Free will. And God’s free will.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 September 2017

A will is the ability to make choices and decisions. Might be limited in what we can choose. Fr’instance when I’m at In-N-Out Burger, I can either order a hamburger or cheeseburger; I can’t order a tuna sandwich. But the fact I have a choice, any choice, even a really small one, means I get to exercise my will. If they give me no choices—i.e. they’re out of cheese—I still have the choice to get a burger, or not.

Yeah, various people are gonna argue a limited free will isn’t truly free. Which reminds me so much of little kids who throw tantrums ’cause they don’t like any of their options. “But I don’t want cherry or pistachio ice cream! I want chocolate. If I can’t have chocolate I’ll have nothing!” And as the patient parent will usually respond, “Well, that’s your choice.” Limited choices are still choices. Even if you’re not given any options whatsoever, you still get to choose how you’re gonna accept that fact: Cheerfully, or bitterly.

Now if you wanna talk someone whose free will is pretty much unlimited, let’s talk God.

God’s almighty. He can do whatever he wishes. Including stuff we’d consider impossible: If he wants to change the direction of time, and move it backward instead of forward, he can do that. (Has done that. Is 38.8) I really don’t have the power to enforce my will, most of the time. It’d be handy if I could manipulate time like that. Whereas God has infinite power to enforce his will: If he wants to do it, he can.

So why’d I say his will is “pretty much” unlimited? ’Cause there are certain things God won’t do. Being almighty, he can. Being God, he won’t.

Like sin. It goes entirely against God’s character, which he’s never gonna violate, so he’s never gonna sin. He’s okay with bending “natural laws” whenever he wishes, but he’s not when it comes to certain moral principles. He’s willing to forgive sin, but not willing to no longer call it sin, and pretend it’s not a problem. He’s willing to change his mind, but not willing to renege on his promises. He’s willing to accept and save anyone, but not willing to force people to love him.

Now there are various Christians who confound being almighty with being God: Their definition of “God” is based on power, not character. Ability, not love. They figure since God has infinite, unlimited power, he has to be able to exert it… and if he can’t, it means whatever’s limiting him, not God himself, becomes almighty. If God will never break a principle, it means the principle is functionally God instead of the LORD.

Kind of a bogus idea. Who decided God would never break certain principles? God did. He put his own limitations upon himself. There are no external forces controlling him; he’s entirely self-controlled. (It’s why self-control is a fruit of the Spirit—these character traits are God’s character traits.) If God’s obligated to do anything, it’s only because he obligated himself to do it. Ain’t no strings on him.

Not that various immature Christians don’t think we’ve found strings we can tug on. Christians regularly claim they discovered one of God’s promises which applies to them, and they’re trying to hold him to it. “Lord, you promised no weapon formed against me shall prosper. Is 54.17 So I hold you to that.” Okay, first of all that statement was made to Jerusalem, not any generic Christian who wants God to magically make ’em bulletproof. Second it’s a statement about Jerusalem’s future: God said he’d rebuild it with precious stones and a God-fearing government, and under these conditions he’s gonna defend it. These conditions haven’t yet been met, which is why the present-day nation of Israel sometimes gets bombed. As for Christians, we’ve been promised persecution, Mt 10.21-22 and God is in no way obligated to fulfill out-of-context prophecies just because we really wish he would.

I’ve noticed the same Christians who doubt we humans have free will, are of two minds about God’s free will. Either they figure God has no free will either—he’s limited himself so much, he can’t move any further than we, which is why there’s so much evil in the world; he’s powerless to prevent it. Or they figure God has unfettered, unlimited free will… and because he could easily stop evil, all the evil in the world must exist ’cause God wants it there. (If not put it there.)

Both ideas are horribly wrong. But then again these folks are wrong about human free will too. So at least they’re consistently wrong.

Free will and sin.

Whenever we theologians talk about free will, we’re in the bad habit of only talking about it in the context of sin: Do we humans have the ability to choose to do good on our own, without any input or aid from God?

Some of us claim human depravity has screwed up the world so bad, we can’t choose to do good. Every choice is corrupted by our own selfishness. We give to charity, not out of goodness, but because we’re self-servingly trying to rack up karma, or because the good deed has an emotional reward. Ultimately, every choice we make is the lesser of two evils. Not most choices: Every choice.

The flaw in that thinking is Jesus. He entered our sin-damaged world and moved around in it quite easily without sinning. He was never wedged into a situation where his options were limited to the lesser of two evils. Pretty sure the devil tried to trap him that way. Certainly people did, but he easily got out of it. Mk 12.13-17 Not just because he’s clever or omniscient: He followed the Holy Spirit, and those of us who follow the Spirit will be led to the way out of every such conundrum. 1Co 10.13 We don’t have to sin.

Screwy thing is, certain fatalistic Christians insist our world is so messed up, even though the Spirit provides us an escape route from sin, sometimes we’re still gonna find ourselves in situations where all our options are evil. Sin’s everywhere, and inevitable.

Rubbish. It’s an excuse for not trying to find God’s way out. Whenever people claim we can’t help but sin—we’re all sinners, we were born that way—I usually respond with, “Are you sinning right now? This very instant?”

“Well… no,” is usually their surprised answer.

“Good,” I respond. “Keep it up.”

When Jesus told people, “Stop sinning,” Jn 5.14 or “Go and sin no more,” Jn 8.11 he wasn’t giving ’em impossible instructions! The only way they’re impossible is if we try to be perfect apart from the Spirit, on our own. That’s the mistake Pelagians fall into: They think humanity isn’t self-centered, that we’re basically good, and the way you bring the good out in us, is to free us to do whatever we wish. Libertarianism’s the ticket. But all libertarianism really does is free us to be our inner a--holes, and claim it’s moral ’cause it’s freedom. The Spirit-led libertarian might behave righteously; the self-led libertarian definitely won’t.

Pelagians are wrong, but let’s not take the other extreme and insist sin has made it impossible to be good. If being good is truly impossible, it’d be deceptive of Jesus to order us to stop sinning.

And even if it is impossible, you might remember God has the power to make the impossible possible. Remember, Jesus got Simon Peter to freakin’ walk on water. Mt 14.28-31 Ordinarily no one can do such a thing. With Jesus, Peter could, and did, briefly. Coulda walked longer if he had the faith.

And that’s how sin-free living works: Without the Holy Spirit, our options are limited to lesser evils. With the Spirit, these limitations vanish. We have sin-free options! Frequently multiple sin-free options.

1 John is pretty instructive: We gotta stay in the light which God is. If we don’t, we can’t help but sin. If we do, we won’t sin. 1Jn 3.5 The hard part is staying in the light: We gotta stick with God. And when we stumble, as we will, we gotta get back up, accept God’s grace and forgiveness, and go right back to following. Be persistent. Refuse to give up. Don’t beat ourselves up for blowing it, ’cause that’s normal. Don’t praise ourselves for successfully following him, ’cause he’s doing the heavy lifting.

Is God the only one with free will?

As I said, to certain people free will is based on ability: If you can make choices, you have free will, and if you can’t, you don’t.

So to their minds, God can infinitely do whatever he pleases, and therefore he has infinite free will. Whereas we humans are stuck with the options set before us, so it’s not so infinite. If I’m picking a shirt to wear, my options are limited to the shirts in my closet. (And maybe the less-than-clean ones in the hamper, if necessary. And I could always go to the store and buy more shirts. Assuming I have money.) In comparison the Creator can conjure up any outfit he likes with a thought. He has unlimited choices. I don’t.

So to these folks, God has plenty of free will. Me, next to none.

But is free will measured by volume? More choices means more freedom?

Well I’m pretty sure advertisers would like you to think so. But it’s not so. More options only means more options. Free will only has to do with the existence of any option.

If I have a billion options but my wife picks my clothes for me, I haven’t exercised my free will. And if my wife won’t let me pick my own clothes, ’cause she doesn’t approve of my taste in clothing, I arguably still have free will: I could wear what she picked out, or stay in my pajamas all day. The choice may vary in size, and vary greatly. Might have huge consequences; might have none. But if I have any choice at all, it’s still free will.

God has way more choices than I do. But in a whole lot of things, he’s granted me the very same free will he has. It’s all part of being created in his image. I can eat the onion bagel or the raisin bagel. (Or both. But nah, not both.) I can wear the black shoes or the brown. I can have a third cup of coffee, or not. I can do this chore first, or that. I can pray for this person first, or the other.

Of course, once I’ve submitted my every choice to God, as every Christian ought, it means he can always veto my decisions if he wants. And if I stupidly ignore his veto, he can always interfere with my free will and stop me. (There’s a very common myth God never would do such a thing. I’ll discuss that elsewhere.) God can also open up extra options—possibilities I never thought of, or knew were available, or never were available till he created them for me.

God created humans to be free people. Free to love God, love one another; free for God to love us back and grant us greater and greater freedom. So enjoy the free will God gave you.