Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Is There Such a Thing as Free Will?

Can we say that mankind truly has a free will? 
What exactly is free will? 
As I began to type this post, I decided to Google “What is free will?” 
The first link that came up in my search was from Princeton University’s Wordnet (a lexical database for English).  It defined free will as “the power of making free choices unconstrained by external agencies”. defines “free will” with the following two definitions:  “1. free and independent choice; voluntary decision.  2. the doctrine that the conduct of human beings expresses personal choice and is not simply determined by physical or divine forces.”
Wordnet gives a very solid, accurate, and concise definition of free will.  Let’s use that definition for this discussion.
Free will
the power of making free choices
unconstrained by external agencies
I absolutely believe that mankind has the ability and privilege of making choices.  Choices are an important part of being human.  However, that said, I do not believe that mankind is able to exercise free will as defined above.
Every single choice we make has been influenced by something that has touched us in our lifetime.  Every single thing that we have ever heard, seen, felt, and experienced in this earthly world has influenced our thought processes and the choices that we make.  Even before we breathed one breath of air and could hear, feel, or see the world, there were things which were ordained entirely by God that have played an immense role in every decision we make.  Those preordained things are the foundation for all the experiences that we face after we are born. 
When we were conceived and formed in our mother’s womb, we had no choice and no control over:
the day of our conception
the circumstances surrounding our conception
the genetic make-up of our parents
if we would be male or female
what time period we were born in
the exact day we were born
in what location of the world
what we would look like, “attractive” or “not so attractive” to the human eye
the color of our skin, our hair, our eyes
the shape of our body
if we would have all ten toes and ten fingers and be of sound mind and speech
our personality or talents
into what family we would be born in
the behaviors, traditions, or beliefs of that family
what kind of parents we would have
if we would have any siblings and what their personalities would be like
or the day we will die
“For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb.  I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well.  My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”  (Psalm 139: 13-16)
All those factors were ordained by God before we were ever born.  We had no control, no choice, and no will in determining any of them.  Yet, all of those elements are a tremendous influence in who we are and in our choices.  Before we are born there are “external agencies” already affecting our lives that will constrain the choices we make after we are born.
Once we are born, there are other influences heaped upon us each and every day.  All that we hear, feel, learn, and experience from every source we come into contact with in our lives becomes an influence in the present and for the future.  I could type a countless list of all the things that affect us each day, but I don’t believe it is necessary to do so.
Corrie Ten Boom said it perfectly in her book, The Hiding Place:
“Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see."
I wholeheartedly agree with that quote.  Every experience and every person that touches our lives is placing a mark upon us.  I do not believe in accidents or random chance; I believe in God-incidence.  God has paved the path for every experience I have ever faced and every person that has been a part of my life.  Whether we see it as “good” or “bad” makes no difference at all.  The fact is that we are uniquely touched in some way and affected one way or another in the present and the future.  Everyone is affected differently by earthly circumstances and people based on the factors God had ordained before they were ever born.
With so many influences upon our lives, we cannot say we have “free will”.  Every choice we make has a strong influence and a reason behind it; therefore, it is not truly free.
The God Who makes the world and all that is in it, He, the Lord inherent of heaven and earth … He Himself gives to all life and breath and all.  Besides, He makes out of one every nation of mankind, to be dwelling on all the surface of the earth, specifying the setting of the seasons and the bounds of their dwelling, for them to be seeking God, if consequently, they may surely grope for Him and may be finding Him, though to be sure, not far from each one of us is He inherent, for in Him we are living and moving and are…”  (Acts 17:24-29)
God has been sovereign over the course of this world and over our lives before we were ever born, and He continues to be sovereign whether we believe it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, and whether we like it or not.  The choices we make are interwoven within His plan.  God does not have a Plan B.  He is still on Plan A.  We can somehow convince ourselves that man’s will is more powerful than God’s or that man’s choices can mess up God’s plan.  But if we do, we merely deceive ourselves.  The creation does not supersede the Creator.
Great God of all, "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”  (Job 42:2)

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  1. Great post, Mary Ann! Thanks for sharing this. :)

    If you're interested, you might enjoy the discussions over at

    1. Hi Cindy! Thanks so much for your comment. I'll have to check out that forum sometime. I have owned the Talbott and MacDonald books on universalism for years. Funny, though, I have not read them all the way through yet! :) Just bits and pieces here and there.

  2. I tend to agree, I don't we have as much free will as we imagine. I find Compatibilism (God always achieving His will without violating our will) helpful but I wouldn't be upset with God if the reality was different!

    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment, Alex. Blessings on your journey.

  3. It seems to me, that in philosophy, the definition of free will you have chosen is the preferred definition, for sure. And with that definition your understanding seems sound. Some time, perhaps, it might be profitable to expound on another definition. You included,
    " “1. free and independent choice; voluntary decision." in your paper.

    One of the ramifications of the discussion on free will, is the justification of imposing punishment on someone who has only done what she has been created to do.

    With your conclusion that there is no free will, how do you explain the excruciating torment that many humans endure or are killed by, etc.

    Are you okay with parents punishing their children for "bad" decisions, for instance?

    I prefer a limited free will, in which we are free to make choices that we can follow a process dictated by those choices culminating in a good outcome in the very end, if not sooner. I got the idea from Thomas Talbott, where he says something like, "God limits our free will at the point where we might cause irreparable damage to ourselves or others. (That is damage that He cannot repair.)

    Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Jack! Thanks so much for your comment and sharing your thoughts with me.

      Regarding “punishment on someone who has only done what she has been created to do”, I am always reminded of Romans 9 and turn there to help me find understanding. Even though it is beyond our full scope of understanding why, apparently God has chosen for some people to be vessels of honor and others to be vessels of dishonor. I don’t believe this is necessarily always a lifetime lot any one of us is dealt. It seems to me that most of us at different seasons of life play the role of being a vessel of honor or dishonor. Regardless, we are assured that his mercy and compassion are solely up to Him, not dependent anything we do or don’t do.

      When you ask the question about “the excruciating torment that many humans endure or are killed by”, I think you are referring to the torment endured or death faced in this earthly life. Death is part of living this life and a consequence of what happened in the Garden of Eden, but it is not everlasting, as we are told in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 that the last enemy to be abolished will be death. I believe God created good and evil (Isaiah 45) and that humanity has been subjected to live under both on this earth (Romans 8:18-25). Humans were created with the ability to fail/miss the mark of perfection/sin and so we do. However, again referring to some of the scriptures such as Isaiah 45 or Romans 9 in their entirety, that doesn’t mean that we are to be ignoring or excusing wrongdoing or calling wrongs as rights. I believe we are to call a wrong a wrong and to correct a child (or adult) and allow them to face consequences for their wrong doing. We are given insight (as in Proverbs 3:12) that God does correct wrongdoing and does so out of complete love and for our ultimate good and the good of others.

      Even when we make “bad” or “wrong” choice, God remains completely sovereign and in control over all. He is not caught by surprise, and He is not forced to revert to plan b, c, or z. We may or may not face terrible consequences stemming from such choices, but those choices and the following consequences are all necessary threads in the tapestry of God.

      In thinking about the limited free will you mentioned, I do not see that in effect. I see people left to act in horrific ways and doing what any human being would call irreparable earthly damage to themselves and others. While with human eyes it may seem as irreparable damage, I know it is not ultimately so. God is God of all and over all, and His ultimate goal is complete redemption of all that needs redeeming. There is nothing that God is unable to ultimately repair or make completely new. If there is, then He is not God, and He is not in complete control. This earthly life we live is but a little speck in the ultimate goal of God’s plan and His ultimate redemption. “…the sufferings of the current era do not deserve (are not worthy of) the glory about to be revealed…” (Romans 8:18).

      Those are some of my thoughts. I address the subject of “where is God when bad things happen” in some of my more recent posts from this year. In some of those posts, I also include a link to an old post from March 2009 discussing the “knowledge of good and evil” which also relates to our discussion. You may also find of interest a previous post regarding the "importance of contrast" from July 2012.

      Thanks again, Jack!


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