Conflating free will and real choice

There is a conflation of both concepts in our churches and in our societies today. When people speak of God giving us free will, they often mean that in real life, we are confronted with real choices and have real decisions to make. But the latter can exist without the former. We can be faced with real choices and yet have no free will.

The confusion here lies in our understanding of the will. What is the will? If we define it as the mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action, then the idea of having a will that is free makes as much sense as owning a book that is talkative. If we define it as the desire to do something, then we are conflating two concepts that are better left apart as to provide us with a deeper understanding of the way we were created.

We were created in such a way that our wills are bound to our desires. We will what we desire. Simply put, we set our minds to acquire that which our hearts desire. In biblical language, where you heart is, there your treasure will be also. And if we treasure something, it will manifest itself in a specific act of the will, like the man who found treasure in a field and sold all he had to buy the field.

This means it is more useful for us to focus on our desires than our wills when we try to understand the reality of choice. We have many choices because we have many desires. Because these desires are often in conflict with one another, choosing between them becomes a struggle. This struggle is an exercise of the will, but we should not misinterpret the mere presence of activity as free will, just as we should not misinterpret a prisoner struggling with his chains as being free. It is more akin to being pulled by a pack of dogs in a hundred different directions.

Therefore the right question to ask is: why do we desire what we desire? And an even more pertinent question is: why do we desire that which does us no good? For example, we tend to eat foods that are delicious but are bad for our health. There is short term pleasure, but long term pain. A rational person would be able to weigh up the pleasure and pain and determine that in the long run it is not worth eating the foods. Because we don’t behave in such a way, we are clearly irrational and time-inconsistent people, putting infinite weight on the short term rather than equal weight across the length of our lives.

In short, our desires are pretty messed up. This is what the Bible means by sin – a disordering of our desires. We are all twisted up and broken inside, and to make matters worse we enjoy it, like a fool enjoying free heating in a burning building. What God does when he redeems us is to begin reordering our desires, enabling us to become fully human and enjoy the things that should be enjoyed in the right way and in the right proportions. He sets us free from the tyranny of our conflicting desires, whipping our desire dogs into line and setting the pace. So we are no longer leashed to a hundred dogs but to one master.

This is entirely biblical, as Paul sets forth in Romans 6. We are slaves to the one we obey, whether of sin which leads to death or of righteousness which leads to eternal life. But he goes on to qualify his argument by saying that he is speaking in human terms because of our natural limitations. In other words, to our sin-drenched minds, slavery is slavery no matter the master. If we had eyes to see reality for what it is, we would see a distinct difference between the two. One is slavery that involves clapping jangling chains on our wrists and hearts; the other is obedience of such completeness that it looks like slavery to the world. Our will is not so much free of desire as we are free to completely subject our will to the one for whom we were created.


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