. Then how can it be said that we are free to make our own decisions if our decisions are known to God thousands of years before we ever make them?
The answer to this seemingly perplexing question is very simple. We are permitted to make our own decisions but we can only decide on those things that are placed before us. For example, if we are never presented with the opportunity to work for a particular company, we don't have the choice of deciding whether to work for them or not.
We can choose to be healthy and strong by exercising and eating properly but a debilitating disease such as cancer or a crippling accident can happen to anyone at any time. When something like that happens we find ourselves in a position where have to make a choice of how to deal with our new circumstance. But if we never get seriously sick or injured then we don't have to worry about making those kinds of decisions.
Just because we are free to choose for ourselves doesn't mean we are free to decide on everything. There are an infinite number of things we have absolutely no control over which only proves that our freedom of choice is limited to those things that are placed before us. It's no different than going into a Chinese restaurant and wanting to order a bean burrito. Since Chinese restaurants don't offer bean burritos our choices are limited to only those items on the menu of that particular restaurant. And the same is true with life.
It is the owner of the restaurant who decides which food items they want to offer the public and in the same way, it is God who decides which situations to place before us that determines what choices we will be free to choose from. In this way God is able to manipulate or orchestrate the kinds of outcome He wants to achieve by the choices He places before us.
For example, it was the desire of the Assyrians to attack the kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Hezekiah, but even though that was their decision, God prevented them from carrying out their plans. However, after warning the Jews that if they didn't repent He would remove them from their land, when they failed to heed that warning, God allowed King Nebuchadnezzar to destroy the kingdom of Judah. The Jews had the freedom to decide whether to obey God's commandments or not, but they didn't have the freedom to choose how God would respond to their rebellious decision.
But God's ability to manage people is more sophisticated than this. He knows our likes and dislikes, our strengths and weakness, and our personalities long before we were ever born on earth, and even after we came into mortality, God could observe us and clearly see what kind of decisions we were prone to making. For example, when God's patience with the Jews had run out, it would have been a simple matter for Him to put the idea into King Nebuchadnezzar's mind to attack the Jews, knowing that such a thought would be readily accepted by the Babylonian king.
God didn't have to force Nebuchadnezzar to make that decision because it was one the king was very susceptible to making, nor did God have to help Nebuchadnezzr in destroying Jerusalem because he was fully capable of doing that by his own power. Furthermore, God didn't lift a finger to help the Jews as He had done with Hezekiah, thereby allowing Nebuchadnezzar's army unimpeded access to victory. In this way, God was directly orchestrating all the moves needed to bring about the very result He wanted to achieve without infringing on man's right to choose for himself.
Yet, forty years later, King Cyrus allowed a small group of Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple. But God didn't have to take away Cyrus' free will to cause him to make that decision because this particular king was already susceptible to such a suggestion. All that was needed was to put the idea before him. Later King Darius allowed even more Jews to return to their homeland, thus fulfilling one of the prophecies of Jeremiah (2 Chronicles 36:22). But it was an easy matter for God to fulfill that prophecy because that was His plan from the beginning. All Jeremiah was doing was announcing what God had already decided to do.
It is in this way that God is able to influence people whereby they end up fulfilling His plans and purposes. For example, it was necessary for the early English colonists to rebel against their mother country in order to set up an environment of religious freedom where the Church of Jesus Christ could be restored and flourish. The Lord has revealed "for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose" (D&C 101:80).
Our Founding Fathers were not a group of men whom God just randomly used to make America a free nation. These men were chosen and given an assignment to fulfill before they ever came to earth, an assignment they themselves willing chose to accept in the pre-mortal world. Then God watched over them and raised them up to fulfill their divine destiny as He guided them with His Spirit.
And the same was true of those who wrote the Constitution. During that convention the delegates strongly argued with one another over every point and what they thought would take but a couple of weeks of work turned into three long months of hotly contested debates. But through the guiding influence of the Spirit, when these specially chosen delegates finished their work, the form of government they finally agreed upon was something that was truly inspired of God. As such, the Constitution was not so much the work of man as it was the work of God, but throughout that entire contentious process God never once violated the agency of any of those delegates.
In 1820 God didn't appear to just any fourteen year old boy. Joseph Smith was ordained and accepted the mission to be the prophet of the restoration before the earth was ever created , and he was chosen back then precisely because of his righteousness and commitment to God's plan of salvation. When Joseph came to earth God watched over him and guided him, therefore it was no accident that during his early teenage years he attended a number of different churches that taught differing doctrines of salvation. It was that experience that caused him to wonder which church was teaching the correct way to salvation but even that thought was no doubt placed in his mind by the Holy Spirit.
Young Joseph was used to reading the Bible on a daily basis and one night as he read the first chapter of James, the fifth verse he said, "Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again." It was no coincidence that this scripture just happened to make a strong impression on Joseph's mind. It was God's Spirit that was working on him, prompting him to do something God wanted him to do.
Once Joseph had that prompting, he was faced with a choice. He could either do as James said, and pray to God to know which church was true or he could have avoided saying that prayer, but that decision was his alone to make. Although God knew what Joseph's decision would be, if he had decided not to pray in response to God's prompting, the Spirit would have come back to him with greater urgency. If Joseph still chose not to act on that prompting God could have kept on troubling his soul until he finally felt motivated to pray, but at all times it would have been Joseph's choice to make.
Had Joseph chose to completely ignore what the Spirit was telling him, God could have inspired someone else to pray and given them the vision that was meant for Joseph. In this way, Joseph's agency was never violated or abridged yet, at the same time God would make sure that His plan would be fulfilled. This is what God did with Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, the Puritans, and many, many others, who were inspired, guided, and motivated to carry out the purposes of God.
And the same is true of wicked men. God allows wickedness to exist because it serves a useful purpose in bringing about His plan for the salvation of His children. But because of our lack of knowledge of God's ways, we often question why things happen as they do. Yet God knows full well what He is doing and always has a wise purpose for what he does.
For example, in the garden of Eden, Satan sought to destroy God's plan at the very beginning by getting Adam and Eve to disobey just one divinely given commandment. God could have easily prevented Satan from tempting them but instead He allowed Satan to carry out his evil design. But rather than Satan foiling God's plan he unwittingly helped to bring about the very conditions that man needed in order for him to progress spiritually.
When we see all the wickedness, chaos, anger, hatred, violence, suffering, and death in the world, it is only natural to wonder why God doesn't do something to put an end to all of this unrighteous behavior, but God is not only fully aware of what is going on but is actually in charge of directing the events happening in human history. It is when we come to fully understand the way God does His works, and rely on His wisdom rather than our own that our hearts will no longer be troubled but will be filled with the peace of Christ.