What do Christians mean by free will?

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The concept of ‘free will refers to the human ability to make choices from either an unlimited or a restricted number of options. Free will implies a rational choice between two or more things based upon which the individual believes is more important.  The classic example of limited choice is: “Your money or your life!” Both are valued. Which is valued more depends upon the individual and the circumstance.

In one scenario, the money may be all the individual has to pay rent or to buy food.  Or the money may have been collected for a church charity and was on the way to the bank. In either case, the individual may feel the money was worth trying to save from the predator so hangs on to it even to death. On the other hand, the money may have just been won at a gambling casino, and its loss would make little difference one way or another. In this case, the individual may hand over the money.

It is what an individual values that directs choices, no matter how limited. In fact, people often learn just what they value most, when asked to give it up.

For Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, the primary choice that directs their lives is whether or not to choose God first. For the Christian, Jesus summarized the greatest of all commandments when he said: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind and with all your strength. (Matt 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27) This is the same commandment, given by God to Moses. (Deuteronomy 6:5) Loving God requires obeying His commandments, no matter what it takes. It is the prime directive. It is worth dying for.

In Christian belief, the first sin (Genesis 3) was the sin of Adam and Eve. They were told, by God, not to eat from the tree of good and evil. But they decided to disobey God and ate of the fruit. The first sin was choosing to do something in opposition to God’s commands. It was a deliberate choice.

The problem is, of course, that humans are very self-centered and self-absorbed. It is very difficult for people to give up what is pleasurable, what is comfortable, and what promotes their own desires and wants. For some people, being “politically correct” is more important than “doing the right thing.” To be popular and go along with the crowd is a safe place to be. Becoming immensely wealthy, no matter who is hurt in the process, is a goal for many. To eat anything you want to eat, to stay physically fit without any exercise, to be entertained rather than study, to experience the adrenaline rush or sexual pleasure at any given time, are all goals some people live for. They are all self-centered. They are all in the service, or under the domination, of the physical body and its needs and desires.

People also choose to act on the basis of their emotions rather than their intellects. A person can become angry at another for all sorts of reasons such as bad drivers, being ridiculed or treated unfairly, being deprived of something or of being generally frustrated by someone else when attempting to achieve a goal. The emotional human response is to strike out and hurt whoever is in the way. Little thought is behind this action. Revenge or retribution is a typical human response to a perceived hurt or insult. The Christian, however, is asked to ignore this emotional response and forgive the aggressor. Free will allows the Christian to choose the human way or God’s way.

Still others use their intellect to achieve their goals. For some, winning an argument is more important than actually believing in the issue being argued.  For others, it is a tool to browbeat and control those less gifted. Once again, the goal is to please the self without regard for the other person.

The Christian is asked to put all these normal human actions, beliefs and feelings aside and choose God. The stories Jesus told are all in the service of choosing God over self. The stories of the Prodigal Son, as well as the story of the woman caught in adultery, are all about forgiveness rather than judgementalism and punishment. The story of the loaves and fishes (Mathew 14:15-21) is all about sharing what you have, as little as that might be.  The story of healing the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) is about gratitude. The story of the Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) is about humility. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is about ignoring personal, cultural and kinship boundaries and helping those in need. These stories are about moving beyond personal, automatic, self-centered responses and reaching out to others with a different attitude.

Jesus not only told stories, he also gave sermons. His Sermon on the Mount  or “The Beatitudes,” (Matthew 5-7)  shifts the emphasis of the “Thou Shall Not’s” of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5) to a higher calling of “these are the things you are called to do.” To be a Christian is to be merciful and generous

Finally, Christians have Jesus own example to follow. Before Jesus set out to do anything, he prayed. In fact, before he began his ministry, he prayed and fasted for forty days. How many Christians follow this example? How many Christians pray and fast before setting out to do anything they believe is important? Although Jesus was very clear when he explained to his apostles that certain demons could only be cast out by prayer and fasting, how many Christians today even consider fasting as a spiritual exercise? Although prayer continues to be part of Christian practice, fasting seems to have fallen out of favor.

Christians have the ability to choose whether to follow Jesus and his teachings or not. The gospels tell the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he was to do to be a disciple. Jesus replied, “Sell all you have and come follow me.” (Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22) Following Jesus example and teachings is very difficult but can anyone truly call themselves Christian if they don’t at least try?

If God had not endowed humans with free will, then everyone would believe in God. Humans, however, are free to choose whether to believe in God or not. If God had not given humans free will, then all peoples throughout time would still be living in Eden. People have chosen to ignore God and the result has been war, murder, theft, famine, debauchery, hedonism, materialism and getting away with doing as little as possible to get by or have a good life. This is the world Christians live in. A world where people have chosen to ignore God.

The Christian, however, can choose to follow Jesus example and teachings, no matter how difficult it may be. Over the course of history, Christians have given their lives and suffered torture and death rather than deny Jesus. Today, Christians are called to do the same. It is a personal choice made freely.