God’s foreknowledge is a mystery. It is a mystery like God Himself, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided. As soon as I think I am wrapping my brain around the threeness of God, I am confronted with the oneness. And when I am confident in God’s oneness, I cannot avoid the threeness.
God’s Foreknowledge means at least two things to me. First, it means that God is outside time and space as we know it. The theological word for that is “transcendence.” Since God is transcendent, God sees the end from the beginning. God already knows what’s going to happen (but for God there is no “already” or “going to,” because God sees the whole history of every person as though it were laid out on a singe page before Him). Words like “already” and “going to” are words of our human experience in time. Time is a great thing; it is a gift from God. Time allows us to grow, to change. God is already complete. God doesn’t change, we do.
Secondly, God is also in time, encouraging us to grow, to grow into His Image. God was in time historically through the Incarnation, but God has been in time from the beginning by the Holy Spirit. This nearness of God in time and space is called “immanence.” In the western theological tradition, immanence and transcendence have been played off each other, as though both were not fully possible at the same time (Oops, time, there’s that word again). But God is both outside and inside time. In God’s dealings with us, in God’s nurturing us to growth in godliness, God is not at all limited in knowledge or resources. God is never taken by surprise; and God is always present in every time, place and situation–no matter how surprising or miserable or pleasing or frightening the situation is to us.
Some in the western tradition have tried to “demystify” this mystery with a version of predestination that reduces the divine-human relationship to mechanical playing out of predetermined movements. This is not the Orthodox faith. The Christian God is much bigger than that. In the Orthodox Christian understanding, there is a genuine synergy between God and man in which God draws, but does not coerce; and in which man acts, but does not control. Human freedom (to use the classical term) is real, yet God’s foreknowledge encompasses even real human freedom.
Learning to trust God, to trust the foreknowledge of God is a lot of what the Christian life is about. In this sense, I am using the word foreknowledge as almost synonymous with providence. There is a technical difference between these two words, but, I think experientially, that doesn’t matter. St. Isaac the Syrian says that “when grace is abundant in a man,” his “mind gives him assurance” that “there is no human being who is not under His providence.” But “when lack of faith is planted in a man’s heart,” then “trust in God is not present in anything he does, nor is God’s providence for man taken into consideration, but such a man is continually waylaid” by unexpected turns of events. The chief repentance of many of us, it seems, is to uproot this lack of faith that has somehow been planted in our hearts. However, really only the Grace of God can do this, and God only grants Grace to those who want it. Thus, in seeing our inner and outer turmoil when things don’t go as we planned, we learn to pray not :”Lord, change the circumstances to fit my plan.” But rather we learn to pray, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, grant me the Grace to trust in you.”
This, I think, is one of the early lessons in faith and prayer–one I’m still working on.
With a little experience trusting the faithfulness of God, we can learn to trust that God is at work in all the varied circumstances of our life and the lives of everyone in the world to draw us and them to Himself, to save us all. We can even learn to trust God in the midst of tragedy. For example, St. John Chrysostom’s last words as he was dying of exposure and exhaustion being driven as a prisoner into exile were, “Glory to God for all things.” Even his suffering he understood to be part of God’s loving providence to save not only him but also the whole world, making up in his own flesh what is lacking in the suffering of Christ (c.f. Colossians 1: 24). St. Isaac puts it this way: “Therefore, beloved, have in your mind God’s providence…as some excellent medicine….”
Very few of us have made it to St. John’s level of sanctity, yet. But this is why we must learn to trust God in the small things now. We must acquire the Grace of God (or acquire the Holy Spirit, as St. Seraphim of Sarov put it) while we can. This, I think, is the whole point of Christ’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins. We need to learn to gather the oil when we don’t need it, so that when we need it, it is there. Or to put it another way, seeking the Grace of God in circumstances that merely annoy or distress us shows God that we really want His Grace, we really want Him. Then when overwhelming circumstances overtake us (as they eventually do everyone), God’s Grace will be supplied sufficiently for us because we want it. That is, we want Grace, we want God, not just a change in circumstance.