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Whose Free Will Is It Anyways?

“Let’s say that you are on a camping trip with your son, and he suffers a snake bite. What if there was a source of information, freely available everywhere in the world that could tell you how to prepare the leaves on that bush to make an antidote. Would you accept that information?”

“Nobody tells me what to do!”

That was a real conversation on a Boy Scout outing. I didn’t say that there was a connection between receiving the gifts of love and choices that we make elsewhere in our lives, but that was assumed by the listener. Not that I didn’t make different choices: I was the father that stayed behind on that trip when the other dads went off to gamble, or to the topless bar.

As a physicist, the whole proposition of free will makes no sense to me. Given the initial conditions of the universe, things will unfold according to the laws of nature. Given that I believe that the soul can be encompassed by our theories of nature, there doesn’t seem to be any room left for choice at all. We are simply machines moving through time. Choice is an illusion.

But we have choices forced upon us all the time, don’t we? When a vulnerable person turns to us for security in exchange for sex, we have to decide whether to be faithful to our spouse. When a problem in a contract threatens our company, we have to decide whether to miss coaching the youth soccer playoff game or risk being fired. Those are hard choices, but nothing compared to the man watching his children starve who puts a gun into his pocket and goes out to find money for food. Or in an abusive family, the sensitive child that turns to drugs to block out the psychic pain.

What does making any of these choices have to do with “free will”? It seems like there’s no good solution, at least no solution that allows us to feel good about ourselves. If we have “free will”, wouldn’t we choose to have better choices? And if God truly loved us, wouldn’t he give us better choices to make?

But the fact of the matter is that humanity creates our own choices. We decide to accept sex in exchange for the promise of security, when we could donate to charities that provide a safety net for people in trouble. The lack of that safety net pushes that man out the door with his gun. We could narrow our role in the family to “bread-winner”, never be that soccer coach, and vent our frustrations on that child.

This, then, is the Christian promise: God promises that your soul won’t be trapped in the bad choices you make. Your soul, when it sees the opportunity to receive love, will always be free to accept that offering. That may mean death, as so many Christian martyrs have joyously accepted as a surcease from their struggle against hatred, but they receive it willingly because they can feel God’s love reaching down to them in that moment.

Do you ever think whether God is free to choose not to rescue us when we are in need? Think about it: it’s certainly not easy.

When the adulterer is caught in the lie, is he still going to receive love from the spouse that promised to love in the name of God? When the abuser is finally caught by the social services, is she going to receive love from the child that was blessed with the emotional sensitivity to understand her sorrows?

No, because we were offered love, and chose to strengthen the parts of our spirit that don’t want to receive it. Of those parts that we have denied, we have to look for replacements, because often they have fled back to God of their own free will. Is it right for God to force them to come back so that we can try again?

This is the true miracle of this day, the day of the Savior’s birth. Unconditional Love came as man to prove that we have all the parts that we need right here. We have each other, we have the gardens and animals: we can choose to love them, and when that choice is abused by the recipient, God is there to fill us up again, and rescue us when the physical world rejects our gift.

You see, it’s not “free will” from love, which is the choice that only a crazy person would make. It is freedom from the crazy people that refuse love. It is the promise of an escape from the boot on the neck: we don’t have to succumb to the bastards that want control more than they want to share in our choices.

And for the crazy people, it’s the promise that there’s a way back that doesn’t depend upon fixing all the wrongs that you’ve committed. Eventually, yes, you will want to make up for them, but the door opens for free.

Did love have a choice? No. The sacrifice of Jesus was the only way that it could be done: Humanity was given the gift of intelligence to do this work of salvation of the world. It wasn’t enough. Love had to come in human form to show us how it was done.

But it was a gift given freely, of love’s own free will.

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