Why Our Circumstances Don’t Negate Free Will

imagesIn my last post, I considered the question of whether God should have made us less susceptible to temptation. I concluded that the temptation to sin is a necessary corollary of the existence of free will. God could have made us pets or automatons, incapable of independent moral judgment. Instead, he had something much greater in store for us. Having chosen to give us free will, he also accepted the consequence – that some, perhaps most, would choose to reject him.

 This conclusion is a stumbling block to many, believers and skeptics alike. They seem to think that God was “unfair” in creating us the way he did; that he somehow “stacked the deck” against us with our fallen human nature. As one skeptic framed it:

“I’m a product of the way I was raised. So are you and so is the rest of humanity. You can try all you want, but you can’t break free of the past, because it influences everything about the way you see the world and think. How can a good or fair God judge us when he placed us in the circumstances that caused us to go bad in the first place?”

This skeptic speaks for many with this question. We all know, either personally or through the media, stories of people who didn’t have the breaks that others did, who perhaps grew up surrounded by criminality or poverty. Is it any wonder that they turned out bad?

There is a problem in this line of thinking. Though it seems to accept that free will exists, it attributes the choices made to forces beyond our control. The unspoken premise is that our “free will” isn’t free at all. It presents a convenient excuse: it’s not “me” that’s rebelling, it my “upbringing” or my nature that are really at fault. It’s not that I’m “choosing” the way I act; it’s that I, somehow, can’t help myself. The problem with this approach is that it confuses capabilities with human will. Capabilities consist of attributes or characteristics I happen to possess that others may possess in a greater or lesser degree. No matter how hard I train, I can’t run a 6 minute mile. Start moving that number downward and eventually you will reach a time for the mile that no human being could run. The capability is simply not there. There are countless other examples. I can’t read another person’s mind, nor can I levitate no matter how hard I concentrate. Other things I can do, such as playing golf or tennis, but not as well as other people. Expecting me to excel at such things would be unfair; I would be lost before I began.

Free will, on the other hand, is not a “capability” in that sense. It’s not as if God didn’t give me “enough” free will to be able to choose or reject him; it’s not that I can train to increase the capacity to make moral choices. Yes, through practice and discipline, I can strengthen the exercise of will, and through sloth or drug use, I can lessen it. But the freedom of will precedes the choices that lead me down those paths, and the will remains however much I direct it to destructive pursuits which eventually overtake me. No, God is not expecting me to use more “free will” than he gave me in the first place; there is only one kind of free will, and that is the capacity for moral action. Animals do not possess it; they operate on instincts. Nor do computers or robots, however much artificial intelligence is programmed into them.

The skeptic is attempting to shift the blame for our rebellion to God, since he “made me” this way. But God does not force us to sin, and giving us the capacity to do so is not unfair. This is so because God does not expect us to impress him with feats of strength or intellect; indeed we cannot impress him at all. He will do all the work necessary to restore us to right relationship with him; we need only assent on his terms. To do so, we first must realize that we a broken in a way that we cannot fix. No one is punished for failing to do enough to merit salvation. No, what occurs to those who are lost is that God eventually gives them the consequence of their free will choice to reject him, which is separation from him. He acts with grace sufficient to overcome our rebellion- but he does not force us to give in to him.

To put it simply: God created the solution to our problem and he stands ready to implement it. He doesn’t expect us to “do” anything to earn it. So there is no unfairness in our present condition, only opportunity… and risk. Our freedom to choose is a gift he has given us, and the thing we are using when we stubbornly refuse to accept him.

Posted by Al Serrato

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