On Free Will

Before I accepted God in my heart–really welcomed Christ as my personal savior–one of the most difficult concepts to wrangle was that of free will against the Will and Plan of God.

My grandmother has always loved C.S. Lewis, and she gave me a copy of “The Screwtape Letters” to read a long time ago. I remember it a little, though it’s probably time to re-read it through a new lens. It’s a fictional satire in which demons are plotting and advising one another on how to undermine a man’s faith and piety. It’s really quite brilliantly written, and I hope to revisit it soon.

Upon the recommendation of Pastor Mark, I recently picked up another book by Lewis, and one I’d forgotten about long ago: “Mere Christianity.” I know that I’ve read parts of it, because they sound familiar, but I also know that there is no chance that I fully understood the argument being presented. Not unlike Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” I must have read this book when I was early in high school, and missed the point entirely.

Lewis is entertaining if, like me, you’re into graceful, clear prose and well-reasoned arguments. This particular book sounds very conversational (not unlike the blog I’m writing now) and it sounds that way for a reason; it was originally part of a British Broadcasting talk-radio series back in the early 1940s, during the heart of World War II. In the foreword, he says that he wanted the radio talks to sound very much like real talks, and that comes through in the text.

At any rate, as of this morning I am not quite halfway through the book, which I would recommend highly to anyone on the fence regarding their faith in God and Christ. I can easily see how someone who was on the fence might be convinced by his argument. It’s quite beautifully written, and appeals to logic in a way that few Christian works dare to do. It’s not perfect, of course–faith of any kind requires a leap–and some of the points he makes about science seem dated, but the crux of the arguments remain intact.

Last night as I was reading, the words and concepts were flowing freely. His writing has an almost lyrical quality at times, and appeals to me personally–it is almost as though we are kindred spirits, Lewis and I. The best writing, the stuff that really changes my mind, seems like it was written directly to me, and with me in mind. As I said, I was cruising comfortably. Then I stopped dead. I read the following passage three times, then put the book down, then picked it up half an hour later and read it again.

“Anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another. It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, ‘I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.’ Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.”

It seems so obvious when it’s put that way! I wish, wish, wish that someone had put it to me so succinctly and clearly before.  He continues:

“Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will,
though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating . . . Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk.”

This latter passage caught my eye for a couple reasons. Firstly, “automata” has long been one of my very favorite words. Secondly, it explains why God would have chosen to make me more than an automaton (the singular of “automata,” and another favorite word by extension). In short, He did so because that is the only way that I would be capable of greatness. It is also the only way I would be capable of seeking Him in earnest.

This all leads into explaining the fall of man, and the fall of Satan. Essentially, because we are made to be smart and strong willed and free, we are capable of greater good, but also more tremendous bad. A being made even greater than we, such as a fallen angel, would be capable of even more good than we, and even more evil.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” of all things.  Albus Dumbledore says to Harry, “I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being–forgive me–rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” This is a work of ridiculous fantasy fiction, of course, but the truth in the underlying sentiment is the same: the pendulum of our capacity to be good or bad swings farther in either direction depending on the length of the rod.

If I had not met with Mark, and had not followed his advice to pick up this book, I would still be grappling with these concepts, and I am grateful that I chose to do both of those things. I feel as though I was meant to do so, but I still could have chosen otherwise, and that is the entire point.

Prayer for the morning:

Holy Lord, thank you for giving me the right to choose. The right to choose good, the right to choose You, the ability to choose to accept your love, and the ability to love in return. Grant me clarity, and speed me along my path to You.


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