About the tangle of free will and love, and the weakness of God

One of the nice things about writing to commission is that you have try to think about things that you don’t know much about. Below is another article I wrote for the Singaporean Christian magazine Impact, which probably demonstrates clearly why I don’t get paid as a philosopher. It’s extracted from my forthcoming book The Sandwich.

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(2020)

Many of the world’s problems are blamed on God giving us ‘free will’. I’m not sure that God would be as heartless as that.

Does God force us to do things? If so, does he bypass us, or squash us to get his way? Does that show a lack of respect? Does it contravene ‘free will’?

Before we go any further, let’s not talk any more about ‘free will’, as if we were all independent actors with plenty of access to information, not influenced by our peers, able to make good choices on our own with our own resources.

I don’t believe it. I’ve yet to meet anyone like that. We peer at life through a soup of prejudice that distorts what we see. We are influenced by the networks of people around us, the tribes we belong to. Once we’ve made up our minds on something, we tend to defend our turf, accepting facts that bolster our view and rejecting the facts that don’t. Arguably our tendency to rebel against the light of God and choose our own dark corner makes us still more half-witted. We humans are dim. We don’t get it. Free choice would be spoilt on us. 

All sorts of things can make us a bit less slow of mind and thick of head. We could listen to others; admit we might be mistaken; test our ideas against evidence or logic. Perhaps when we are younger, and know less, and the world is open to us, our brains are more plastic and we are more open to learning. But still.

Then imagine you are God. OK, it’s probably unimaginable but imagine yourself with perfect knowledge, in perfect light, looking down on these bumbling toilers on earth, blundering, grumbling, bumping into one another. Their bodies are extensively wired to feel pain and you watch their neural systems light up as they injure themselves and each other, and then go back and do it again. To God, it seems, we look ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’, and he has compassion on us (see Matthew 9:36).

I don’t think God’s biggest problem looking down on this scene, if we can so speak, is a lofty analysis of freedom of choice or free will or the rights of humans. It is about how to get stuff done, among these creatures whom you cannot not love and whom you want the best for.

So for example if God arranges for you to meet that girl at that event at that time and she gives you that shy smile and he knows you are that sort of person and she is that sort of person and you then fall in love and create a happy life together, did he force you? Or was he just smart and kind?

Or if he quickens your torpid soul with life, unblocks your ears, restores your spiritual sight, and you see Jesus for the first time not as some historical artefact but as the Living One and a friend and redeemer; if God unwraps your graveclothes and you stand before him blinking in the sunlight, where in all that was your freedom and choice? Something greater than freedom and choice was here.

I was in a coma for a month once and it took my family and the doctors two weeks to wake me up – two weeks of my family talking to me, reading my books to me, of doctors changing the meds. I had no choice in the matter: I was hallucinating about a three-country trip to Africa (which honestly still lingers in the memory though it never happened). In a sense, the love and care of those around me superseded any issues of freedom of choice. They knew I wanted to live again and love again and they fought for me when I couldn’t fight for myself. I wonder if that principle ever crosses God’s mind and ever governs his behaviour?

The Biblical data is fascinating. Jesus, God’s selfie on earth, showed respect and restraint to those around him, often at cost to himself. He wasn’t coercive or controlling. He gave instructions that were disobeyed but he didn’t sulk. ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone,’ he said to the healed leper, ‘but go, show yourself to the priests…’ Get the medical and judicial proof that you are not infectious so you can rejoin your community. ‘Instead [the man] went about freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places’ (Mark 1:45-46). The ex-patient’s folly caused Jesus problems, which Jesus had to manage. At no point did he fell the man with a fiery dart. (‘I told you – go see the priest! Bam!’) Fevers, illnesses, demons, wind and waves all obeyed Christ’s words but people didn’t — and at a certain level the Lord seemed OK with that.

Yet at other times, God appears rather more forceful. Jonah is ordered to Nineveh to preach repentance. Nineveh was Israel’s enemy and God wanted to bring them light. Jonah buys a ticket for the opposite direction. God interrupts the journey with a storm. Jonah is then conveyed by various transport modes back to the shores around Nineveh: first, a short flight (he is thrown into the sea), then a longer trip by sea-creature (carried in the hold). He does not like this, but he does repent. When he finally walks into Nineveh, the repentant preacher preaches repentance and to his great disgust his preaching stops Nineveh being destroyed by God’s wrath. God gets his way. Nineveh turns to the light. But even then (according to the Book of Jonah at least) God is still concerned with Jonah and his continuing grumbles.

God was also quite forceful when he manoeuvred things so that the gospel burst from its Jewish flowerhead and seeded around the world. The book of Acts, chapter 10, tells how the apostle Peter fell into a trance, lost an argument with God, had a timely meeting, made a journey to some pre-prepared Gentiles, preached a short and perhaps tactless sermon, but it was enough for the Gentiles to have their own Pentecost at Cornelius’ place. Along with plenty of other actions God made the light go global – which was a win. Along the way, Peter and others changed their minds about whether non-Jews should get grace: another win. Letting Peter argue had helped.

Consider these various examples. They share a common thread. God appears to have largely got his way. But there is a weakness in God’s strength. Or to put it another way, God’s strength is made perfect through God’s ‘weakness’. What did the storm achieve in Jonah? Repentance. What did the trance and the events at Cornelius’ house achieve in Peter? Repentance, a fresh turning to God and a willingness to believe God for new and greater things. What did Jesus seek from giving people on earth a liberty to obey him or not – a liberty he didn’t give demons, fevers or storms? He provided space for repentance and often people took the offer up.

From our limited perspective, then, it seems that many of God’s actions, and many of what seem like his lack of actions, focus on winning the person as well as winning the day, rather than either philosophical high-mindedness or the need to control. We aren’t told what happened to the healed leper. We don’t know if sometime afterward, perhaps years later, he reflected on Jesus’ treatment of him, the power and the meekness, and turned to the Risen Christ in love and wonder. Perhaps he did; perhaps he didn’t; but he wasn’t short of data, or insight, or opportunity.

What shall we say then? God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom and his weakness is stronger than our strength. His patient tread is faster than our hurry. One day, says Ephesians, everything will be brought to complete unity in Christ: the whole created order will be renewed, humanity along with it. When we read that along with the rest of the Bible we are brought to conclude that many, many individual humans will repent and unite their ways with God’s ways, become fully human and (as other passages teach) others will not repent and will finally lose all their footholds in life and love.  Meanwhile we are in the hands of One whose patience achieves more than human impatience; whose grace promotes deeper obedience than human laws. God is not like the government, passing laws and issuing fines. His kindness unclenches our fists and is an ointment to our sore eyes. God’s action among us is still a mystery. But the glimpses tell us he is extraordinary in his character and that shows in the way he uses his power.

Healing: finding the gold in the straw
'God's not fair'

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