Our family recently went to see The Adjustment Bureau and thoroughly enjoyed it. Matt Damon leads in a fast-moving story about an aspiring politician who falls in love with a girl he was “not supposed to meet.”
The plan for his life is set by “the chairman” who, while never seen in the movie, operates from the top floor of a tall building. He is remote, invisible, and inaccessible. All of us, we are told, have met him, though we know him by different names.
The chairman has agents whose work is to make sure that people’s lives follow the chairman’s template, and if they get off course, to make an adjustment. That’s what happens to Damon after encountering a girl he was not supposed to meet. The agents make an adjustment to ensure that he does not meet her again, and Damon has to pit the power of his choices against the chairman’s plan.
I enjoyed the movie, not least because it provoked some great discussion, especially about free will and the sovereignty of God. But here is where The Adjustment Bureau needs to be . . . adjusted.
1. The chairman’s agents in The Adjustment Bureau are dark and shady characters.
One of them has redeeming features, but the overall picture is clear: the sovereign is sinister. The almighty has a plan, but your plan is better.
But what if the Sovereign is good? What if his plan for my life is better than any plan I could ever conceive? What if, knowing all things, the Sovereign protects me from choices with consequences and outcomes I cannot imagine or foresee? Far from rising up to resist his plan, my best interest would be to pursue it and submit to it in faith.
Those who have discovered that the Sovereign is good know that true wisdom lies in turning away from the impulsive arrogance that says, “I know what is best and I will pursue what I want at any cost,” and embracing the humility that says, “God knows what is best, and I will follow what he wants at any cost.”
2. The Adjustment Bureau raises good questions about free will. If God is sovereign, what kind of choices do we have?
The Bible never uses the phrase “free will,” but God calls on us to make choices and holds us accountable for them. So what kind of freedom do we have?
a. We make real choices, and we make them freely.
God created people, not puppets. The choices we make are real, and they shape the course of our lives. “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15).
b. We are responsible for the choices that we make.
Adam tried blaming Eve for his sin, and Eve tried blaming the Devil. But God holds us responsible for our choices, and we cannot shift the blame (Gen. 3:12, 13; James 1:13-14).
c. We choose according to the prevailing desires of our hearts.
Your heart governs your choices, so the freedom you have is freedom to follow the deepest desires of your heart. Writing in his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof states it well: “There is a certain liberty that is the inalienable possession of the free agent, namely, the liberty to choose as he pleases, in full accord with the prevailing dispositions and tendencies of his soul.”
The power governing our choices is not external (as if God were forcing you into something you would not choose) but internal. We choose according to the prevailing inclinations of our own hearts.
To put it more simply: you have the freedom to do what you most want to do. And therein lies the problem. I cannot be anything I want to be. I cannot do anything I want to do. My choices are governed by my heart, and my heart is the heart of a sinner, unless and until it is changed by the intervention of God.
“Free will” is a slippery term, and that is why I prefer not to use it. If you take it to mean that we make real choices for which we are responsible, there is no doubt that this is a gift we have been given. But if it means (as is usually the case) that we have the ability to pursue any path by the power of our choosing, then the Bible would surely correct us and remind us that sin puts this beyond our power. “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Only when the Son of God sets us free are we “free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).
3. The Adjustment Bureau presents a world in which a sinister power above us moves our lives along a certain path, and true happiness is found in freeing ourselves from this power by exercising the power of our own will. Freedom from the power above is found by the application of the power within.
But what if it’s entirely the other way round? Suppose the dark, sinister power is not above us but within us. What if that dark power has attached itself to you and become part of who you are? What if it has infiltrated your choices so that they are no longer as free as you would like to think, but are weighted and biased against your own best interest? What if the enemy is not above but within?
If that were true, everything would be reversed. Instead of finding freedom from the power above by exercising the power within, your hope would lie in finding freedom from the power within by the intervention of the power above. And that gets to the heart of the gospel.
The problem we face does not lie in God but in us. Our battle is not against a sinister sovereign but against the dark power of sin that lies in our own nature, affecting our thinking, feeling, remembering, imagining, and choosing.
The Adjustment Bureau suggests that you need to make choices that will deliver you from a dark and sinister God. But the real story is about how you need the sovereign God to deliver you from the dark and sinister power that inhabits your choices. The film suggests that your will is supremely good and that God cannot be trusted. But the real story is that God is supremely good and that you dare not trust your own will. The Adjustment Bureau suggests that the best plan for your life is the one that originates with you. The real story is that pleasures beyond anything you can imagine are at God’s right hand, and he is able to deliver you from the self indulgent choices that would keep you from them.
The Adjustment Bureau is a good film worth seeing, but it puts God in the place of man and man in the place of God. Its message needs not so much an adjustment as an inversion.