Thursday, January 8, 2009

three good questions

Recently, someone asked me these three questions:
1. Do you believe that we have free will?
2. What does that look like in terms of us coming to faith in Christ?
3. How does that affect the way you preach the Gospel?

Below are some thoughts.

1. Do you believe that we have free will?

I believe the answer is "yes and no and yes" because this question cannot be answered apart from a retelling of history.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Yes: To be created in the image of God is to be imbued with the dignity of being Causes. The Creation Account tells us that God invests each human with a slice of kingdom authority. He gives us charge of a domain, whether that domain is large or small. This is a big portion of what sets humans apart from the other members of the created order. Our lives, therefore, consist of voluntarily offering back to God that which God has freely given us. This is the essence of The Jesus Prayer: “May God’s name be regarded as holy. May God be the head of that which he has entrusted to us.” Jesus would have us voluntarily offer him lordship. Indeed, the value of such an offer is contingent upon its voluntary nature. The kingdom (actual reign) of God is experienced in this life to the extent that we follow God’s lead in those areas he has given us leadership. This act (of offering back to God that which he has given us) is entirely voluntary and presupposes actual free choice. We have a say because God has given us a say.

He gives us this kingdom authority because he wanted to create a cosmos in which true love is possible. Notice: there is no such thing as compulsory love. Love, by its nature, is voluntarily given and received. God does not force us to love him (in this sense he does not compel us to love him). When the apostle Paul relates the idea that “Christ’s love compels us” he is NOT asserting that God objectively forces us to do “thus and such”; he is saying that Christ’s love for us is so great that subjectively we are influenced as if we have no other choice. The fact is: we have a choice but, when our existence is viewed in the light of Christ’s love for us, the choice to rebel or reject God’s love is the most unwise choice one could possibly make. When Christ’s love is accurately understood it is as if all other choices afforded us disappear, for there is scarcely no comparison. Regardless of the subjective power of Christ’s love, however, the fact remains: there is still a choice to accept or reject that love. That is the Great Question of the Divine Drama: the adventure in the cosmic play (of which we are actors composed of the choice to play well or poorly) consists of the choice to either love our Father with our whole heart or not. Nothing pleases God more than the choice to love him by following him and obeying him, for this is why we were created.

Notice that the commission God gave Adam and Eve to tend the garden is more than merely an historic event; it is also an archetype that plays out in each preceding and current generation. Humans participate actually (in reality) in the work of creation and re-creation (obviously not ex nihilo, but we do possess the capacity to create, nonetheless).

All of this presupposes free will. Having said that…

No: we do not possess free will. Our soul is in bondage.

Martin Luther wrote about this in his treatise “The Bondage of the Will.” In this treatise, he appealed to the image of slavery contained throughout the apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

Again, the biblical narrative serves as both historic account and literary archetype: consider the Exodus. The children of Israel at one point freely chose to move to Egypt where there was food. They left the Promised Land in search of finer pastures. For a time, this worked out nicely for them. But generations passed and the rulers of Egypt forgot who Joseph was and how it came to pass that the Israelites lived among them. Suddenly, the Israelites were enslaved, forced to do the will of a ruthless master. Their choice was taken from them. They were no longer free to leave. What began as a free choice resulted in slavery.

In the same way, each of us chooses, of our own free will, to leave the “country” God has in mind for us. For a time, we appear to live freely in this new domain. But the kingdom of this new ruler proves, in time, tyrannous. Suddenly, we discover we are in chains, unable to leave, even though we may very much want to leave. In this sense, we have forfeited our choice.

Notice that when we offer The Evil One our free choice he is very happy to take it from us and never give it back, subjectively speaking. It is therefore correlative that the offer of our free choice to The Good One is the only way to guarantee that we will continue to possess free choice, subjectively speaking.

In this new domain (the kingdom of evil) notice, however, that (though the subjective capacity to choose freely has been suspended) the desire to choose freely still remains. Objectively, free will can never be killed. I point this out because it is as though a whisper of free choice still breathes, the faintest flicker of a rumor that true freedom really is possible. These whispers and rumors ensure that true freedom can never be stamped out, even in the midst of conditions that compel us to obey the will of the evil tyrant. The whispers point to the indelible, irrevocable imprint of free will on the human spirit. Hope of liberation has never been completely extinguished, so the historic narrative continues; every century has seen its own Exodus.

Thus, we come back to the “Yes” part of the answer:

We have been granted the subjective capacity, thanks to the liberating work of God, to choose freely once again. The work of God is, thus, that great Shadow that falls between real freedom and subjective tyranny.

T.S. Eliot alludes to this in his poem “The Hollow Men”:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For thine is the Kingdom

So, the answer is: Yes, we have free choice objectively. We have never lost that. That is why there will always be a candle of hope. But, no, we do not have free will, for we experience bondage subjectively. We have forfeited our free choice to the Evil One who takes our choice away from us. But,

Yes: subjectively we have been given back our freedom to choose, for the Shadow of God has fallen upon Egypt. The Shadow has defeated the adverse powers. The rumors are true. We really can be free. The whispers are more than mere wind. There is a Real Voice in the air, a pillar of cloud that can be followed. But, we don’t HAVE to follow The Voice. He wants us to follow and he will do everything in his power to convince us to follow, but the choice is ours. He will not force us to love him, for forced love is not love.

2. What does that look like in terms of us coming to faith in Christ?

I have alluded above as to an answer to this question, but let me take the image one step further for sake of greater clarity.

Let it be noted: in the act of creation and in the re-creative work of Christ in redemption notice that God has the capacity to do as he so chooses. He fills the gap between desire and spasm, mere potency and actual existence. He is The Shadow. We see this in the story of the Exodus: he overcame the power of the tyrant to make real freedom possible.

But notice that on that night God simultaneously revealed himself to be powerful and powerless, for he was not only The Shadow, he was also The Lamb. He is The Final Word that, like a lamb, remains silent for the slaughter. Though he has the capacity to speak, he does not always do so. In doing so, God practices solidarity with those whose voices have been silenced by tyranny. He does not have to do so, but he chooses to do so for the sake of love.

The fact is: God withholds his power. If this seems troubling to you, let it be remembered that he does so always for the sake of love. If space is what we need in order to see he truly loves us, then he will graciously grant us space. If it is silence, he will simply wait, like a patient Father.

We see this in creation: in The Creation Account we see God’s capacity to act and the simultaneous choice to hold back. Though God had the ability to govern the entire created order, he holds back some of his power to give us room to exercise the authority he has granted to us, all for the sake of love.

We also see this in The Exodus: God woos his people through miracle and sacrifice, victory and tragedy, power and martyrdom.

What this means in terms of coming to faith in Christ: God woos his lost, enslaved children through miracle and sacrifice. He is forever active, pleading with us to come to him, to love him freely, but he respects our dignity to choose and will give us room to choose, all for the sake of love.

In this way, our salvation is both a work of God from start to finish and a phenomenon in which we are will-ing participants.

Again: think “both/and”, yes and no, rather than “either/or”.

By the way, when we say the fruit of the Spirit is gentleness we are saying that those who are governed by God are characterized by the same gentleness that characterizes God. To say that God is gentle is not to say that he lacks power. It is, rather, to say that God restrains or holds back his power (again, always for the sake of love), for gentleness is power restrained. There is a great strength required to be gentle. Indeed, gentleness is contingent upon power. He who lacks power can only be weak, but he who possesses power and restrains it is truly gentle.

God gently woos us to him.

3. How does that affect the way you preach the Gospel?

Concerning how all this plays out practically speaking, the following text from I Peter sums up much: “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

Because God is (and has been) gentle in wooing us to him, evangelism should, therefore, be marked by gentleness and respect for the dignity of persons. Evangelism should include space, silence. Evangelism should be marked by sacrifice. We should be prepared to suffer even for what is right, for this is what God did for us.

Evangelism should also proceed from the conviction that The Shadow is at work, defeating the adverse powers. We participate in his act of liberation by keeping a whisper on the wind through prayer, knowing that the liberator is afoot, asking him to free the slaves. And we should wait patiently for that day when freedom comes to fruition.

Hope, patience, belief that people want to be free, gentleness, space, solidarity, sacrifice, prayer, respect: these are the marks of authentic gospel ministry.

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