Free Will?

Free Will?

One spiritual dichotomy that I have been stewing on lately is the idea of free will and how it (if it exists) coexists with God’s sovereignty.  The other day I saw something that I think may shed some light on the subject.  A child was sitting in one of those grocery carts that looks like a car, with a little steering wheel.  His mom was pushing the cart through the parking lot erratically, both mother and child were laughing and shrieking, obviously having a wonderful time.  I noticed that when the boy turned the wheel left, the mom moved the cart left, and when the boy turned the wheel right, the mom moved the cart right.

Now, for the question… Who was sovereign in that situation, the mother or the son?

What if the mother wanted to teach her son about what it is like to really steer?  She would likely do this by allowing him to run into things, to show him what happens when there is no rhyme or reason to the turning of the wheel.  Suppose the son wanted to steer the cart directly into the nearby highway?  Would the mom allow that?  Not likely.

I wonder if this scenario is applicable to our understanding of the seemingly free choices we make and God’s ultimate control of the universe.  R.C. Sproul said something that stuck with me, regarding God’s sovereignty.  He said that if there is one renegade molecule in the universe, then God is not God.  Why?  Because there would exist something, in this case the renegade molecule, which took Him by surprise, which operated according to a plan other than God’s plan.

Sometimes we see that terrible things happen, and we wonder how or why God would allow it, we wonder why God keeps pushing the cart even though He knows we are steering ourselves into the highway.  All He has to do is stop pushing the cart.  But then, we must also consider that we see the entire situation from one perspective, that is, our own.  What about seeing it from God’s perspective?  Since God can (and will) make all things new, since God has promised to bring resolution to the tension caused by horrors such as violence, starvation, death, etc, isn’t the human existence as we now know it just a lesson in the divinely ordained do-over?  A mother would not keep pushing the cart into the highway for one reason – she does not have the power to put an end to pain or to give life.  The consequences of the situation are beyond her control.  But this is not the case with God.  God is able to redo or undo or just plain do, well, anything He wants.

I remember telling my son, Seth, that when he was taller then me, I would let him go places and do things on his own.  He used to stand next to me every few weeks to see if he was tall enough yet.  In the meantime, I saw that he was getting smarter about the dangers in the world.  When he was still an inch short of venturing around the neighborhood on his own, I said, “If there were nothing in the world that could hurt you, no accidents, no getting lost, no strangers with bad intentions, no poisonous snakes or dehydration or any other life threatening thing, I would let you go as far as you want to go and do whatever you want to do.”  Then Seth took it a step further and asked me, “If you had the power to find me no matter how far I went, bring me back to life if I died, or rescue me from getting trapped for a long time in a bad situation, would you let me go off on my own right now?”  I told him I would.

Perhaps these illustrations are inaccurate or inadequate.  Free will and God’s sovereignty is a spiritual dichotomy with which philosophers and theologians have been wresting for ages.  I don’t expect that I will be the one to come up with an explanation, but it doesn’t hurt to try.  Just yesterday I experienced a spiritual breakthrough which I am not willing to share (yet), something I had been wrestling with for my entire life.  If God can teach me about Himself in one seemingly unsolvable puzzle, why would He not be able to teach me about the relation between free will and His sovereignty?  One thing I know for sure – to settle in “it’s a mystery” or “we may never understand” mentality for longer than a season is the equivalent of spiritual stagnancy.  There is such a thing as being at peace with God even though we don’t understand, but the fact that an unanswered question remains, is, to me, an invitation to a choice.  We can choose to dive into the scary-grand adventure of discovering God and be changed, or we can remain comfortably dormant, without progress, without development.  Is that choice evidence of free will?  I don’t know.  But to be perpetually content with “I don’t know” is tantamount to Copernicus ignoring the wandering stars and settling for “we may never understand” instead.

  • Mary Vanderplas July 5, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    I see it differently. God made us truly free – and not just apparently free – even though he knew that we would misuse our freedom. In your analogy, the child would be pushing and steering the cart, with the mother giving verbal guidance, perhaps even placing her hands on the cart from time to time, but stopping short of determining its movement. Yes, there is the risk that the child will “steer the cart into the nearby highway.” God does not violate our freedom, even when we misuse it to our peril. (I wonder, though, as I’ve said before, whether in the end the will of those who are set against God might be turned by some divine act of compelling.) Such is the risk God was willing to take in creating us truly free. When failure or tragedy happens, it isn’t God who caused it by refusing to “stop pushing the cart.” Since God isn’t the one pushing the cart, God cannot be implicated. Even so, we may wonder why a good and powerful God does not intervene – why he does not protect the child and the cart from harm and why he doesn’t stop or at least limit the effects of our errant cart-pushing.

    At the same time, nothing, not even our free choices, our sometimes erratic and irresponsible cart-pushing, can frustrate God’s plan. Though we have the freedom to drive the cart as we will, in some sense there are limits to how far we can go off the path. (God has evil on a leash, though this is hard for us to imagine.) And even when we fail or when tragedy strikes – when the cart careens off the path and into the highway – God’s plan is not thereby thwarted. As you point out, God in his sovereign power is able to bring good out of evil; he is able to use evil to accomplish his good ends. If we doubt the truth of this, which we are inclined to do since often we cannot see how good can come from the evil we experience and commit, we need only to look at the Cross and Resurrection, the supreme display of God’s power to transform evil to good. (I like your point about humanity – and all creation – awaiting a “divinely-ordained do-over.”)

    In defense of your quest to understand the paradox of free will and divine sovereignty, you say: “…to settle in ‘it’s a mystery’ or ‘we may never understand’ mentality for longer than a season is the equivalent of spiritual stagnancy” – implying that confessing mystery and paradox is a cop-out, a capitulation to mental laziness (and even to a forsaking of the life of the mind). Baloney. Confessing that something in the spiritual realm is a mystery does not, as those who embrace the philosophy of scientism or materialism would like to have the world believe, stifle thought and the quest for knowledge. To acknowledge mystery is simply (and profoundly) to confess the transcendence and the hiddenness even in his self-revelation of the God we worship, serve, and seek to know deeply. You ask, “If God can teach me about Himself in one seemingly unsolvable puzzle, why would He not be able to teach me about the relation between free will and sovereignty?” In my view, this is the wrong question. The issue isn’t whether God can teach us about the paradox of free will and divine sovereignty, but whether, given human finitude, we would be able to understand it even if God did. Or would it be on a par with trying to teach quantum theory to a cat? There is freedom in submitting to this One whose mystery we cannot penetrate, a freedom that cannot be had by (ignorantly) demanding that God make himself manifest in ways that satisfy our intellectual requirements. What it comes down to, in my view, is not, as you suggest, a choice between seeking spiritual growth or settling for spiritual dormancy, but a choice between recognizing our rightful place or having to be God.

    • admin July 6, 2011 at 4:27 pm

      God continues to give breath to serial killers. This is my idea of His pushing the cart. The world and all its evil continues spinning. Nothing has being without Him giving it being or sustaining its being. This means God can be implicated. But implicated is most often used to imply criminal or immoral behavior. In this case, God is implicated, but not in the sense we usually use the word. If God isn’t pushing the cart, who is?

      Regarding the “baloney” – perhaps when I hear someone say something is a mystery, I ought to ask whether this is a statement which ends with a period or an ellipsis. Is it a mystery which we cannot penetrate; therefore why bother trying? I’ll be the first to admit that we will never fully comprehend God. I just think that we should never stop trying to. At what point can a person say, I’ve learned all that I am supposed to learn about God? At what point should a person decide, I cannot understand a certain concept, therefore I will never understand the said concept? How can such a person be sure that one of those written off mysteries does not carry with it the mind-boggling potential described by Paul, “to know the love of Christ as well which transcends knowledge – that you may be completed for the entire complement of God. Now to Him Who is able to do superexcessively above all that we are requesting or apprehending, according to the power that is operating in us.” To KNOW what TRANSCENDS KNOWLEDGE…

      • Mary Vanderplas July 6, 2011 at 8:15 pm

        Your blog is purportedly about divine sovereignty as related to human freedom. Thus, the question is not whether God continues to give breath to serial killers, but whether God’s sovereignty means that God controls the knife. If, as I believe, God has made us truly free, and not just apparently free, then he cannot be said to cause the evil deeds of serial killers or of anyone else. The human agents are responsible for their actions. Still, God is sovereign, actively ruling the universe, which means, among other things, that even evil – though not in any way caused or willed by God – is used by him to bring about his good purposes (the doctrine of divine providence). God can only by implicated if he is the source of the bad things that happen – which he is not.

        It is one thing to apply oneself to gaining a deeper knowledge of God (knowledge defined relationally and not just conceptually), to “ponder the imponderables” for the purpose of growing in faith and understanding. It is another thing to expect or even demand that God make himself known to us in ways that our minds will be able to grasp (if this were even possible). To confess the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God and his ways is in one sense to give up the need to understand – which is what happened to Job after his encounter with God. It is to stop trying to figure out what hasn’t been given us to know and to rest content with what God has allowed us to know. This stance doesn’t foreclose thinking, but it does foreclose grasping after that which can be known, if at all, only in experience and not in abstract speculation. There is knowing, and then there is knowing. The knowing of which Paul writes, a knowing that “transcends knowledge,” is precisely the understanding that comes only through a personal relationship with the One who is known. In the words of Pascal, “The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.”

    • Mary Vanderplas July 6, 2011 at 8:18 pm

      Correction: “Confessing that something in the spiritual realm is a mystery does not, contrary to what those who embrace the philosophy of scientism or materialism would like to have the world believe, stifle thought and the quest for knowledge.”

    • Douglas July 12, 2011 at 7:22 pm

      @Mary, I am in complete support of your explanation, and the final question! Recognizing our rightful place, accepting our adoption and the inheritance that comes with that acceptance, is our choice! God does not force us to accept either our adoption via the crucifix or the inheritance that we give up by choosing to ignore such adoption! Thank you for posting such a well thought of response!

  • Wim Janse July 7, 2011 at 6:07 am

    1. I don’t think at all that God created us with a free will. If He did and it would be so important, why didn’t He say so in the Bible? We may have free CHOICE, but that is only choice out of offered possibilities. If we had free will we would be able to create another possibility, and we can’t.
    2. We are most certainly not free. Unbelievers are slaves of sin (Romans 6:6) and believers are free neither. Believers are bought with a price and now slaves of Christ (Paul in Romans 1:1; Gal. 1:10; – the Greek word here is “doulos”, slave – not “servant” as in the KJAV and other translations).
    3. Why does God allow all this horror? I think it is because when humanity arrives before the Great White Throne it will not be able say that He hadn’t given them the time and space and means to exploit all possibilities to rid humanity from sin and mortality. “You tried and failed, now let Me do my thing!” ALL things are out of God, even salvation.

    • admin July 7, 2011 at 8:00 am

      Number three especially resonates with me.

    • Mary Vanderplas July 7, 2011 at 9:32 pm

      Yes, we are by nature slaves to sin and unable to free ourselves to love God and others. But this does not mean that we are less than free and responsible agents. No one compels me to sin. God’s sovereignty does not mean that he determines our actions or that he is responsible for the evil that we commit.

  • *about this blog « February 14, 2013 at 10:16 am

    […] Have you ever been to church or had a conversation with a religious person in which you asked honest, difficult questions, only to find yourself dissatisfied or disillusioned with the answers they provided?  Does it really get your ire that you  are expected to passively accept the standard answers?  Perhaps you question the existence of God, what it really means to be a “Christian”, inconsistencies in scripture, the moral track record of religious institutions, the fear and terror related emotions induced by eternal torment and wrath-of-God doctrines, how religion’s insistence on tribal and mythological thinking has stumped human progress in science and learning, etc.  You want to know how and why it is that a good God seems to have approved of slavery, the degradation of women, genocide, torture, the ill-treatment of homosexuals or people who are otherwise labeled “outcast”, etc.  If this is true of you, you are in good company – there are thousands of people all around with world who haven’t entirely given up on their own spirituality but are sick to death of the hypocrisy and hate which seems to inevitably accompany spiritual discussion.  This blog is concerned with Who God is and what God does, without all the showy pretenses and quid pro quos imposed by the corrupt spiritual police of this world.  The content of includes regular criticism and analysis of church history; contrast/comparison of ideas in theology, popular opinion, science, and philosophy; reviews and even picking apart, when necessary, apologetic books, blogs, and other media; as well as creative musings about current events, entertainment, and my personal experiences. […]

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