Zelophehad’s Daughters

God is Watching Us–Can We Stop Him?

Posted by Lynnette

A couple of nights ago, I was working on my laptop when a bug innocently wandered across the keyboard.  I grabbed a tissue and smooshed it.  Then I started thinking about what it meant about my character that I would so glibly snuff out a small life simply because it inconvenienced me.  And then I wondered whether God was aware of the bug’s experience.

This rather random train of thought led me to contemplate the idea that God is continually conscious of all living things, that not a sparrow falls without his attention.  Presumably this divine awareness includes the entirety of my own experience.  And I’m not sure how I feel about that notion.  The idea that God is always watching us can certainly be comforting, both in that someone is always there, and in that we are intimately known.  But it can also be somewhat unnerving to think that–like the Police–every breath we take, every move we make, God is watching us. If an earthly parent set up an elaborate system to monitor their child’s every act and thought, we would probably see it as excessive, and likely detrimental to the child.

One might propose that God needs to be this vigilant so that he can catch every single sin, every single problematic thought, to note on his giant tally sheet.  Or, somewhat more positively, that he can’t fairly judge us or offer effective help without a 100 percent knowledge of every detail of our lives.  But would his ability to understand our character and intent, the desires of our hearts, our situation and our needs, really be seriously compromised if this knowledge dropped to a mere 99 percent?

So here is my question.  What if once in a while we want some privacy, a chance to truly be alone with our thoughts? Would God stop observing us–at the very least, stop monitoring our thinking–if we asked him to?  The idea might sound preposterous.  Yet it is common to assert that God limits his omnipotence out of respect for human agency. Is there any possibility that he might also be persuaded to occasionally limit his omniscience?

21 Responses to “God is Watching Us–Can We Stop Him?”

  1. 1.

    I was wondering about this yesterday when the primary children sang “If the Savior stood beside me” in Sacrament Meeting. The melody and piano are simply beautiful. However, the song has a hint of guilt and shame in it, suggesting that Jesus is watching over us to judge us. And teaching kids that Jesus is there to judge them makes me sad. Seems like they probably already get a lot of judgment and could use an invisible guardian to be a safe person for them to rely on, to help them. I guess I’m saying that a beautiful song like that could have so much more of an uplifting, comforting message. Maybe it just needs more verses. :)

    I can’t answer your question on omniscience. It’s a good one, though, and I look forward to seeing what others think.

  2. 2.

    Good point, Alisa. It does seem that the way we talk about God watching us usually seems to be in the “choose what is right because angels are silent notes taking” model, rather than a sense of watching out of care and concern. “God is watching you” sounds more like a warning than a statement of reassurance. As a kid, it made me a bit crazy to think about God watching everything I did (perhaps because I was such a devilish child), so I tried to not think too much it.

    And as long as I’m playing with this omniscience question, it also occurs to me that prayer might feel like more of an actual conversation if God didn’t already know everything you were thinking, and you could fill him in on some details.

  3. 3.

    Alisa, I can see what you mean about God watching us to judge us. However, as I waste my hours blogging instead of cleaning or spending one-on-one time with my son (who is playing Excitebots in the next room), I find a certain amount of comfort in the idea that I am accountable to God for my actions.

    Maybe it’s not comfort, maybe it’s structure. It’s good to know that God cares what I’m doing, or not doing.

    (Name that movie: “We can talk, or not talk, for hours”)

    As far as God caring about the bugs and the sparrows, I believe He does. Our feminist book group just finished Refuge, and there is a lot about birds in there. It made me think that if Mormons thought more about this aspect of God’s love/omniscience, they might be a little more eco-friendly, or at least not as big of hunters, perhaps?

    Great post, as always.

  4. 4.

    Interesting question, Lynnette! As a stathead, I would hope that God would be satisfied with just a sample of what’s in our heads. (Then perhaps he can say to me at judgment, “You deserve to be damned! (p < .01)”)

    Of course if we ask him to not listen in for a while, then the times we ask for that are probably not going to be chosen at random, so that would thwart his ability to draw good inferences from his samples. So he might want to go for full surveillance after all.

    I agree with you, Alisa, and with you, Lynnette, about getting the feeling that “God is watching you” is used more to indicate that he’s counting how much punishment I deserve rather than because he cares about me. But then, I do tend to have a persecution complex.

  5. 5.

    When you earthly parents watch over your children, is it because you’re wanting to protect them in the public park/make sure they’re sleeping well when they’ve been sick/celebrating that developmental milestone they’ve just reached, or is it because you’re hoping to catch them in wrongdoing? Why would we think God has a different agenda?

    The few times we hear in the scriptures about people wanting to hide from God — Adam and Eve after partaking of the fruit, Jonah running away from his assignment — it seems to be a matter of consciousness of guilt rather than a desire to work things out on one’s own. Do you suppose there have always been people who wanted privacy, or is this a value of the current generation?

  6. 6.

    This is a very interesting post, and is making me rethink how omniscience actually works.
    Is it enough that God is able to know all things, regardless of whether or not he actively does? Is knowing me thoroughly enough to know what I would choose, the same thing as being aware of my actual choice?
    And oddly enough, I don’t see this sort self-limited omniscience interfering with judgement at all. I was under the impression that we’ll sort ourselves out anyways, and I think God would be able to know if we were lying to his face.
    “Oh, yes! (ahem) I’m definitely worthy to enter the Celestial Kingdom. (Shuffles feet)”

  7. 7.

    Thanks for pointing out the flip side of this, Jessawhy. I do think there’s something powerful in the idea that what we do matters to God–it would be disappointing if we got to the next life and God said, well I kind of skimmed over the details of your life, because I didn’t have the time to watch the whole thing (plus your neighbor’s life story was just so much more exciting!)

    Maybe it depends on whether our image is one of a grim experimenter-type God, watching us perform and carefully noting all the results while making disapproving noises, versus one who is kind of affectionately saying, all right Jessawhy, maybe that’s enough time blogging for one day (and by the way, your son has just exploded the Excitebots game). I do like the idea of a God who is around for and interested in all the mundane details, and not just the big events. And like you, I also appreciate the sense that God is involved in all of creation.

    Ziff, I’d hoped you’d appreciate my inclusion of numbers! I agree that the excluded bits wouldn’t be random, so that could pose a problem for making inferences from the rest of the material. On the other hand, it’s not as if we could lie to God about what we were doing while we were in seclusion (which maybe defeats the purpose, if he just reads our mind when we get back? I guess it depends on whether the point of this is getting time alone, or having private information.) Hmm. Maybe this is all just the angst of an introvert–is solitude a possibility in the eternities?

  8. 8.

    .

    I see it more as a consciousness issue. God is conscious of all things at all times. He doesn’t need to be “looking” as he simply knows. And if so, then he can’t not know whether he’s looking or not.

    No idea if that adds or subtracts from the pleasantness factor.

  9. 9.

    Ardis Parshall — that is a good point, I think what is significant (and what makes sense) differs between generations. Reading old philosophers, I’m often struck at how their logic is not at all persuasive if you don’t share significant amounts of background with them, instead it just seems silly.

    Ziff, not a bad point ““You deserve to be damned! (p < .01)”)” — gee, at a confidence level of that sort, with billions of people, you could have quite a community of the wrongly damned. Run the numbers for 40 billion (assuming that there is otherwise a flat distribution, of course, or not, obviously ;) ).

  10. 10.

    Good point, Stephen. I guess I should just be happy that God was taking it as the null hypothesis that I should be saved. :)

  11. 11.

    This may be only indirectly related, but I’ve sometimes thought that one interesting aspect of our theology that could be developed is the positive role of “forgetting”. I blogged on it a while ago in terms of the role of forgetting in self-cultivation (http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2008/08/forgetting-morality/), but I imagine much could be said about the notion of God forgetting. Does it change your perception of being “monitored”, for instance, if we believe that God could forget? Not in the uncontrollable sense, and perhaps even somewhat differently than “remembering our sins no more”, but is it possible to conceive of a God who can forget things, thereby leaving some sort of space to “be alone with our thoughts”?

  12. 12.

    Or it could be that “God knows” is a myth made up by parents and priests and preserved to induce guilt and ‘do things my way’.

    We sure do screw up our children’s minds: “Santa knows if you have been naughty or nice”, “God is watching you”. Hmm, the child thinks Santa must be God. “Oh, BTW child, Santa isn’t real”.

  13. 13.

    Jessawhy (3) Best in Show! I love that movie. :D

    Th. (8) You said exactly what I was going to say.

  14. 14.

    This is why I wear shorts in the shower.

  15. 15.

    Ardis, I’ve wondered about that question–to what extent is the desire for privacy a modern phenomenon? It seems to me that our situation might be unusual in that privacy is not only so heavily valued, but so much of an option. And the very concept, I’m thinking, rests on some kind of a belief in a hidden, inward self. But I don’t know much about this, so I’m just speculating.

    Starfoxy, that’s a really interesting question about having the capability to be omniscient, versus actually putting that into practice. Which is maybe somewhat related to what Th. is saying about simply being conscious of things, versus something more active. This is making me think more about what it means to be aware of something on some level, as opposed to actively paying attention to it, and where we see God’s observation of the universe fitting into that.

    Smallaxe, I hadn’t thought of that angle. I like the post you linked–I’m also quite intrigued by the role of memory and forgetting in faith. And I can see how that might tie into this question–the famous “forget yourself and get to work,” as you said, doesn’t mean literally forget that you exist, but pay attention to something different.

    Stephen and Ziff, thanks for the laugh–that would be great if at the Last Judgment God was saying things like, “you made the terrestrial kingdom! (p < .01)” or “you’re on your way to hell! (p < .00001),” so that we would at least know the probability that his judgment was accurate.

    ed42, all I can say is that I haven’t yet made up my mind about the existence of Santa, or I might be blogging about his omniscience problem (does he really know if I’ve been naughty or nice, and just how is he defining those terms, anyway?)

    Chelsea, you win the “name that movie” prize! I wouldn’t have gotten that one.

    Jacob J, I’m glad to hear that you’re taking this modesty thing seriously, and not letting the devil convince you that there are situations when you can relax your standards.

    Thinking about this more, I’m wondering to what extent this idea is actually all that motivating. I’m remembering that as a kid, I figured that God was watching me carefully take the vegetables off my plate and hide them. But that didn’t worry me too much, just so long as he didn’t rat me out to my parents.

  16. 16.

    I thought about this post yesterday, standing in the parking lot the airport in Gulfport, MS. I was thirty-five miles from home. I had just arrived from Columbus, Ohio, where I was fairly certain I had left my car keys. I said bad words. Several. OK, many.

    I called my father, who said my keys were not where I would have left them. I remembered I had put the keys in my laptop backpack, where they would be out of the way but I’d be certain to remember them. And there they were.

    All I could think was, “Dude, sorry. I hope you didn’t hear that.”

  17. 17.

    Jacob J ~ This is why I wear shorts in the shower.

    It doesn’t help, Jacob. God has a pair of these.

  18. 18.

    Yikes, Ann! I think I would be saying a few words myself if that happened to me. Maybe there’s a kind of 3-second-rule in such situations, in which whatever you say in the three seconds (or perhaps minutes) following a discovery like that, it doesn’t get entered in to the divine tally sheet.

    LOL, Jack. You mean to tell me that God has superpowers? Now I’m really in trouble.

  19. 19.

    A long time ago there was a Hi & Lois cartoon where the little boy–Ditto, I think his name is–asks his dad if it’s true that God is always watching over us, and Hi says, “Yes, I suppose He does.” Then Ditto says, “Why would God want to watch me put on my socks?”

    I think of God watching me like I watch over my kids sometimes–they fall down and start crying and I say, “You’re okay” and go back to what I was doing.

    (Of course, if the Savior stood beside me, I would probably walk over to the kid and inform them they were okay instead of just yelling it from across the room or the playground or whatever.)

  20. 20.

    I agree with Starfoxy about the sorting judgment out for ourselves. I’m reminded of that quote from Joseph about how if we don’t accuse each other, God won’t accuse us, and if we don’t have an accuser, we’ll make it to heaven. If that’s the case, judgment really has nothing to do with the omniscience of God (except for when he needs to explain to the Prodigal’s brother about how that wastrel got into heaven). And, therefore, his watching us is more for reasons of concern and love and not to keep us in line.

    I think this raises another, related question about God’s omniscience. If he already knows everything, then it doesn’t matter if he’s watching us, he knows what we’re going to do. Personally, I don’t buy that, since I think we’re constantly astounding God (by the things we do right and inventive ways we find to sin) and the whole “He knows us so well that he knows precisely what we’ll do even if it hasn’t happened yet” argument doesn’t really make sense to me, either.

  21. 21.

    Regarding your last paragraph, alea, if you haven’t been there already, you might enjoy New Cool Thang. Several of the bloggers there have discussed the issue of the foreknowledge of God at great length, and from your comment, I think you might like where they go with it.

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