“Everybody knows all humans have ‘free will,’ except those stinky Calvinists who always try to state God forces people to do stuff against their free will.” Many people would agree with the statement above, simply because it feels right. We all make our own choices. That drunk guy on the street corner was not tied down to a chair and forced to drink alcohol, he chose to drink it himself. End of story.
But is that really the case? Is there nothing deeper? Allow one friendly Calvinist to try and open your mind. (Wait a minute, will you allow it? Is that a free will choice? Or were you predisposed to allow it? Ahh! Inception! )
BACKGROUND ON FREE WILL
I. ‘FREE WILL’ IS NOT UNIVERSALLY DEFINED
The idea of ‘free will’ is one of those things that many people discuss and defend, yet don’t really define or understand. Part of the problem lies in the fact that different people have very different ideas about what free will means. They then use the same words to describe completely opposing ideas. One person say ‘free will’ while trying to talk about the idea that all humans make actual choices instead of simply doing things without choosing. Another may be trying to state that while each person is not responsible for the things that happen to them, but the way they respond to it is fully a ‘free will’ choice not limited by anything. So while they can’t control circumstances they can control their desires and emotions. A third might say that ‘free will’ is the steering wheel of a great car called destiny. That who we are, how our life is lived, and how we are remembered is fully and only based on our ‘free will’ choices. All of these, and many more views are swept under the rug of ‘free will.’ And thus when one person makes a statement about ‘free will’ the second visualizes a very different idea and both use the same words to discuss two different things. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘free will’ as a “voluntary choice or decision, or the freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.” That is still a bit simplistic, so we will use the philosophical definition of libertarian free will. This basically is that all people can make more than one choice in any particular case, and they are equally free/able to make each choice.
II. ALL PEOPLE MAKE CHOICES
Every time you sit down at a restaurant and look at the menu, you are offered choices. You do what is natural, you make a choice. In fact, every day in your life you make hundreds if not thousands of choices. Little choices and big choices. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that people make choices and decisions and so every possible view in this discussion acknowledges that people do choose. There are some really clever people that think they can ‘disprove’ Calvinism by showing that humans do make real personal choices. Unfortunately for them, Calvinists do believe in choice and the act of choosing. John Calvin himself had a motto that implied he was choosing to perform an action: “Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere.” “My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” If your definition of ‘free will’ simply means that humans make choices, it’s not wrong by any means, however, it is highly simplistic, and even naïve.
‘FREE’ WILL IS NOT REALLY FREE
Above we agreed that people make choices, and make most decisions without being physically forced and coerced. However, just because people make a choice does not mean that they can make every choice with equal freedom. If you are approached with two choices and ultimately make one, do you really have “free” will if the second option was never even a true possibility, it was offered but there was no way you would even consider it. If you are very hungry and then offered a pizza or a nuclear weapon to eat, you would obviously eat the pizza, not the nuke. Yet you felt that you have “free” will and made a choice. There are many more questions like this that we ought to consider before brazenly quoting “free will” as the answer to all of life’s questions.
The main thing to understand is that our will, or the part of us that makes choices, is not truly free. Our will does exist, our will does make choices, however, it is not free, it is severely limited. When two people are presented a set of choices, free will states both have equal ability to chose all of the options. Real life is nothing like this. People are very complex and have different levels of freedom and desire to choose each of the different options.
WHAT DRIVES YOUR CHOICES?
What determines the choices you make? Your will does. The “will” can often be defined as the “want” or the desire of your heart. If you ‘will’ to have that slice of ice cream cake, then you will choose to eat it. Unless you have a greater will/want to stay fit, in which case you won’t eat it. Whatever the choice you made, there is a direct desire that forces you to make that choice. Your choices are not baggage free decisions you make in your heart or mind, they are simply internal desires that come out to play. Look at every single choice in your life, you have always went for what you desire most. If you are married, what made you choose one particular spouse? It was because you desired to be with them more than with another. Of course it’s a bit more complicated, especially when you have two conflicting desires. Then it seems you finally make a real choice, and choose only one of the two desires. However, you ultimately do something very simple, and choose the desire that is the strongest. You may want to quit your job but you also want to live, survive, and eat. You desire both, but the latter is a stronger desire, so you grudgingly do something you don’t want (work), because it’s the only way to get what you do want (money for safety, shelter, and stuff).
There is no way around it, you ARE a robot. You ARE programmed to do what gives you the most satisfaction. Every choice you make is directly tied to a desire. When you go shopping, you do that which you most desire. You really want those $200 shoes, but you may have an even greater desire, for your wallet to remain full. And so inside you there is a battle of desires, a craving for the thing you want to buy or the money you want to keep. (Some people, especially the feminine kind, have no such battle and simply buy everything they desire). The ultimate choice depends on your desire. I am writing this article, though it is tedious and time consuming, because I have a greater desire to share this with someone instead of my weaker desire to do something more relaxing. (Though I admit, sometimes the desire to relax is stronger, and then I choose to relax).
Every earthly choice is ultimately linked back to a desire. Every earthly choice is the outworking of an inward desire. Every conversation about free will choices without discussing the desires behind them is simplistic, naïve, and wrong.
WHAT LIMITS YOUR CHOICES?
The idea of free will implies that all people have an equal ability to choose between options and to direct their own life. However, in real life this is severely limited and there is a great deal of difference between the freedom some have compared to others.
You ‘want’ to do great things. Some of those things are superhero great, they are terrific, but they are not biologically possible. You may will and choose to physically fly as much as you “want” but your decision is limited by your arms. Choosing to flap them as much as you can doesn’t give you flight. Sure that is a wild example and is not realistic; few try to fly. So let us deal with ‘real’ life then. What about the cripple that chooses to walk? What about the tone deaf girl who chooses to sing well? What about the blind man who chooses to watercolor? Let’s be honest, their choices are severely limited. They don’t have a choice to do or become the things they want. I don’t have the option of becoming an Olympic gold medalist. You might say, “just train as hard as you can.” Unfortunately that is not true at all. Some people are genetically predisposed to be sports heroes, to run like the wind, to be large and powerful. Other are predisposed to be weaker and smaller. Both will train as hard as they can, and the first will achieve far better results. During the Olympics there are certain ethnic traits come out very prominent. For example most of the world’s fastest runners are of African descent. But think about this: those who are born in one ethnic group, cannot make a free will choice to be of a different skin color. A male cannot choose to be a real woman and or to give birth to children. An Einstein cannot choose to be unintelligent, and someone with low IQ cannot choose to be a brilliant scientist. If those two people are both given a complex mathematical formula, both cannot make an equal free will choice to solve for the answer. One is limited by biology, the other is enabled by biology.
2. Culture and Society
People living today are offered a much larger amount of choices than humans throughout most history. The things you do today are largely influenced by your culture and historic era. Take a look at the teenagers that dress in new and unusual ways, as compared to generations before. What bolstered this behavior? They are copying popular cultural icons and celebrities. I agree, no one is physically forcing them, however, they are influenced by their peers and Hollywood to make certain decisions. If they had not been exposed to their particular brand of culture, they would have not made such decisions. There is a very simple way to prove this. Take a look at differing nations and time periods: people have always worn things that are similar to their peers. Those living in Asia, without access to American popular culture, wear traditional Asian clothing. And those who are immersed in the Hollywood media saturated world, dress in modern fashions. Take for example North and South Korea, these people live only miles apart and genetically they are the same nation. Yet the North dresses like 1960’s era Soviets and the South flaunts hip modern fashions. All of the individuals in those countries make personal choices about what to wear. Yet the things they choose are limited by their culture. In modern America, its culturally appropriate to speak with your manager, looking him in the eye. In ancient cultures, you would be culturally trained to avoid eye contact. Or more likely taught that you were not to speak to any of your superiors at all. Our culture and the people around us train us to ask “what will people think of me?” And because we are selfish, and usually care about what people think, we choose mainly actions that show us in a positive light.
3. Health & Death
Our physical safety strongly limits our choices. Fear of death can force us to do things we don’t really want to choose. Someone who hates needles and would never take a shot, will choose to be injected in order to live. Through all of history many people were forced by others to make choices under threat. Someone living as a slave is usually only offered one thing on the lunch menu. His choice is to eat it, which his stomach growls for, or to rebel, which his ego yearns for. Unfortunately hunger ultimately overcomes ego, or else he dies. Imagine being surrounded by a whole crew of thugs, all of them pointing guns at you and wanting to take your money. You can’t fight it out, talk it out, and etc. You don’t really have any other options. Had your safety not been put on the life you would never give them that money. In fact, if they came to you at the police station and politely asked for the money, you would have made a totally different decision. The main thing that influenced your “free will choice” was the circumstances and the threat of physical harm. Your choice to give them the money and live, was not a free choice, it was compulsory. In some cases loved ones are threatened with harm. A criminal holding a knife to your child and demanding money usually gets money. If that were to happen to me, I know I could not choose any option that involves harming my family. While you can choose to rebel and fight, the cost is far too high. No sane person would choose to keep money if it meant death or the death of their loved ones. Its not a real choice. Because life is the first or second most important priority to most people, any alternative option that loses life is not a real choice. (Though martyrs for the faith die because faith is their first priority, life second.)
The things you know have a very strong influence in the way you live your life. Every decision that you make is subject to the knowledge you have. If you know that taking a certain pill will kill you, you will avoid it like the plague. Now if you are told that same pill will cure all your ailments, you will choose to pay mountains of money for it. Whatever knowledge you have, true and false, strongly affect the choices you make. Take for example the superstition that black cats crossing the street are bad omens. This was something I heard many times in my childhood, and the friends I had in the Ukraine, as well as people here in the US, would often choose different behaviors based on this false information. My childhood friends would turn sideways when they saw black cat, so the cat would walk by their side, instead of crossing in front of them. There are thousands of superstitions and false ideas that frighten people into making certain choices. There are some buildings that don’t have a 13th floor because of the fear that this is an unlucky number. Some people choose to avoid doing certain things on Friday the 13th. Besides superstitious knowledge, there is science and technology. People living today have been changed by the knowledge they have access to. No longer do physicians choose to bleed patients in hopes of healing them. Sailors don’t fear the edge of the world, and thus decide to sail to places where their forefathers feared to choose. Every area of your life, and the choices you make is permeated by the knowledge you have. It is very simple, if your whole life you are taught that wooing a girl is the result of puffing out your chest and looking strong, then your first few encounters with women will be marked with restraining orders. And the more faulty and incorrect your knowledge, the more you choose things that don’t bring about the desired results. Knowledge limits our choices. Two people who have different sets of knowledge, will make different sets of choices based on their knowledge. This is why Paul exhorts us to preach to all nations in Romans 10:14. (Although regarding Salvation, Paul states that, all have been provided knowledge about God’s invisible attributes, one cannot make excuses in that department, Romans 1:19-23).
5. Sinful Nature
If our choices are the result of our desires, what happens when we have sinful desires?
The alcoholic drinks because it feels good. He makes a choice, but his choice is not a “free will” choice, its chained to his sinful desire. The guy/gal who sleeps around does so because they have a greater desire to do it, than a desire to not do it. All of these poor choices that we humans make are the result of sinful desires. In Genesis, God tells us the story of Adam and Eve. Both were created good and had libertarian free will, especially regarding moral matters. Yet while both were good they were not perfect. Only God is perfect and can never choose evil. Adam and Eve used their freedom to choose evil. They plunged the human race into sin. And we their children are born in sin. All humans are fallen and desire sin: (Gen 6:5, Job 25:4-6, Psa 51:5, Ecc 7:20:, Jer 13:23, 17:9; Isa 64:7; John 6:44, John 8:33-34, Mat 13:15, Rom 3:10–11, Rom 8:7–9, Eph 2:3b, 1 Cor 2:14). Paul says it this way in Romans 8:7-9, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Its very simple, a carnal mind cannot love or obey God. How can this person, who cannot submit to God, choose to submit? He or she cannot, unless the Father draws them (John 6:44). This is often seen as a sad limitation. However, keep in mind, those in this condition, willingly do it. They are not trapped against their desire. They love where they are. They cannot come to Jesus because they don’t want to. They enjoy life without Jesus more than with. They enjoy sin and so they choose sin. They choose what gives them the greatest satisfaction. And this was not forced on them by God. This was picked by Adam and Eve first, and followed by every human. Our sinful nature does not limit us against our will. Our sinful nature is our will. It is in a prison of sin, and we love this prison. Given one million options, we would always choose sin. Given one million lifetimes, we would always choose sin. We by our very nature love the darkness. Yet we are limited from choosing the light because we hate it (John 3:20)
THE FREEDOM OF OUR WILL IS IN SLAVERY TO JESUS
This all sounds like bad news. It’s frightening and we want to argue that its not just. Yet it is just. We always have the options of choosing good. Yet our natures and desires remove this option from our hearts. God does call for everyone to repent. Yet no one wants to repent on their own. The good news is that Jesus saves prisoners from the bondage of their desires. He can give a new heart and mind. He can create new desires. (Ezekiel 36:26) This is called being born again. This is a vital component of conversion. Its not the free will choice that saves a man, its the rebirth by the Holy Spirit. In fact this is the key to fighting temptations. Temptation is when you are faced with a sinful desire, and it grows in you, temping you to act upon it. How is temptation defeated? Not by using “free will” to scream “No! No! No!” and feeling “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in your heart. Anyone who has been addicted, or anyone who has ever been tempted knows this is true. You can’t simply “choose” the sinful desire away. The only way to defeat it is by acting upon an even greater desire, the desire to obey Jesus and be satisfied in Him.
If we are controlled by our desires, then desiring Jesus is the key to true freedom. If you desire what is best for you, Jesus, you will be most satisfied and most free.