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The older I get, the more convinced I am of predestination.

And this belief has little to do with biblical doctrine.

It comes from simple observation of how peoples’ lives play out.

Systems set people up to succeed or fail. Systems make some millionaires and some homeless (actually, lots). Systems create criminals as much as they do saints. They make some powerful and others powerless.

Too much hubbub is given to “personal responsibility.”

Freedom of will is on a continuum, or as Father Greg Boyle is fond of saying, “Not all choices are created equal.” Decision making is never a pure act of one’s freedom and autonomy. We are always tipped. And our field of choices depends on our location.

Address matters. It certainly does with addiction.

Of the 46.3 million Americans aged twelve and older (16.5 % of the population) who meet the DSM-5 criteria for having a substance (including alcohol) use disorder, many were, quite frankly, destined to become substance abusers. They simply lived in the wrong place.

I am not suggesting that God literally pre-programs certain individuals to get hooked on drugs or become alcoholics. But let’s face it, the odds of becoming an addict increase proportionately by being born into certain micro and macro environmental conditions. Certain systems are rigged to produce addicts.

Of course there are exceptions. Many.

“Rags to riches” stories—persons rising above the circumstances of their lives and making something of themselves—are a dime a dozen. Whether a poor person who immigrates to this country and becomes a wealthy entrepreneur or a child who grew up in an abusive home who later goes on to become an accomplished athlete or earn a PhD in physics. These Cinderella stories inspire us and sell lots of books and movies, feeding our egos and perceived sense of power and control.

And who hasn’t known someone personally who squandered the incalculable resources he or she was given to sink to the bottom of the ocean?

BUT these stories—in the bigger picture—are much more the exception than the rule.

Individual choice gets too much credit.

Systems determine.

I am a U.S. citizen (which already puts me in the privileged 5% of people on the planet). I am also white, male, and college educated. I grew up in a middle-class, two-parent home with a supportive, extended family. I was never subjected to violence or alcoholism.

On top of all this, my family was Christian. I was exposed to the love of God in Christ throughout my developmental years.

While my background isn’t without its flaws (whose is?), I was clearly set up for a much better life than most.

This certainly doesn’t mean I am any more special than the orphan in Uganda or the undocumented workers who live near my sister in Southern California.

All it means is that I grew up advantaged. My social, cultural, religious, and economic context made a profound difference in who I have become and what I have done.

We talk about the self-made man or woman. That is easy (and flattering) when you share an address similar to mine.  

I do not bring this up to guilt or shame fellow zip code dwellers like myself. Nor am I writing off cart blanche personal agency and espousing fatalism. All I want to do is bring a level of understanding to the challenging situations of many fellow image-bearers.  

Systems make a difference—a profound difference. We cannot overlook or minimize this reality.

Things are always more complex than we see them. It is not so simple as assigning lack of initiative or responsibility or selfishness or pride to someone whose life derails.

Responsibility—response-ability—is on a continuum. All choices are not created equal.

In the Protestant, moralistic world in which I grew up, the mantra was: “You can do whatever you put your mind to.” That, however, is just not true for the vast majority of people in this world. People generally do what they have been predestined to do.

Take “Anthony” as an example. He’s black. Grew up poor. Didn’t have access to good education or health care. His mother had multiple children from different men. His own father landed in prison while he was still a baby and remains there to this day.

Little spiritual background. Almost no family support.

Is it any wonder that he turned to the streets, got involved in gangs, and became a drug addict?

On the flip side, there’s “Brandon” who experienced what many would consider the All-American Dream. A loving, stable, upper middle class, church-going family. Good school system. Top notch athletics. Opportunities to travel and exposure to different ethnicities.

Brandon never suffered any want.

But as with any setting, there were flaws and cracks in the systems in which Brandon was embedded. Influences over which he had no control began corrupting his mind and heart, and he eventually succumbed to the drug gods.

Systems—micro and macro—set some up and set many others down. Living in the Digital Age has only compounded this matter. Think for a moment of the havoc—the jealousies, insecurities, isolation, confusion, depression, violence, etc.—social media has generated among younger generations in particular. And we wonder why the rise in mental health issues and suicide rates.

We are not islands to ourselves. We are beings that are acted upon—for good and bad—in a multiplicity of ways. Who we are is the result of the conditions in which we exist.  

Recognizing this fact summons humility. We take far too much credit for the successes we enjoy than is warranted.

And it also invites compassion. Who are we to judge anyone? God alone knows a person’s level of culpability.

C.S. Lewis rightly asks, “Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it.”

I am deeply grateful for the undeserved favor that I have received. I am among the very fortunate. I am also conscious of the fact that to whom much is given, much is required.

As one who has been given much, I have a responsibility to do what I can to help work for conditions where the possibility of better outcomes are increased. At the same time, I must recognize my complicity in building and allowing unjust systems which prevent or thwart others from the good life as well as do what I can to dismantle or disrupt those systems.

Our aim at Life Challenge is to create and nourish a community marked by welcome and hospitality, kindness and generosity, forgiveness and nonviolence—making a space of grace—so that different life-stories might be written.

Just as addiction is more likely to arise in certain environments, the same is true of recovery.

May each of us—whatever our beachhead (e.g., the shop, office, school, neighborhood, shopping malls, traffic intersections, sporting events, etc.)—demonstrate something of God’s kingdom so that more people will have real opportunities to flourish.

We can begin this revolution of love at our own address. We must. It is no mistake that you and I have been situated where we are. There has to be a thousand little ways we can give a boost to persons right in front of us right now.

All we have to do is be open to the Spirit. Today. 


  • Tom Rowett says:

    Well Said PJ. I can really relate with you and agree with your veiw I also agree that we must be good Stewart’s 1 Peter 4:10. 10
    May God wake me everyday with that attitude and Grace to carry that truth in all that I do. I need to be reminded of this today and everyday. I miss you and your Wisdom my Friend. You are truly a treasure from God for many of Us Spiritual sojourners.
    Much Love to Family Friends
    And Life Challenge ❤️

  • Christopher Mosley says:

    That’s $$$ RICH !!!

  • Ron Sack says:

    Are you and Dr. Parker playing for the same team? Talk about problems with rhetoric and semantics. It is enough to confuse even the Calvins and Arminians.

    • Hey Ron,

      Your comment helps me see that I may have started the article on a word which may have been unhelpful–“predestination.” I was not intending to argue for (or against) predestination in the theological sense (Calvinism vs. Arminianism). The word was used as a “hook,” but I may not do so next time because of the confusion that I see it created. I simply wanted to convey the idea of how powerful environments–big and small–are in shaping us. As for the “team” I am playing on, I know that you and I are playing on the same team! Blessings, Jeff

  • Carolyn sorenson says:

    This sure answers a lot of questions and puts a lot into perspective. Thanks for such a great, loving, insightful blog.

    • Teresa Bates says:

      Hello Pastor Jeff this is Teresa Wills wife 😇
      I just want to say I truly enjoyed your writing that was wonderful. Well said 🙌🏾May God continue to use you and bless you in HIS kingdom and the ADDRESS that he has placed you in. You are a mighty man of God and I thank God for you being in our life may God continue to bless keep watch over and supply your every need according to his riches in glory may HE bless you and your family continually thank you for your service. 🙏🏾💕

  • Great Message as usual! Keep Praying for all Men& Woman who are struggling with any kind of ADDICTION! Never give up on a person, Please Keep Praying for them ! It’s a Battle with the Mind! Love Life Challenge Ministries! Bless all of there!Miracles Happen there !❤️🙏🙏

  • Dr. Timothy L. Parker says:

    I’m concerned! More than ever – ESPECIALLY with this post, you’re going down a WOKE road. The Gospel of Christ is already in your rear-view mirror at that point, little more than lip-service . A system’s approach to Christ’s Gospel? Are you kidding? For sure, biblical language says there IS a system in the kingdom of darkness and a “system” in the Kingdom of His Dear Son. Colossians 1:13 tells us God TRANSFIGURES us from the kingdom of darkness to put us into the Kingdom of God the Son. That’s new birth – something Jesus said was NECESSARY to escape the system, if you like that term. Election doesn’t damn us; lack of new birth does! Systems don’t damn us; our sin does! Mankind is deep into that first system; new birth is required to escape! Additionally it sounds like you’ve embraced Catholicism and free will – in a realm of predestination apart from Ephesians 1. If God doesn’t predestine us unto Adoption In Christ, do we have any hope in a failed system? This WOKE gospel strikes a death-knell to Christ’s Gospel. I’d love to chat but I’ve seen too often – once someone starts down this path, a new addition was embraced! Please respond. In His Grace, Tim Parker.

    • Hi Tim,

      Thank you for your thoughts.

      Couple of things:
      1. If by WOKE you mean, “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination,” Yes, then I am on that road. May God forgive me for not being on that road sooner.
      2. Your comment, “Systems don’t damn us; our sin does!” Yes. And among the many places sin impacts us and corrupts us is through systems. I believe this is, in part, what Paul meant by the “principalities and powers” mentioned in Eph. 6.

      P.S. I love Jesus! More importantly, he loves you and me!!

  • Dino Cascardo says:


  • Russ Banush says:

    Spot on, as usual with Pastr Jeff.

    We, the privileged, owe something to this world in which we live.

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