Free Will: Really? How? Why?

Life is all about choices… or is it? Is free will just an illusion or is there an immaterial, moral dimension to our experience, to reality? Are we really free? And if so, how should we make the most of that freedom and make the best choices? Is there a shortcut to optimising our decisions by consulting some fortune-telling God? Watch this video to find out.

Drunk on the Wine of Influence: Guilty

I like to think that I am making a worthwhile contribution to the world. I spend a fair bit of my thought time dreaming about ways that I can make the world a better place – how I can influence people for good.

I like to think my life is an influence for good… Source: www.starmark.com

I like to think my life is an influence for good… Source: www.starmark.com

Now you may be surprised that I have that desire. In fact, based on the degree of success I’ve had in influencing others for good, you may well be justified for thinking: “It doesn’t look like he’s trying to do any such thing.”

But let me unpack my thinking a little bit. You may even be able to relate to me.

I feel a sense of satisfaction when something I say influences a strategic outcome or solves a problem. The higher the level of decision-making or the wider the reach, the greater the satisfaction I feel. Or when an idea that I come up with ends up being chosen and implemented. Or when I am chosen to be part of, or better still, to lead a team or a project. Or when I am able to impart words of wisdom to someone in need of answers. Or when I get to spend some time with a key leader of a good cause, or better still that person needs me in some way.

I’m married to an amazing woman who is not like me. She does not get “high” on influence in the same way I do. She happily says no to leadership – to opportunities to mix and mingle with people of influence.

I’m glad she isn’t motivated by influence like me. For both her own sake, and also for mine.

If it wasn’t for observing my wife, I would not recognise so clearly my intoxication. What I thought was a noble desire to make something worthwhile of my life – to make a difference for good in the world – is often really just me feeding my pride (Luke 11:43).

For me it feels great to be interlinked and networked with people who are recognised as making a difference in the world. I tell myself that my life is worthwhile! That I must be growing closer to the life that God has called me to live.

But, really, what should tell me that my life is worthwhile? Only this: that Jesus, my Creator, would die for me! (See Eph 2:4-9.) That’s it! Nothing I do will ever make my life any more meaningful or worthwhile. Every other human relationship or achievement pales into nothingness (or even a negative!) in comparison (Phil 3:8, Is 64:6).

Come to think of it, why should I feel any better because it was my idea that solved a problem, or that started a great new initiative, than if it was someone else’s idea? If I really cared about the kingdom of God, would I really prefer that I was the source of the great ideas? Shouldn’t it really only matter to me that great ideas are gaining influence – from anywhere or anyone? (Matt 23:6)

And if I thought my worth was demonstrated by the ideas and influence that I contribute, or the networks I am part of (Luke 18:11), what does that say about Jesus’ ultimate statement of my worth on Calvary? (Rom 2:4)

I’m even slightly drunk on influence in my motivation for writing this piece. There’s a part of me that wants you to read this and think “Wow! That Daniel guy… Ahem, that Dr Livingston rather… He’s really onto something there – I like what he wrote.” Guilty. (Luke 20:46.) I want as many “Likes” and comments as possible. I admit I’m totally intoxicated on influence!

But even though my motives are still tainted with pride and selfishness, I’m sharing this anyway. Perhaps it may help someone else realise that pursuing satisfaction by “getting high on influence” is shallow, fleeting and superficial.

What if someone else gets appointed to that desired leadership position, or to that Board or committee. Or someone else has better success in turning people’s lives around for good (Luke 14:8, Mark 9:38-41, 1 Cor 1:10-19). How can we find satisfaction independent of the success or failure of our ideas, leadership, influence and networking?

I’m happy to report that I’ve found ultimate satisfaction in Jesus. My satisfaction and worth are entirely in Him (1 Cor 1:30-31, Col 2:10). He saw our worth even when we were rebels. He died for us anyway. For you. For me (Rom 5:8). And already calls us His children (1 Jn 3:1).

41miCto6IOL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Now that I know this, should I not bother to use my influence for good, because I might get my kicks out of my influence instead of my identity in Christ? No. Jesus still encourages us to be the “salt of the earth” and to “let your light shine.” But the reason we should be an influence for good is so that others will “glorify your father in heaven”, not to increase our own personal satisfaction or sense of worth (Matt: 5:13-16).

Brother Yun of the book The Heavenly Man experienced numerous amazing miracles of God’s leading, enabling him to be a massive positive influence in China. But he had to learn this lesson too. His words are golden:

“We are absolutely nothing. We have nothing to be proud about. We have no abilities and nothing to offer God. The fact that he chooses to use us is only due to his grace. It has nothing to do with us. If God should choose to raise up others for his purpose and never use us again we would have nothing to complain about” (p 345).

Needle in a Haystack: True Story

You’re about to read an amazing true story of an incredibly unlikely set of circumstances that saved a friend of mine from suffering, separation and loss. So unlikely that it gives me reason to believe in an unseen hand guiding the affairs of our lives. You can have confidence in the story because I was directly involved, wrote down the details shortly after it happened, and know several others who can also verify details of what happened.

Have you ever tried to find one person among millions? Source: limenika-nea.blogspot.gr

Have you ever tried to find one person among millions? Source: limenika-nea.blogspot.gr

Joe[*] was deeply distressed. He had tried his hardest to be the best Christian he knew how to be, but felt that God did not accept him.

Joe was a reclusive young fellow. He’d previously been involved in dark satanic arts and rituals. He struggled with depression and anxiety. But he was most earnest.

A few years ago, Joe reached the point of despair. The Christianity he was pursuing was not working for him. He reached a very private personal crisis that only he knew about. Feeling unable to talk to anyone, he devised a plan to bring resolution. At least he hoped it would resolve his struggles.

He would leave everything he knew and go back to work in the satanic music store in another state where he had previously worked.

He left work early that afternoon, then gathered his most important possessions. He dyed his blond hair black, shaved part of his head, and put on black clothes, sunglasses and boots. He was making a definite departure from his search for light to go back to the darkness he knew. He wanted nobody to recognise him or to intervene.

He got in his car and drove to the train station near the church he had been attending. He scribbled a note to say goodbye. He left the note on the car seat, and left a loaded gun in the car boot. He grabbed his bags and caught the train to Sydney’s Central station where he would then catch the overnight train that was due to leave at 7pm.

His family noticed that he didn’t come home at the usual time so started to make some enquiries. They realised something was not right with Joe so quickly became worried. They thought perhaps he had gone to a midweek church meeting so went looking there. They found his car and saw his note.

Their hearts started racing. What had happened to their beloved Joe? The note was brief and gave no indication of whether he was leaving or … They did not want to think.

Then they opened the boot, saw the loaded weapon, and their worst fears flooded over them.

They quickly called some of Joe’s friends to try to trace him, hoping he had not harmed himself. But nobody knew anything of Joe’s movements that afternoon.

Joe had been a member of the youth group in an active and growing church, and so he had a couple of close friends with whom he sometimes socialised. These two young men embarked on a city wide search for their friend.

But it was like finding a needle in a haystack. Finding one missing person in a city of 4 million seemed futile. Joe left no clues as to where he was going or what he intended to do.

His friends and family asked the whole church to pray for Joe, that he would be protected from harm and restored back to his family.

The message to pray for Joe reached me at the University of Technology that evening. I had an evening class and was heading home a little after 7pm. I prayed silently for Joe as I was walking back to the train station to go home.

As I was hurrying through Sydney’s Central station to catch my train, I thought I recognised a vaguely familiar figure in the corner of my eye.

Country link train on Central's Platform 1. Source: mjtravlife.blogspot.com

Country link train on Central’s Platform 1. Source: mjtravlife.blogspot.com

There was Joe, sitting on a bench on Platform 1, waiting for his interstate train.

I almost walked right past him. He was barely recognisable.

He tried to avoid my eyes. I did a double take, called his name. It was Joe alright!

He was shy, embarrassed, but most important was still alive and well! The lost needle had been found in the haystack the size of Sydney!

Joe told me of his plan to go and work at the satanic music store. I was so happy to have found him, but so sad for his desperation. I pled with him to stay with us. “We love you, Joe. God loves you.”

Joe was a little bit cautious and reserved. I assured him that his parents were really worried for him, and truly loved him. He hesitated. I continued to plead with him.

After a couple of minutes he decided not to leave Sydney. He would come back home with me! What joy and relief!

As we were leaving Platform 1 to go buy Joe a ticket to get the train back home instead, the overnight interstate train pulled onto the platform. It was half an hour late!

I went with him all the way back to his car parked near our church. On the way he showed me what he had packed in his bags. He showed me a couple of clubs covered with spikes that he had prepared to use as weapons. I was shocked but happy to have Joe back safe and sound.

I believe in a loving God who was looking out for Joe that night.

There was a board meeting at the church that evening. They were all praying for Joe. Imagine their surprise and joy to see the direct answer to their prayers.

Joe’s parents were filled with relief to see their boy back home. The whole ordeal was over in just a few hours, without the need for any emergency services.

How much worse it could have been for Joe, his family, and his friends.

Praise God for the safe and happy ending to the day’s drama.

***

Just think about all the things that happened that evening, and ponder with me the probability that all of this just happened by random chance.

Joe had maybe about 50 people praying for him, and just a handful actively looking for him: his family and his two mates. He was one person lost in a city of 4 million, and on his way to another city.

I had prayed for him but had no idea that he would be anywhere near me on my route home from university. I was definitely not looking for him. Joe normally lived and worked about an hour from where I was studying.

Normally closed passageway to enter via Platform 1. Source: Google Streetview

Normally closed passageway to enter via Platform 1. Source: Google Streetview

I was catching a suburban train at Central. Joe was catching an interstate train. He was already on his platform waiting for his train that arrived half an hour late. Had it been on time, or just a bit less late, our paths could not have crossed.

And what was I even doing on an interstate platform? Occasionally I did enter the station that way, but I usually went the way most people do, via the Devonshire St tunnel that links Broadway directly to the suburban train platforms.

Sometimes I would take the above ground route. And rarely, I would enter an opening in the wall at Platform 1. If you go to Central you will find this opening is usually closed. Entry is not permitted. For some reason, that evening, I went via Platform 1.

My normal route to catch my train would not normally lead me to where Joe was waiting for his train. Source: Google Maps

My normal route to catch my train would not normally lead me to where Joe was waiting for his train. Source: Google Maps

Even still, Central is a very busy station and Platform 1 was crowded with people waiting to board that train. The chances of me seeing Joe that evening were vanishingly slim.

It all makes sense looking back. God was in control. These were not mere random coincidences.

We have a God who loves and cares for each of us deeply. But He doesn’t force Himself on anyone. He doesn’t even provide incontrovertible evidence that He exists, because He wants people to freely choose to love Him back. But He provides enough evidence on which to solidly base our faith. This story is one such example.

As I look back in my life the evidence of His love for me and for all of humanity is overwhelming. We have an amazing God of love and grace!

[*] Not his real name

Should God Make My Decisions?

Source: focusonleadership.com.au

Source: focusonleadership.com.au

Summary:

How can we know God’s will? Does God desire to direct all our decisions, or let us make them for ourselves? Or something in between?

Is there one and only one specific and distinct path that God has mapped out uniquely for each of our individual lives?

I believe that God’s will for our lives is a lot broader than that, encompassing multiple alternatives within His moral boundaries. Expecting to perceive God’s will as a specific choice between good options in all our decisions is inconsistent, arbitrary and impractical. In fact, impossible.

As our loving Father, God wants us to learn to make good decisions for ourselves based on the principles and values of His character of love and freedom. Not to treat Him as a Divine fortune-teller.

The Decision Dilemma

Christians often try to give God the responsibility for our own decisions as though they were His. Closely related is the thinking that “God’s will for me is one path and one path only. The exact career path, living locations, “the one” life partner. Any deviation from that one thread of decision-making is living out of His will.” So the thinking goes.

In contrast, I believe God delights in giving us freedom to choose our path within a broad range of options that are within His already-revealed will. His Word gives broad principles of how we should prioritise the kingdom of heaven in our lives.

God-Directed Decisions a Relative Rarity

Only rarely does God specifically tell us who to marry. Hosea and Gomer spring to mind as an example.

Or where to live. Enter Abraham.

Or what career to pursue: Jonah.

I believe these are special cases. Exceptions, not the rule. And even then, they do not provide a basis for the manner in which Christians today tend to approach finding God’s will to aid their decision-making much like fortune-telling.

In none of these cases do we find the human praying to God that He would reveal His choice in these specific matters. God simply came and unambiguously gave an unexpected life-changing plan.

Fortune-telling – Avoiding Risk

However, we want to avoid the hard work, risk and responsibility involved in constantly prioritising among good options for major life decisions. We want God to do more than simply tell us what is good and or bad. We want Him to tell us which specific option is best. Wouldn’t that make life much easier? I say this looking in the mirror.

To be consistent, though, we would probably need to take this ‘fortune-teller’ approach to all decisions, not just the major ones. For example, whether to drive in the left or right lane down the freeway. We usually make such small decisions thinking little of it. But the potential consequences of a lane-changing decision can be just as life-changing as any major life decision.

There’s some very practical and also some deep ideological problems with wanting to outsource responsibility for all the ‘major’ decisions of our lives to a ‘fortune-teller’ God.

Ideological Dissonance: Love versus Fortune-telling

God created us to be free persons, with the ability to creatively express ourselves. To be independent. To love. Love is only possible for one who has freedom to choose. Otherwise we are merely robots.

In a good marriage, both spouses try to please each other. But imagine if a wife tried to please her husband by asking him which job he wanted her to take, which clothes he wanted her to buy and wear, and made every decision according to his desires. One of them would soon become unhappy. The wife would tire of the husband’s overbearing control. Or the husband would tire of his wife’s inability to figure things out for herself. Or both.

Yet sometimes we treat our relationship with God like that. Do we want Him to make all our major decisions out of desire for a mutually satisfying loving relationship based on freedom? I suspect that’s hardly our motivation for effectively treating God like a fortune-teller. My motivations have been selfish when I’ve fallen into that trap.

The marriage analogy suggests that mutually loving relationships are optimised when there is freedom of choice – freedom of creative expression – within rather broad boundaries.

A parent-child analogy is also useful as we are also God’s children. If the parent makes every decision for the child, the relationship will soon become dysfunctional and the child will not learn or grow.

In reality, God gives us broad principles of right and wrong and gives us freedom to exercise our creativity and choice.

Isn’t that what we’d prefer for our kids?

Can you imagine wanting your kids to just ask you to direct all their career and life choices? Yet that’s effectively what we expect God to do for us. Wouldn’t you prefer your growing children to express their own unique identity and make decisions for themselves?

But, you say, asking God to direct all our ‘major’ choices has the added benefit of His omniscience and future vision informing what is optimal. (Like a fortune-teller.)

The problem with the fortune-teller approach is that God’s Word doesn’t work like that. It gives us principles on which to grow in making our own sound decisions rather than a recipe for discerning God’s choice as if we were reading tarot cards or astrology.

Pragmatic Conflicts and Dead-ends with Ad-hoc Fortune-telling

There are also many practical problems with the belief that God led you to a particular past decision that you made, or direction that you chose.

Let’s say you pray something like “God, if I get the job I’ve applied for in New York, then I’ll take it as Your leading that You want me to move my family there.”

At first everything seems to confirm that “God” wants you in New York. You get the job, your spouse also gets a transfer there. The kids find an excellent school. Everything is going swimmingly.

Then the company that employed you winds up. Your wife falls pregnant again so soon neither of you will be working. The kids’ school ends up becoming a negative influence on the kids due to bullying and other problems.

What do you do? “God” led you to New York, right?

If God really did enter into all our bargaining and direct our lives like that, would He put an expiry date on His leading in a particular decision? Might He say, for example, “OK, move to New York and stay there no matter what happens for the rest of your lives.” Or, “stay there for the next three years.” Or maybe, “until things go bad and you feel like going somewhere else.”

To take this approach consistently, you would really have to stay following a particular direction until you received a new or different direction.

How would you apply that approach to choosing which lane to drive in on a motorway? A lane change might be needed more quickly to avert disaster than you have time to even formulate a prayer to your fortune-telling “God”.

And if you felt that God chose a particular school for your children, would you be free to move them if they were bullied or abused at that school? Would you interpret any adversity as a new “direction” from God? Or maybe God is testing your faith? How do you know?

There are always going to be exceptional circumstances or permutations of events that your original “directed” decision doesn’t cover. So the only way for “God”-directed decision making (fortune-teller style) to work effectively is for God to direct literally every decision, no matter how big or small. Plus all revisiting and revision of every decision.

Difficulties Compounded when Others are Involved

A whole new set of problems would be introduced, however, when our outsourced decisions involved the lives of other people who may or may not share the same view of “God’s direction” in every particular life choice.

Andrew may think that God has directed him to marry Sarah and tells her so. But Sarah believes her prayers are leading her to a relationship with Harry.

Beth and Bill marry, believing God directed them to join their lives. They share their story with their friends Dave and Amy who didn’t perceive any particular divine direction for their marriage. Amy begins to question her choice to marry Dave. Their marriage begins to falter because she thinks there must have been someone else God had in mind for her other than Dave.

Back to Beth and Bill. Some years down the track, Bill abandons his faith in God and begins to have affairs, abuse Beth and threaten the kids. Is Beth obligated to stay in the marriage because “God” directed them to marry?

What a mess! Surely there’s a better way.

Urgent Decisions – Even More Complicated for Fortune-telling

Then there’s a whole different set of decisions that are required in an urgent timeframe. Like whether to put your hand out to stop your child from running out onto a busy road. Should such decisions also wait for a clearly visible direction from “God” that applied to that particular circumstance?

Another example of this type of decision is when someone asks us to do something. We feel as though we have to take the decision away and pray about it before we can accept the offer. That may well be appropriate. But why isn’t it also possible that you already know whether you will say yes or no to being asked to preach, pray, or be an elder? Your answer can be just as “spiritual” if it is given straight away, as you ideally have already communed daily with God about the gospel commission and its call on you to serve (2 Tim 4:2).

Why do we feel that we need a clear direction from God when asked to serve in any role or activity that will last for a year or more, or be in front of a hundred people or more, for at least half an hour. But we most likely never think like that before opening our mouth to make a comment in a small group Bible study.

Clearly, expecting to perceive “God’s direction” specifically for all “major” life decisions is inconsistent, arbitrary, impractical and even impossible.

How to Make Decisions that Please God

According to God’s Word, we have freedom to choose a variety of options within the broad range of His will (1 Cor 10:31). There are underlying principles that define the boundaries of options that are inside and outside of His will (e.g., see 1 Thes 4:3). These are clearly evident in His word, starting with the Ten Commandments (Ps 40:8).

Does God ever lead through providential circumstances or serendipitous answers to prayer? I believe He does. Often. I have experienced this. But in my experience He has done this more often for instantaneous opportunities to share His love that only make sense in retrospect.

Or to confirm decisions that we have already made ourselves using the principles and tools He has given us. It’s as if God says: “Good choice, Daniel. You understand My values and I will bless your decision so long as you keep trusting in Me.” It’s important to clarify, however, that had I made another decision within the broad boundaries of His kingdom’s principles, He could also have confirmed that alternative choice.

Who’s in Control – God or Me?

We should be always in submission to God’s indwelling Spirit – daily surrendered to His will. But we still take responsibility for our decisions. His ‘control’ does not make us robots. It is not a coercive control. It does not remove our independent freewill and creative choice. It protects us from the evil motives and selfish desires that would otherwise be in control.

The important thing is to live a life of continual communion with God – in prayer and study of His Word. Continually making the small decisions in harmony with the values of the kingdom of heaven. It is in this sense that we should be willing “slaves” to His will. And constantly seeking to know it. Though not as robots! Or fortune-teller clients.

Living like this will result in us also making optimal decisions in the big things.

How to Discern God’s Guidance

Think twice before praying: “God, I’ll marry the first person who speaks to me.” Such a prayer is foolish. It doesn’t make what happens next “God’s will” just because you put your fortune-telling “God” in a corner.

There are still multiple careers, living locations, and marriage choices that God can bless. Yes, still bring those decisions to God. But ask for wisdom (James 1:5). Ask daily for a deeper love for, and understanding of, His values and character, so that you can intelligently become more like Him (Ps 119:34, Jn 17:3). Not merely a robot or a fortune-teller’s client.

Does God ever direct particular choices for an individual’s specific life decisions? Very occasionally, yes. If He does, it’s, usually unexpected and unambiguous (e.g., Paul’s Damascus Road experience, see Acts 9:6,15). If this happens to you, follow God’s specific calling on your life with all your heart and soul.

If you do not discern a specific call on your particular life choices, it is not because you are any less spiritual. You can still live your life knowing you are within His will (Gal 1:4, Rom 12:2). Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and follow all the directions He’s given in His Word (Eccl 12:13, Matt 28:19,20, Rom 6:16,17).

Should we depend more on ourselves for making decisions and spend less energy seeking to know God’s will? Absolutely not. Seeking knowledge of God’s will is more about understanding His character (Eph 1:17,18) and growing in wisdom, faith and love (Eph 3:17-19) than about getting arbitrary signs that point to option A or B. Thus a greater investment of energy is required when we realise that we make our decisions with wisdom from God rather than treating God as a fortune-teller.

And yes, we should still give God the glory for His leading in our lives. For giving us wisdom, and growing our characters. But hesitate before you claim that God directed you to a particular choice as though He were a fortune-teller that could be commanded to give you an answer through a job interview or a flip of a coin. That will backfire on you and bring God’s name into disrepute.

Resolution

I want to come back to the “New York” example I gave above. That is the most plausible-sounding of all the examples that I’ve given under the category of “fortune-telling”. It may have raised some questions in your mind.

I’ve done almost exactly the same in the past. Not about moving to New York, but about doing a PhD. I prayed that if I got accepted to do a PhD, I would take it as God’s will. When I got accepted, I told people that God led me to do the PhD. In hindsight, I don’t know whether doing the PhD really was God’s ideal for my life at that stage. But it’s done and it’s not a question worth answering as I can’t go back and change the past.

What if you prayed “God, if I get accepted to be a drug mule I’ll take that as Your will that I should go to Indonesia.” In the highly likely event that you are accepted, should you really take it as God’s will just because you prayed that prayer?

Should Usain Bolt assume it’s God’s will if He prays, “God, I’ll take it as Your will that I should be on the athletics team if I get accepted”? Of course he’ll get accepted. Whether joining the team would be God’s will for him or not is an entirely different question.

A better approach is to study God’s revealed will through His Word (Ps 119:105). Seek advice from people of integrity (Prov 11:14). And ask God in prayer: “Please give me wisdom for this decision. If there is anything important that I’m missing, please open or close doors accordingly.” Then move forward in faith (James 1:5,6).

Often doors will open or close suggesting an answer to your prayers. But there’s always the problem of not knowing whether an obstacle is God allowing your faith to be tested or God closing a door. Or whether an opportunity is God allowing you to be tempted or God opening a door.

I believe often God simply does not intervene at all, beyond natural cause and effect, to allow us to mature and grow in our decision-making. Slowly we begin to realise the confusion created by treating God like a fortune-teller.

Instead He is a loving Father who delights to give us wisdom and freedom to creatively express ourselves in living out our loving response to His goodness. This does not lead to decision-making independent from God, but to closer intimacy with our Heavenly Father as we realise the profound awesomeness of free will.