There is an age old debate over predestination and free agency. Predestination argues that since God knows everything before it happens, then the future is set and cannot be changed. Therefore, whatever we do - good or bad - we were predestined to do; we have no choice.
Free Agency is the concept which states that our destiny is completely up to us; we are the ones who make all of our decisions.
However, there is a problem with both points of view. If God already knows what we will do long before we choose it, what purpose is there to life? Yet, if we are truly free to decide our own fate, that would suggest we can make a choice that God doesn't know about. Yet if God knows everything, then it's impossible for that to happen.
The question boils down to this: Does God run our lives or do we?
In my opinion, the answer is a combination of both. Yes, God does know everything and He is in total control, but He lets us decide what we want to do - up to a point.
At first glance this seems to be a contradictory statement, however, most people make a false assumption when they think because God knows something it's the same as making it happen. This is not true.
Knowledge of an event doesn't mean that it was caused or that it has to happen. To illustrate my point: if I see a solid metal ball hanging from a thin thread I know that eventually the thread will break. I also know with certainty that the ball will then fall straight down. Knowing this, I can place my hand in the path of the ball and when the thread finally does break, the ball will fall into my hand. Just because I knew that the thread would break and I knew the path the ball would travel, doesn't mean I caused the ball to fall into my hand.
As a father, I know my children fairly well. On the average I can accurately predict how they will react to most situations. For example, If I have a child who doesn't like peas, when we go to a restaurant where they have a choice of peas or string beans with their meal, I know that my child will choose string beans. Just because I know that fact doesn't mean I caused my child to make the choice they did.
It's true that we can make an error in our judgment. We may think we know how our child will choose, but it is possible for them to surprise us. However, our Father in heaven knows each one of us so well that He knows - with absolute certainty - what choice we will make to any given situation. His knowledge of us is so complete that it is not possible to surprise Him. Yet, just because He knows what we will do doesn't mean He has influenced our decision. We still have the freedom to choose all of our actions.
Since God knows us so well, He can, with absolute certainty, show us our entire life at the time of our birth. However, He can also show us what our future could be if we would change just one of our decisions. Therefore, God can show us both what our future will be and what it could be.
If that is true, then what's the point to us living? The point is that we don't know. God can tell us how we will choose in any given situation, but it isn't enough for us to take God's word for it. We have to learn for ourselves how we will behave.
We are here to grow in wisdom and knowledge, we are here to develop spiritual talents, and we are here to learn how to control our physical emotions such as love, hate, pride, jealousy, frustration, sex and greed. Life, then, is a school where each person is being trained in ways that will help them develop and grow to their best potential.
However, this is not an easy school; it is filled with problems that we are required to solve. And it is in overcoming these obstacles that we grow. Therefore, each of us are allowed to make our own decisions on how to resolve life's dilemmas. But just because God knows what choices we will make before hand, doesn't deprive us of the freedom to choose for ourselves.
If life is a school, then God must be the school master, and if God is the school master then He must be exercising some type of control over the lessons of life we face. Certainly He must be the One who is providing the problems we have. The question then is: How much does God interfere with our lives?
Before we can look at this answer, we must first determine what kind of being God is.
We believe that God is a God of order. We believe He is a God of love and mercy and that He is also fair and just. We further believe that He is all-knowing and all-powerful.
If these things are true then it logically follows that there must be a reason for why things happen to us. It is inconsistent to image that God would put us here on earth to experience problems at the whim of pure luck. Therefore, we must conclude that God is in control of whatever happens to us and that whatever happens does so for a good reason.
It is often assumed that if God is in control of everything then He must cause everything to happen, but this is a false assumption. For example: God can deliberately cause floods, storms, or volcanoes to occur, but that doesn't mean that all floods, storms or volcanoes are purposely created by Him. Most of the time these events happen by purely natural causes.
However, even though God doesn't cause our problems, He knows when and where they will occur. Since He has the power to prevent them, but doesn't, we must conclude that God has chosen to allow us to experience these problems. Furthermore, since God loves us and wants what is best for us, then we must further conclude that all situations in life are there for our spiritual development and growth.
The reasons we face difficulty in our lives are as varied and as numerous as the stars in the sky; there is no one answer. Some people lump all their problems under the reasoning that God is trying to build their faith, while others lump all problems under the reasoning that God is angry with people and is punishing them. While some problems may be accounted for in this manner, they are only two out of millions of reasons why things happen to us.
Take the case of Dan and Tammy. Both are active LDS members, and the Lord has blessed them greatly. One day they went on vacation, and when they returned, they found their house has been burglarized and much of their belongings stolen. The question they asked themselves was, "Why didn't God protect our home while we were gone?" Some will immediately console them with the reasoning that God is simply testing their faith, but their faith was already strong. Others will claim that they must have done something wrong in their life and that God is punishing them, but they had done nothing to be ashamed of.
Others will say that God didn't cause their house to be robbed - it was just one of those things that happened. Yet, if this is true, we must therefore conclude that since God had the power to prevent this from occurring, and didn't, He must have had a good reason for letting this event take place.
What reason could He have? Only God knows for sure, but let's look at a hypothetical, but plausible explanation. Perhaps there is a neighbor who lives three doors down who doesn't want to hear about the gospel. This person may be consumed by the love of his material possessions, and, when he hears that his neighbor Dan has been robbed, he panics, thinking that his house might be vandalized next. As a result of his anxiety, he frantically buys all sorts of alarm systems to protect his property and precious possessions.
On the other hand, because of his great faith in God, Dan is unperturbed by the lose of his belongings, and, through the aid of his friends at church, the Lord blesses him to receive more than he lost. The man down the street can't understand why Dan seems so calm about the break-in and is amazed at the help he received from his church. This causes him to become curious, and he begins to talk with Dan about this. Dan explains about his faith in God and in time the man begins to search for how to achieve this peace for himself, which eventually leads to him becoming baptized - all because Dan's house was robbed!
Of course this is only a theoretical explanation, but it illustrates how God can use His knowledge to control events. He might have led Dan, through inspiration, to buy that particular house a year or so earlier and then, in this example, God does nothing more to interfere with the course of events. He didn't cause the robber to burglarize Dan's house, but He knew it would happen and deliberately allowed the robber to carry out his illegal act. He knew that Dan's faith would carry him through and that the love of the church members would naturally come to his aid in abundance. He also knew how Dan's neighbor would react with fear and panic and then become amazed by Dan's faith. Then with a little prompting from the spirit, this man, of his own free will, decides to join the Church. So God could have stopped the robber, but He didn't for a very good reason.
Sometimes God does interfere and deliberately steps in to change a situation. As a result, we may find ourselves following a different course than what we would have taken had God not altered the circumstances.
Then how do we know when God intervenes in our life and when things just naturally occur? The answer is: We don't; only God knows for sure. But this much seems certain, no matter what happens, if God didn't cause it to happen then He deliberately allowed it to take place. I believe that it is in this way God guides every person to do what is best for us.
Sometimes the only reason for things happening is because God doesn't want to shield us from every little hurt and problem that comes along. It's necessary for us to have problems, whether there is some profound lesson to be learn or not.
But some will say that life isn't always good. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. What about the millions of people starving in drought areas of Africa? What about the millions of people living lives of misery under the hands of ruthless dictators? What about the innocent people caught up in the horror of war? If God is in control of what happens to us, then why does He allow all of these terrible things to happen to good people?
Then there is the case of Jason. He was born to a mother who had bi-polar depression and, as a result, wasn't given proper guidance from her and soon exhibited the symptoms of an undisciplined child. He also inherited the tendency to become depressive himself. When he was still young, his mother took him and ran away from his father, and before long he was getting into trouble with the police. Social Service stepped in and he was placed in one foster home after another. His behavior became worse and, as an adult, eventually was sent to prison for violent crimes against society.
If God knew how Jason would turn out, why did He allowed him to be born to a mother who passed on her depressive tendencies and who could not properly train him? Or why wasn't somebody there to give him the help needed to counter these negative effects?
The answer is that we don't know why; only God knows. From our perspective, it seems cruel and unfair, but before we can pass sentence on why God seems to be so insensitive, we must first come to one of two conclusions. Either God has dumped us on this planet and then left us to work things out ourselves, or He loves us and wants to do what is best for us, but His perspective is much broader than ours. These are the only two explanations that I can think of.
If we say that God just dumped us here and everything that happens is just the luck of the cards, then life is not only meaningless, but God is neither fair or loving. However, if we accept the premise that God is loving, that He is concerned about us, then we are forced to conclude that there must be a wise reason why these seemingly bad things happen. I prefer to believe in the latter explanation.
To our finite minds we see this physical existence as the beginning and the everything that life has to offer. In reality, this is just a brief moment in the eternal scope of life. We existed long before we came here. When we die we will exist in still another realm for a much longer period of time than we have spent here, and, to God, this physical life is only a small part of our development. For sure, it is an important part, but as unpleasant as things may get here, it's only for a relatively short period of time.
Without really knowing why God deliberately allows such misery to exist, perhaps we can put forth a possible explanation. It is a fact that we grow through over coming problems. We also accept as fact that God loves us more than we can comprehend. Given those two facts, we can logically surmise that God allows bad things to happen as a way to help expose weaknesses in people's character. This then allows them the opportunity to work through their deficiencies and thereby grow spiritually. Certainly life would seem better if we never encountered heartaches, disappointments and frustrations. Certainly life would be more pleasant if no wrongs were ever committed, but that's not what life is about.
Some say that all problems are created by man not following God's ways. If this is true, then why didn't God have all of us born into wonderful, loving families that taught us from birth the way we should live? Why weren't we all given an equal start in life? Then if we choose not to follow God's ways it would be our own fault. But like Jason, many children are born without the advantage of a good, stable, home life to grow in, and often it negatively affects their entire life.
Once again we must decide whether God really cares about us. If we say that He loves us and yet allows unpleasant thing to happen, then we are forced to conclude that there must be a very good reason for it. To not believe this is to believe the only other possibility - that God doesn't really care what happens to us.
If God does love us all and is trying to help each person to become the best we can be, what about men like Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein? These are people who became so bad that when they die the world is relieved and grateful to be rid of them. If God knew what these men would do, why did He allow them to rise to positions of such great authority? If He knew how they would choose, why didn't He change events in their life to guide them to become better individuals?
Again, I believe that God is looking at a much broader picture than we do. There are people who truly do have a wicked heart. God didn't put us here to cover up those weaknesses, and He doesn't guide us through life in an attempt to help us avoid exposing our faults. I believe one of the purposes of this part of our existence is to help us realize where we fall short and to give us the opportunity to over come those imperfections.
We strive to become better in this life, but this life doesn't end with death. We certainly are not perfect at death, therefore it is only logical to conclude that we must continue in the next phase of existence to further work at improving our character.
For those who were truly wicked during this physical life, there is a place prepared where they can work through their faults; we refer to it as "hell". Just like with a child who is disciplined for the purpose of correcting their behavior, Hell is the ultimate discipline.
Some children can be talked to and they obey. Some children need a little bit of punishment before they change their habits. However, there are others who must endure harsher treatment before they finally realize the error of their ways. Apparently there are some people who need the type of correction that Hell provides. Since God knows what we need to improve, it follows that God allows some people to carry out their evil deeds because it is necessary for them to suffer for these actions as a way of cleansing them of their weaknesses.
It is my conviction that God does love and care about each and every individual who has ever lived. It is my belief that God watches over and guides each person to help them become the best they can be. It is my opinion that God either causes or deliberately allows to happen everything we experience and that every experience we have is ultimately designed to help make us better. Just like a father who deliberately seeks to guide his children in righteous ways as they grow, so also God, our heavenly Father, is our schoolmaster, our teacher, and our trainer.