Is Our Will Our Own?
You’ve probably heard the age-old argument about free will. Does man truly have free will to decide his own fate? If God hardened pharaoh’s heart then why was pharaoh responsible for his sin? (Romans 9:18) Do we choose God or does he chose us? If God puts something on our hearts are we experiencing free will in what we think or is God controlling us?
The debate over free will and God’s sovereignty has been raging for centuries. I doubt we will solve it here. But there are some things analogous to free will in the life we experience now that might offer insight into this topic. I’d like to offer up two things that might help us with the idea of free will.
First, I should note that man does not have free will in the sense that we can choose anything we want and we are not encumbered by anything outside us, moving us to make certain choices. For instance, in terms of total free will, we don’t have it. We can’t simply choose one day to sprout wings and go for a fly around the block. Man cannot choose to do things that violate his nature. We may actually choose to sprout wings and fly but simply choosing to do so won’t make it happen. Biblically speaking, the person without Christ cannot choose to never sin. Romans 8:7 tells us, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” Note, is not able, means not having the ability to do something. Just as God does not have the ability to sin, so too natural man does not have the ability not to sin. Man cannot choose to violate his own nature. It takes the work of the Spirit of God in the heart of the person to enable us to choose God and reject sin. So, when we choose righteousness God is at work in our hearts at that moment to enable us, some might even say, to choose with us, not to sin.
But whose choice is it?
There are two news articles that might give us insight into this. First is a recent article about scientists who connected the brains of two people together through the Internet over a long distance. Both were watching a video game on screen. When one subject choose to hit a button with his finger, the other person’s finger responded carrying out the action even though he was not the originator of the thought to move his finger. Eventually, the technology will improve and one person may actually control the thoughts of another person connected to them at a distance. If that happens then our question becomes even more relevant. Is the second person’s thought of his own free will? He has the thought, experiences it as if it were his own, but is it is own or is he under the control of another? (See the original article here.)
The second news article is from the New York Times from 2011. It tells the story of twin girls conjoined at the head who apparently share some brain matter between them (see that article here). When one of them thinks of something the other also experiences it. In fact, I remember watching a news program about another set of conjoined twins being interviewed for television. They also shared some brain matter. When one would speak the other girl would finish her sentences and the two would sometimes say the same thing at the same time as if the thought was unique to them both. But it was apparent that they not only shared some brain matter but that they shared thoughts, each speaking as if whatever idea was in their heads belonged to them each uniquely.
We can ask our questions about free will with these things in mind. If girl A thinks a thought and girl B also has it, is one girl being controlled by the other? Who does the thought really belong to? Where does the personality of one girl begin and the other end?
How is this relevant to the biblical concept of free will?
Remember when Jesus was speaking about the coming persecution of Christians in Matthew 10:20? Jesus said that when the authorities drag you to court that you shouldn’t worry about what to say because, “It is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” So if it is the Spirit speaking through us, but we have the thoughts originating in our brains are we actually exercising free will to speak those thoughts or does God? Where, in such a situation, does our free will end and God’s sovereign work in us begin?
How about the scripture itself? Theologically we say that the Bible is inspired. This means that certain men wrote down the things they were thinking and while it seemed to them that they were sharing their own thoughts on what subject was being addressed, in actuality God was giving them those thoughts to write down, thus we call the Bible the Word of God. Were the writers of scripture exercising free will in what they choose to pen? Their thoughts were in their minds, but it was God at work giving them those thoughts.
I once had a meeting with a man who was struggling with a decision to go to another country as a missionary. He was scared to death because he felt strongly that if we went he would be killed. The conversation was actually quite intense, he was truly afraid. Some two hours into our conversation I shared with him an insight from the book of Revelation. Suddenly the man slid off his chair, knees on the floor, thrusting his arms up in the air and yelled, “God is speaking through you RIGHT NOW!”
Let’s assume for a moment that he was correct. If God was speaking through me to direct this man, yet according to all I felt or knew these were my own thoughts, then was I exercising my free will in what I chose to share with him? As far as I knew these were my own thoughts from a passage I studied and applied many years earlier. I simply recalled them and shared with him what I learned. But he suddenly came under heavy conviction. He left my office determined to head to that country no matter what it might cost him.
Was I exercising free will to say what I said if my thoughts didn’t originate within me?
Here’s why this subject is important: if a person chooses Christ is he choosing Christ or is God choosing Christ for us, in us, through us? Romans 9 would seem to indicate that it is God who enables us to choose Christ. Romans 8 touches on this as well, as I pointed out earlier. Forget the standard arguments for a moment about whether we choose God first or if he chooses us first. Clearly God chooses but also clearly we choose at some level. Forget about who chooses who first. My question is this: If we cannot choose Christ of our own free will because our natural man is set against Christ (Romans 8:7), then when we actually do choose him do we freely choose him or not?
The bottom line for me is that I can’t answer that question. So I have nothing more to say.