Once upon a time, if you were debating about “free will,” you were probably a graduate student trying to impress your professor. Today, the conversation has taken the world by storm. For the first time in a long time, how we regard human freedom has real-world, moment-by-moment implications.
What about my free will?
Should I deny myself for the sake of the common good? Should I fight to be more free? What does that mean?
How Should a Christian View Freedom?
Ask ten different people how they define freedom, and you’ll get ten different answers. Pare them down, and chances are you’ll find some variation of this definition: Freedom is the ability to choose whatever I want.
The right to make choices without coercion or limitation is an appealing concept both secularly and spiritually. But the first thing we must understand about unfettered, libertarian freedom is that it’s an illusion.
Contrary to feel-good philosophy, you can’t be anything you want to be. Want to be an astronaut? You better have phenomenal mathematical aptitude. Want to be an NBA player? Let’s hope you’re more than four feet tall. Want to be a downhill skier, who never leaves the state of Florida? You get the idea. We’re limited by our intelligence, our physicality, the geography within which we live.
We’re limited by time and history. DaVinci drew pictures of flying contraptions because he wanted to soar through the sky, but he was limited by the technology of the 15th century. So before balking at the idea of subjugation, we must first recognize that there’s no such thing as uninhibited free will.
The first thing we must understand about unfettered, libertarian freedom is that it’s an illusion.
The Psychology of Coercion
- B. Watson was a 20th century psychologist who founded the theory of behaviorism – the idea that environment shapes human behavior. He famously wrote, “Men are built, not born. Give me the baby, and I’ll make it climb and use its hands in constructing buildings of stone or wood. I’ll make it a thief, a gunman, or a dope fiend. The possibilities of shaping in any direction are almost endless.”
Watson believed there’s no such thing as random behavior. Every choice is the product of influences beyond our control – societal norms and subtle persuasions we may not even notice. Why does Johnny go to work despite hating his job? Because he needs money to survive. Why does Lucy want Nike Air Max 270s? Because she saw a popular girl wearing them at school and wants to be like her. Why does Paul make his bed every morning? Because his mom shamed him for not making it as a kid, or because his wife wants him to, or because in 1996 he read a blog about bed-making as an indicator of future financial success.
Every choice is the result of a previous choice. Even when we sink into the couch to binge the latest show, we’re not acting in unrestrained freedom. This choice, too, is governed by the choices that preceded it – the stress, chaos, and responsibility that drove us to escape in the first place.
What Does This Mean for Christians?
In Romans 9, after discussing the mercy and justice of God, Paul addresses the question, What about my free will? In typical Pauline fashion, he sets up a mock argument:
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21).
Paul poses the question, “How can God blame me for my decisions, if I have no free will?” At first glance, his answer seems like the worst answer in the history of the Bible: “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?” or we may read, “Shut up; God’s the boss.”
But that’s not the spirit Paul’s taking here. He’s not rebuking his audience for asking questions. Rather, he’s dialoguing with them, challenging them to consider the conversation from a different perspective – God’s free will. Not theirs.
Paul is pivoting from focusing on man’s freedom to spotlighting God’s freedom. We’re so fixated on human freedom, but doesn’t God also have freedom? And consider for a moment, the difference between God’s freedom and ours. Every limitation – every coercion – impeding our freedom, vanishes before God. He alone has true libertarian freedom, unconstrained by time or physicality; uninfluenced by society or sin. If He alone is free, it stands to reason that true freedom begins in Him.
What is Freedom, Really?
True freedom is not about control. It’s not about getting people to do what I want them to do, or resisting attempts to be controlled by others. When we put our hope in that kind of faulty “freedom,” we walk around terrified and angry.
True freedom is about trust. It’s about believing that the good God has for me is better than any “good” I could conjure up outside of Him. Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” You and I have the freedom to plan, dream, create, and make all kinds of choices. But at the end of the day, the Lord is the One choosing my steps, and that doesn’t make me less free; it sets me free.
In subjection to God, we find actual freedom. Not libertarian freedom to do whatever we want (which doesn’t exist anyway), but freedom to make choices within the realm of God’s greater sovereignty – the kind of pure, untouchable sovereignty that sets our hearts at ease. Sovereignty that patiently abides with us in our weakness, steering us evermore toward the riches of God’s glory (Romans 9:22-24).
The question isn’t, Am I being influenced by something outside myself? J.B. Watson, the Bible, and centuries of scientific and psychological study answered that question long ago. The question is, Am I being influenced by the right thing?