Free Will and God: Am I Free?

The past two post I’ve talked about freedom: Finding Freedom Through Unbound and Freedom From Perfectionism. Yet neither blog post makes sense if we are not free agents. So I decided to ask myself, how do I know I have free will?

Well the easiest answer is that the Church teaches it to be so

God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. (CCC 1730)

But that wouldn’t be any fun and a very short blog post. So today, I am tackling the question of how we have free will.

The Topic of Free Will

Buckle up, dear readers, we are in for a bumpy ride. This topic is so challenging and yet fascinating to me. It intersects with a wide variety of fields of study. You have theological questions: If God is all-knowing, doesn’t God predetermine our choices? Philosophy questions exist: what is the nature of this kind of control: does free will exist at all. Lastly, you have ethical questions: is it possible to be held accountable if there is no free will?

To keep it short, I will focus on the theological question.

Theology and Free Will

Theology assumes the existence of a free will. The Bible states,

It was he who created humankind in the beginning,

and he left them in the power of their own free choice.

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,

and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.

He has placed before you fire and water;

stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.

Before each person are life and death,

and whichever one chooses will be given. (Sirach 15:14–17 (NRSV))

So if free will exists, how is that compatible with God’s omniscient? Two major thinkers addressed this question: St Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine is often misunderstood. His teachings are often exaggerated to support ridge predeterminism. Yet the reality is that St. Augustine believed in free will. According to St. Augustine, God has an infinite store of motives. God also has the foreknowledge of motives to which the will of each human will consent.

I know it is confusing, but maybe an example will help.

Imagine you are standing in line at a hamburger and hot dog stand. The stand is cash only. Hamburgers are $5 and Hot Dogs are $1. You see that the person in front of you has only $2 in cash. Thus you know that the person in front of you will be buying hot dogs. God’s foreknowledge is similar to knowing how much cash the person has in front of you.

St Augustine’s teachings would be the beginning of the Church’s theology regarding free will.

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas built on the foundation of St. Augustine. In some ways, St Thomas Aquinas may have complicated the relationship between free will and God.

In order to understand free will, we must first understand the nature of the will. Aquinas borrowed from Aristotle’s understanding of the nature of man. Both Aristotle and Aquinas think that man has rationality. This rationality contains the will.

So What is the Will and Is it Free?

Aquinas divides rationality into two parts: the intellect and the will. The former has three functions: Understanding, judgment, and argument. The will has two parts: free will and motive.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all humanity is motivated by the good. In other words, no one intentionally does evil. All actions are done for the good of the person. Humanity is still open to choose from a multitude of good things.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, man has free will as a rational agent. Yet this will is moved towards the good by God.

Wait, what, how can God move our will and still be free?

How God Fits In?

St. Aquinas a much smarter man than me anticipated this question and responded to it.

it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.(ST. I. Q83 A1 ad 3)

What on earth is St. Aquinas saying?

Basically, he is saying that God caused the world to act the way it does. Yet God is the originator of everything does not take away our freedom. God created us to desire the good. Yet we are still free in our choices of the good.

Example from my own life. I can choose to read or I can choose to watch Netflix. According to Aquinas, I am going to use my intellect to choose the one that will lead to my ultimate happiness. My free will must choose the one my intellect deems appropriate.

Does the fact that my will is influenced by an outside force make me less free?

Final Thoughts

When I started researching and writing for this blog post, I thought for sure that free will entailed both being free from external forces and free from deterministic inner motives. Yet the more I read about St.Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine the more I’m persuaded otherwise. Obviously, in today’s society, we take the free will for granted. We assume blindly that free will exists. Yet the implications of such a statement greatly influences both theology and secular ethics. I believe that as long as I am free to make choices, the presence of inside or outside influences do not affect me.

For more on St. Thomas Aquinas and free will, watch Thomas Aquinas on Free Will

Title Recovering from perfectionism written above crucifix

Recovering From Perfectionism

I have a confession. I am recovering from perfectionism.

On the surface, perfectionism doesn’t seem like a bad thing. After all, what is wrong with wanting the best. According to Robert McGee in Search For Significance perfectionism can lead to compulsion or withdraw. Lately, I have seen this vicious cycle in my own life.

For those who don’t know, I have been looking for a job for the past couple of months. I tend to go after jobs with a lot of energy. Submitting resumes and writing cover letters with gusto, until I get rejected. Then I fall into despair, feeling angry, frustrated, and like a failure.

Rinse, recycle, repeat. If only there was some truth that could set me free from this vicious cycle.

To all the perfectionist out there, I bring you the good news.

Jesus bought you through his sacrifice on the cross.

The basic gospel message: Jesus paid the debt that we could not pay to free us from sin. So your performance doesn’t matter. Jesus has done it all. Just believe in Jesus and he will look on you as righteous.

It sounds good until you start asking questions.

Who did Jesus pay? If it’s God, well then God doesn’t sound very loving. What kind of loving father would condemn his only son to a painful death to satisfy some sick sense of justice? If it’s the devil then that’s even more problematic. Jesus aka God shouldn’t owe the devil anything. Maybe it is the debt of sin itself? Yet if that was the case, why not just cancel everyone’s sins? You don’t need the theatrics or the sacrifice.

Also, why would God be merely content to call us righteous rather than making us righteous? After all, didn’t what God spoke in creation come to pass? For example, didn’t God say let there be light and there was light? So when God calls me righteous, wouldn’t I become internally righteous?

We must have a proper understanding of justification and atonement, otherwise, we fall into either despair or perfectionism.

Justification: the Truth that Combats Perfectionism

Robert S. McGee states that to eradicate the fear of failure, we must accept that Christ died for our sins. We must accept that Christ takes our sins and covers us with His righteousness. Since Christ has done it all, there’s nothing I can do. It all just seems too easy. Thus, justification is the forgiveness of sins and the declaration of righteousness.

Is it just me or does it feel like something is missing? Under this framework, there is no room for becoming a new creation. Yet St. Paul clearly says,

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17

God does justify us as a free gift in response to faith. This justification accomplishes two things. First, it forgives our sins, and second, it makes us a new creation. God is not content to declare us righteous rather he wants to make us righteous.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2

Since Paul says we can hope in sharing the glory of God, we know that we do not yet possess the glory of God. Likewise, we know that God prepares us to do good works (Ephesians 2:10) and we know that God will complete his work in us (Philippians 1:6).

Hence justification is not a one-time declaration, but rather it is a lifetime of growing in righteousness.

Atonement: An Act of Love

God is not angry at us. God did not punish his son, Jesus, to appease his wrath. Rather, Jesus came to restore our relationship with the father. Jesus took on flesh to elevate our own human nature. Jesus freely chooses to become satisfaction for our sin. Thus he lovingly frees us.

When I look at the crucifix, I do not feel shame nor condemnation. Rather I feel joy and overwhelmed by the father’s gift of love. His body is broken for us, not for us to remain sinners, but to become like God through self-giving and mercy.

I do not become like God through merely assenting to what Christ has done. Rather, I become like God by relying on God’s supernatural grace that God freely gives me through prayer, sacraments, and works of love.

Goodbye Perfectionism

When I first became Catholic, I was worried about scrupulosity. I worried that I would feel this pressure to do good works in order to earn my salvation. Yet a funny thing happened. I became less ridged. The church’s expectations are clear. if I follow them I will receive supernatural grace. I do not earn the grace due to my effort, but Christ promised to aid his bride, the church.

I ask the Christ will aid me knowing that the work he began in me at baptism, he will finish in me until I am the spotless bride of Christ.

Finding Freedom Through Unbound

I am weak! I need freedom from my weakness. This is how I used to think. Now I am attempting to embrace my weakness.

No, I am not throwing myself a pity party, nor am I being self-deprecating. Rather I am attempting to exercise my freedom. Confused? Let me explain.

Society states that what is important is success, wealth, and happiness. Al these things we should strive to grasps or possess. But what if you don’t have those things? Are you helpless? Are you unlovable or discontent?

These are the thoughts I wrestle with and it is easy for me to fall into despair. Yet the good news of Jesus Christ frees us from these thoughts and attitudes. It tells me that it is okay to be weak. The God, who loved me, created me with all my imperfections, doubts and fears. Freedom comes when we receive the good news.

How I viewed Freedom

Often it’s easy to view freedom as walking away from something rather than walking towards someone. I heard the following example:

Imagine you are a slave. You are being bided on when out of the corner of your eye you see a man. He pays the highest price for you. You cautiously go up to the man worried about your fate. Then you hear the words, “I freed you.” The man tells you to go live your life, but don’t fall into slavery.

I know that in my own life that is how I viewed God. To me, God is like the man, who paid the highest price. I thought I was right with God if I did not fall into sin. Yet my thought process is slowly changing.

“ Freedom is not just the absence of slavery to sin, but the presence of a love relationship with God”

My thought process began to change when reading the above quote. While I strive to not sin, to be in freedom requires more. It requires a relationship with God my father.

Freedom Through Unbound

I first read the quote in the workbook for the Unbound course; so what is Unbound?

Unbound is a book and class that offers Christians a practical guide to Deliverance. Now when my small group leader approached me about doing this course, I had no opinion. I didn’t really know about deliverance.

Honestly, If I had known I probably would have stayed away. I tend to be rational and logical. I am not the type of person to diagnose every problem as a spiritual disease.

But I knew nothing and therefore have sat through three lessons on deliverance. So what is deliverance?

Neal Lozano defines deliverance as, “ the breaking of power behind habitual patterns of thinking and acting that limit our freedom to accept God’s love and turn away from that which blocks His love.”1

Thus deliverance is much less about casting out evil spirits. Rather it is about renouncing the lies the spirits make us believe.

What I Want From Unbound

I am excited about the journey. God wants to deliver me from lies of my own making. I have come to realize that I lack trust in God’s promises. I want to be able to say with the Psalmist:

Even though I walk through the valley

of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff

they comfort me. Psalm 23:4 (RSV second Catholic edition)

I want to know that God’s got me regardless of the circumstances. I think renouncing fear will help me trust God’s goodness. Renouncing perfectionism will help me rely on God and not myself.

I am weak, but my God is strong.

  1. Neal Lozano, Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverence(Chosen Books 2010), 67

Click here if you want to learn more about freedom.

picture of library with statue of stoic philosophers

Stoic Philosophy

Lessons It Can Teach Christianity

So it should be no secret by now that I love philosophy. Recently I started reading about philosophy more and more. I also recently started using Apple News app. Found an interesting article on Stoic philosophy.

It all started when I realized that I wasted so much time on mindless social media and Netflix.

So I took drastic measures. I deleted Twitter, Netflix, Youtube and Youtube TV off my phone. Now I had a problem. What could I do when I needed to actually waste time? Enter Apple News.

Apple News allowed me to educate myself during those rare moments of downtime. And wouldn’t you know it, they have a philosophy category.

One day while skimming through the category, a headline caught my eye. It read Is ancient philosophy the future? Intrigued, I decided to read.

Is Ancient Philosophy The Future?

Donald Robertson wrote a fascinating article about the rise of ancient philosophy among young people. He seeks to address the question, Why the rise in Stoicism in modern society? He ties the answer to the core principles of Stoicism.

The Core principals of Stoic Philosophy

To be a stoic, you must believe the following:

First, must adopt a rational framework when confronting today’s problems.

Second, you must differentiate between what you can control and what you can’t.

Third, you must recognize that the judgments you make about certain situations change your emotional state. For example, the judgment you make about rain effects your attitude about a rainy day. The rain itself as nothing to do with your emotional state.

Fourth, you must recognize that you live for a higher purpose.

Master, all four and you are on your way to becoming a Stoic.

While Donald Robertson article did not convince me to be a stoic philosopher, it did tell me a thing or two about evangelizing young people. So many core principles of Stoicism can be found in Christianity. Donald Robertson even draws a comparison between Stoicism and St Francis Serenity Prayer. So why is Stoicism growing and Christianity shrinking?

Five Things Stoic philosophy emphasizes better than Christianity.

1. Rationality

Let’s face it Christianity has a bad representation as anti-science. Even if most of the blame goes on protestant evangelicals and creationist, The Catholic Church suffers from this stereotype as well. Just the other day someone asked me if I believe in dinosaurs. Yet as controversial as the Big Bang is, very few people know that a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître discovered it. Faith is rational, let’s embrace that.

2. Stoics Teach How to Live a Good Life

Sometimes Christians can get so weighed down by what not to do that we forget why we’re doing it in the first place. Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly. Christians are called to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control. Yet most of the time we walk around with a chip on our shoulder and a holier than thou attitude. Christianity is meant to give us a good life, not outwardly, but inwardly. We need to emphasize the goodness of Christianity more.

3. Stoics Have Deep and meaningful conversations

Don’t rock the boat. Sometimes we take Christian meekness to the extreme. We are afraid to be raw and vulnerable because we don’t want anyone to discover what a horrible sinner we are. Instead, we have surface level conversations. Likewise, we are so afraid of losing our faith that we don’t dare entertain opinions outside of our own. Yet deep conversations require a vulnerable confrontation with someone not like you.

4. Stoic Philosophy Offers Emotional Resilience

This is something Christianity should offer in abundance. Most of the modern churches fail to deliver. St Paul wrote,

for I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient. I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me. Philippians 4:11a-14

St Paul knows the secret to being content is having confidence that comes from trusting in Jesus. Yet we never hear about this inner freedom thatGod promises. You hear about the next life and the freedom that awaits us. You hear that God wants to bless you now. If you’re not blessed you lack faith. This is not the Christianity St Paul describes.

5. Stoic Philosophy Performs Action

Unlike Christianity, stoicism emphasizes being a good person. There is no gospel to be proclaimed or preached. Rather, a person exemplifies Stoicism by transforming their character. Christian have made a blind confession of faith the only requirement for membership. Yet the Christian gospel demands transformation. Too many Christians pay lip service to Christ without radically changing their heart. The moral is that if you’re going to preach the gospel, your behavior better conform.

Conclusion

The world is hungry for guidance in these chaotic times. They long to know answers to questions such as why are we here and what is our purpose. Young people value deep radical friends, who know how to have intellectual conversations. If Christianity is going to evangelize it needs to be rational. It needs to offer a community that is not superficial, but intellectually rich, where people practice what they preach. Until then philosophy will remain an appealing alternative.

Read more about Philosophy here

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