Free Will As A Reflection of God (Oct 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Neal Whitlow

I have a seven year-old daughter whom James Dobson would probably label “strong-willed.” She’s a truly sweet, gifted child, but hasn’t quite gotten the hang of impulse control and loves to push boundaries. In order to prevent constant yelling at her and to avoid spanking as a daily occurrence we often simply remove her from her current surroundings and send her to her bed. We will ask her to “meditate” on what the correct behavior in this situation might be. Sometimes we remind her that it is her responsibility to “make the wise choice.” Lying in her bed with her chin propped on her hands, she once asked, “Why is the wise choice always the hardest one?”

Much older adults still wonder why our God, who wants us to “be good” and live holy lives of service, would give us so many opportunities to make unwise choices. The Creator built us for a purpose, but also gave us an almost limitless free will that allows us not only to disregard that purpose, but also to miss the mark morally. Our freedom to choose gives us room not just to do bad things or make mistakes, but even to participate in evil. Often our will feels a stronger pull from opportunities that lead us down a dangerous path instead of being drawn toward choices that are healthy and glorifying to God. He is either very naïve or there is something about giving his children the ability to exercise their free will that is important to Him.

Humans aren’t as courageous. We don’t know how to allow each other freedom. We know how likely we are to make wrong choices, so we do our best to eliminate the possibility for those around us. Institutions would rather remove freedom and choice from their environments entirely in order to preserve structure and uniformity. Organizations tend to become strict and rigid instead of trusting their members to make right choices. As parents we try to manage the lives of our children in order to rid them of actual choice. We confine them to a world where we pretend that being allowed to pick out their favorite pajamas or choose between green beans and peas for dinner is preparing them for a world full of choice and endless options. And that’s probably for the best. Companies would fall apart. Governments would fail without rules and policies. I’m certainly not going to widen my children’s options to include possibilities that would harm them (“To go with dinner, would you prefer water, Pepsi, or beer?”). They need to learn at least a bit of wisdom and discernment before it’s time to make decisions that could impact the rest of their lives. Is it that humans can’t respect the free will of others because we aren’t prepared for the responsibility ourselves? Or maybe we can’t do it simply because we are imperfect, totally different than God?

But what if our free will wasn’t just a curious experiment during God’s creative process? What if there was no highly debated executive decision on the part of the Trinity who decided to breathe life into a man who had the freedom of choice to defy the perfect and holy Creator of the Universe and go his own way? What if our free will was actually the result of being made in the image of God?

Dallas Willard asserts in his book Renovation of the Heart that our free will is a direct reflection of God and his Divine Will, which was the characteristic that led to our creation in the first place. Basically, we have free will because He does. He made us a little bit like him. Volition or choice, Willard says, is the exercise of our will. Will is “the capacity of the person to originate things and events that would not otherwise be or occur.” So we can choose to make things happen, which can be either good or evil, but nothing forces us to do those things. In fact our ability to make choices, our will, is so important, so central to who we are as people that Willard refers to our will as the spirit or heart of man. Our will is the basis for who we are.

Willard depicts the whole human self as a series of five concentric circles, the innermost being the spirit (i.e. heart or will). Enveloping that circle is the mind, which is contained within the body, which is in turn surrounded by the social context. The last circle which encloses all the others he calls the soul, or “that dimension of the person that interrelates all of the other dimensions so that they form one life.” So our free will, the independent spirit of us, is literally the core of our being. It is the backbone of our freedom and creativity. Willard goes on to say, “If we are to understand spiritual formation, we must understand what the spirit of the human being is. Spirit is, in general, that which is self-initiating and self-sustaining. Only God is purely spiritual, pure creative will and character…He is, in his fundamental and overall nature, unbodily, personal power. Human beings have only some small element of spirit…right at the center of who they are and who they become.”

Our God is a being who embodies infinite freedom, matchless creativity, and therefore is the original possessor of the ability to choose. Free will was not his idea; it is an attribute inherent within Himself. It is not something he gave us on a limited basis, nor an illusion he allows us to believe then yanks back when the situation becomes too crucial to be left in the hands of mere mortals. Our free will does not impugn his sovereignty; the fact that he is in control is not up for debate. But God used his Holy Will and chose to create us, his children, and he chose to imbue us with limited versions of some of the traits that he himself possesses, such as knowledge, the ability to love, or notions of justice and morality. We have emotions because they are a pale reflection of the heart of God. Free will is a part of us because it is a part of the image in which we were created.

Sin has marred our concepts of justice and morality, warped our idea of love, turned knowledge into “scientific” falsehoods, and diluted our emotions into cheap selfish feelings. Satan has also tricked us into believing that our free will is meant to benefit only ourselves instead of being fully devoted to the perfect Lord who gave it to us in the first place. Learning to place our will into his hands takes a lifetime of prayer and submission. God has to constantly whisper to us his reminders to make the wise choice. But as I ponder the thought that an infinite and holy being chose to create me, it also reinforces the beauty of his divine plan. Because with the freedom of choice reflected from him onto me, I choose to be his.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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