For many people today, faith in an all-powerful and all-knowing God is hard to reconcile with true freedom of choice exercised by human beings. If God knows everything that will happen and has a plan for creation, what is the use of racking our brains to try and make authentic choices?
First of all, the notion of a divine “plan” does not mean that there is a kind of book in which everything is written down ahead of time. It simply expresses the truth that the existence of the universe and our own lives is not the result of mere chance, but that we exist for a reason. God created the world and human beings so that we can enter into a relationship with him; God wants to share his own life with us. As an age-old Christian hymn puts it: “In Christ, God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy in his presence, in love” (Ephesians 1:4). All the events by which God manifests himself outwardly are commanded by a prior intention (prior not in time, but logically), namely, to give us the fullness of life in communion with him. That is his “plan,” his “will,” and it is nothing other than the expression of his love.
This loving will is expressed in the vast diversity of persons and situations. It manifests itself first of all in the gifts God grants to creatures. In the case of human beings, one of our greatest gifts is the ability to choose, to act freely. This gift is essential, for God wishes from us a response of love to his love. Forcing us or determining our choices would be in total contradiction with his designs; it would make love impossible.
The error of believing that everything is already predetermined comes from confusing God as he is in himself with created time. God is not subject to our time. God is neither “before” nor “after”; God Is. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I Am” (John 8:58). The point of contact between God and us can only be the present moment. Someone even named God “the Eternal Now.” God did not create the universe first and then go off into his “splendid isolation.” On the contrary, by his Spirit God lives every instant of our life with us, encouraging us to lead it in harmony with his will of love. Far from being fixed in advance, God’s plan is what we create in his company minute by minute, our whole life long, by trying to respond fully to the gift of his love by a life of solidarity and service of others.
What does freedom of choice mean for a believer?
Freedom can be looked at from many angles. Today, people usually emphasize freedom of choice: to be free means being able to decide by oneself what one wants to be or do. This outlook is so predominant that, for some people, God is even an enemy of the human race because he wishes to dictate our behavior. Faith as a result makes us less free.
To have an integral vision of freedom, two different levels must be distinguished. On the one hand, freedom requires choices which are not determined by external constraints. In creating human beings in his image, God gave them this ability to choose. In us, everything is not programmed ahead of time. In order to grow we have to take steps that no one else can take for us. And as has often been said, even not to choose is still a choice!
This ability to choose, good and necessary in itself, is not sufficient to attain true freedom, however. We must make choices in function of something; our decisions are oriented towards a final goal or purpose. To make us authentically free, that purpose can only be to become the person we truly are, to bring our identity to its full flowering.
It should thus be obvious that an understanding of freedom that would encourage us to do whatever we felt like is deficient even in human terms. There are choices that make us less ourselves. To take extreme examples, someone who “freely” decides to take drugs, or to commit suicide, cuts off the branch on which they are sitting and deprives themselves of the possibility of making future decisions that would lead to greater happiness.
“Lord, you search me and you know me,” sings the psalmist (Psalm 139:1). If the creator of the human heart is the one who knows it best of all (see Jeremiah 17:9-10), then with his help we will be able to make the choices that lead us to our true identity and thus to true happiness. God helps us first of all by his Word, which indicates the right way to act, and which culminates in the life of his Son, Jesus Christ. God helps us likewise by the inner presence of his Spirit, the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection. By trusting in God and trying to walk in his steps, we do not abdicate our freedom; we use our ability to make free choices in order to become truly ourselves in a relationship with the Source of our existence. We create a space for the full blossoming of human life in us and around us.