This week, during a family devotion, we discussed the story of the man born blind in John 9. The disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus says in verse 3, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” We discussed that God made this man blind from birth for the sole purpose that he would encounter Jesus and be healed which would then bring glory to God. What a remarkable window into the mind and purposes of God.
My oldest daughter, Laynie, thinking about all of this, asked the question, “Does God control our every thought? If a thought comes into our mind is it because God put it there or is it because we created it?” What a great question! A serious question like this demands a serious answer. So, below is my attempt to bring together some Scriptures that may provide an answer. This is not an exhaustive list. However, I believe these verses paint a clear picture of the relationship between God, our thoughts, and our freedom.
Genesis 6:5, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” People are responsible for the thoughts of their hearts. God sees our thoughts and judges them as our own thoughts.
Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph’s brothers acted independently (you meant…) but God meant their evil for good. This is not making lemonade out of lemons, this is God’s divine will at work. What they intended for their evil purposes was actually intended by God for his good purposes.
Exodus 4:21, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” God actively controls Pharaoh’s thoughts so that Pharaoh doesn’t let Israel go.
Exodus 8:15, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” Even though it says pharaoh hardened his heart, it only happens “as the LORD had said.” In other words, Pharaoh is going as God has determined. Prophetic Word dictates how Pharaoh thinks and acts.
Romans 9:16-21, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” God has every right to do whatever he wants with our lives.
Ezra 6:22, “And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.” Ezra 7:27, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem,” God puts the thought and desire into the heart of the king to do what he wants him to do. The implication is that unless God had done this, the king would not have allowed it. Therefore God controlled his mind and changed history.
Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” The promise of the new birth of the New Covenant is a radical and fundamental transformation of the heart. God takes away old ways of thinking and desiring and gives us new ones. God puts to death the old thinking, old desires, and old will and gives us a new heart and a new spirit. He does not ask for permission to do this – it is a miraculous and supernatural intervention. He puts to death and he makes alive.
Revelation 17:17, “For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” Like Ezra 6:22 & 7:27, God puts into their hearts to do something until the words of God are fulfilled. The prophetic word of God dictates what people do, not their independent will. The declared Word of God stands over the will of man.
Jeremiah 10:23, “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” The way of man = the acts of a person. Man does not derive this way from within. This means that even as we exercise our will, the origin of that will is not from within ourselves but actually from God. People act as God permits.
Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth.” Believers are called to exercise their minds/will to think about the things of God, not the things of the world. So, God calls us to intentionally exercise our will/thoughts. This means that we have the ability to control our thoughts and are expected to do so.
Matthew 12:36, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” This verse places responsibility on people and the words they choose to speak.
So, there are verses that teach that God controls the thoughts of man. This is not an exception but the rule. However, Scripture also teaches that we are responsible for our thoughts as our own thoughts. How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory verses?
In God’s economy, he rules and determines the destiny of every single molecule in creation. There is no situation in which anything or anyone in creation could act or think or speak apart from what he has permitted or ordained. Therefore, even our thoughts, which God knows them all (Psalm 137:4), pass through the filter of his will and are ordained and permitted. This is how Satan is permitted to act in evil ways, yet still be under God and even serve God’s ultimate purposes (Revelation 13:7). This is how the greatest evil ever committed (the cross) accomplished the greatest good ever accomplished.
This begs the question, are there acts that we theoretically could commit that God does not allow us to commit? Are there thoughts that we theoretically could think that God does not allow us to think? We know that God “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.” Which means that there are temptations that could come upon us that would certainly destroy us, but God is faithful and would not allow it to happen (1 Corinthians 10:13). Therefore, we are not ultimately free and autonomous. Even in our sinful rebellion, God is constraining our sinful will for our good! See what Jesus said to Peter in Luke 22:31-32; ensuring him that he would not allow his faith to fail even as Satan tempted him.
So, yes, God has ordained all our thoughts. He has permitted every thought. In this way, all our thoughts are determined by him. There is no such thing as a rogue thought to God – every thought has has ever been or will ever be has passed through his filter and been permitted according to his perfect will. At the same time, these thoughts are still our thoughts, whether good or bad, and we will be responsible for them. Scripture seems clear on both points.
Acts 17:26-27 combines these two realities in one glorious thought: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,”