Part One 13. The Phantom of Free Will

The Problem of EVIL and The Judgments of GOD

THE distressing effect of the antagonistic doctrines of free will and fatalism on the character of God calls for a readjustment of our thinking along scriptural lines. The word of God knows nothing of free will, nor does it recognize fatalism. Some elements of each are present. There are "free will" or voluntary offerings. There is the definite teaching that God is operating all in accord with His purpose. Yet neither of these denies the other. One is the divine viewpoint; the other the human. It is not only possible for faith to revel in God's sovereignty while recognizing human freedom, but it is our privilege to understand how this sovereignty can be and to rest in the knowledge of it.

The problem is a very practical one. Let us suppose that we have learned that God is carrying out His will, and that nothing man can do is able to defeat Him. The question then arises, What is the use of doing anything? Why pray when everything has been prearranged? The answer is very simple. God has prepared good works that we should walk in them. It is His will to exercise our hearts as to His ways and to engage our affections through the veil of uncertainty and ignorance which lies upon us. He would not have us know the details of His operations lest we repose on them instead of throwing ourselves unreservedly on Himself and confidently confiding in His love.

Man's limitations and ignorance are the foundations of his philosophy. He judges all else, even God, by the prison in which his faculties confine him. Surface appearances press on his consciousness and keep him from considering the actual, though imperceptible, realities of existence. Many a man has imagined that he is carrying out his own free will when he was, in fact, in the toils of another, and was doing the behests of a subtler intellect than his own. An unconscious man being carried to prison by a squadron of police is "free" so far as he is aware. So all men, unconscious of the tide and currents which are carrying them along, acknowledge no constraint, for their perceptions have become too calloused to perceive them.

What is the human will? Wherein does its freedom consist? It is my will to write upon this theme, yet I am conscious that it would not be my will but for the constraint of another Will, which is not mine. It is my will to do the will of God, to submerge my will in His. And, however contradictory it may seem, I have no freedom in doing my own will. There is no liberty for me but in the will of the Lord. So it will be seen that the human will is not absolute, and its freedom is relative. We shall see, as we consider the matter further, that there is no freedom for the will apart from subjection to God, nor is there any absolute determination except on the part of the Creator.

The human will is dual in its source. It is the product of heredity and environment. Each of these is an indescribably complex composite which none of us can analyze, much less control. Why is it the will of all men to sin? Because it is a part of their inheritance. We cannot say they are free to sin, for then some might escape. Has any man the choice of his race, his nationality, or the place of his birth? And yet what vital factors these are in every act of his life! Can we think of his volition in a single matter which is not affected by factors over which he has not the remotest control? I write this in the country, far from my books. It was not my will to come, but circumstances arose which made it expedient. These circumstances were made up of a hereditary weakness and an uncongenial environment. My will, if "free" or uninfluenced by external environment, might have led to illness or even death.

What is really meant by freedom of will is the correspondence between heredity and environment. Lack of friction is mistaken for liberty. If the impulses received from our ancestors urge us into a course agreeable to our surroundings we have the consciousness of being free to do as we please. But to imagine that these seeds of our volition were planted by our own hands, or that they have been conjured forth by us from void vacuity, so that our will arises without roots, and flourishes without soil, water, or air, is sheer imbecility.

Where does the will come from? Do men create it out of nothing? That would be a feat more wonderful than any legerdemain of which we have ever heard. If so, God is interfering with the creative capacity of His creatures. The wise man knows that the human will is easily influenced from without. In fact, it can be changed easily by one who understands human weaknesses. It is manufactured out of motives. It is a compound, made out of what we are within and where we are without. Heredity and environment fuse together to form it. Our wills are determined for us to a large extent by our ancestors, especially one named Adam. The mixture is finished by our associates and associations. If we had brains enough we could figure out any given will-problem like a sum in arithmetic. A given man will react to a given situation as surely as half a dozen plus six makes twelve.

When a man makes up his will he subconsciously considers his own ego, that particular expression of the Adamic nature which successive breeding and in-breeding has brought to the surface in his case, though much else is latent. He couples this with contacts which he has made with the world about him, material, soulish, or spiritual. Add to this compound the psychology of the moment, especially such forceful factors as the state of his stomach or the condition of his finances, and, if you were wise enough, you could make up his will for him. In fact, wise men have always acted on this principle. They do not attempt to capture the will by a frontal attack. They know that "he who is convinced against his will is of the very same opinion still." They execute a flank movement. They seek to change or modify one or more of the factors which compose the will. If a child will not eat healthful food, let it go hungry for a time. If it refuses to give up a sharp knife with which it might cut itself, offer it a more desirable plaything. Few men ever attain maturity in such matters as these, and all may be made to change their mind by the very factors which have formed it in the first place.

When the Creator wound up the great clock of the universe, He determined for all the eons exactly where each speck of stardust should be at any given moment. When He created Adam He implanted in him all the potencies which are present in all his progeny. He started the great wheel of human volition on the course He had prescribed. Were it not so this world were a madhouse and worse, for there is method even in madness. Let us forever banish the thought that the human will is the one lawless, independent, supreme, God-defying force in the universe. Throughout the word of God man's will is subordinated to the will of God. Temporarily it appears to oppose Him and is contrary to His revelation, but ultimately it works His way. The case of Pharaoh shows us that He by no means limits His operations to His revealed will. He must provide opposition to His word in order to manifest Himself.

In these matters man is not subject to a "blind fate," but to a beneficent Creator. He provides parents and food and drink and air, not blindly, but blessedly. All this is a parable of those ethereal functions of our being, the mental, the emotional, and the voluntary. As Creator, God supplies us with the tendencies of our ancestors and with our surroundings and associates. These are incorporated in our mental tissue and enter our brains through our organs of sense. There are times when these two sources contribute materials which will not mix, and we cannot "make up our minds." But, in most cases, we subconsciously act upon the impulse provided by the union of these two streams without considering our course.

What most perplexes us is the fact that man's will is always apparently opposed to the will of God. We do not recognize the fact that man is a mere creature, and, as such, has not even the power to oppose God unless it is implanted in Him by the Creator. For the purpose of His self-revelation, it is God's will that His revealed will be withstood. He has set into action two opposing forces. It is characteristic of Him to do this. We do not apologize for it, neither does He. He kills, He makes alive. He wounds, and He heals (Deut.32:39). He plants impulses in the human heart and surrounds men with influences which impel them to oppose His revelation. It is imperative that God should clash with His creatures. It is essential that their wills withstand His. But in the ultimate analysis, both of these conflicting forces can be traced back to the only Source and Origin of all.

Men imagine they are sovereign in the realm of the will and that no one can break their resolution--no, not even God. This is childish. They have no greater control over it than the captain of a sailing vessel has over the set of his sails. If he is not demented he will spread them to suit his course, and that is determined for him by the breeze. There are spiritual winds to which men bend their wills. They may whistle ever so long, but these spirit forces are beyond their perception and above their control. Hence men do the will of the flesh and obey the behests of evil spirit powers of which they seldom are aware. These now operate in the sons of Stubbornness. The great movements in the world, the great leaders, can find success only when they fall in line with unseen spirit forces.

The unbeliever is the sport, of the spirits of evil. It is the chief of the aerial jurisdiction who operates in them. Their wills are a compound of the soulish sensibilities of the flesh and the spirit of the world. The believer is not called upon to be passive, to "surrender", to "yield" as is so often taught, but that is what the unbeliever unwittingly does. That is what evil spirits crave. Intelligent subordination to God's revealed will is quite the opposite of a passive reception of passing impressions. The spirit of God does not produce such indefinite "guidance," such loose "leadings." God's spirit works only through His Word.

Our course is often dark, and we need light, not "guidance." With a light, we can intelligently pick our path, and choose our steps. We are not called upon to obey an inner voice or an outward impression, or to blindfold our eyes and follow an unknown guide, but to use the light of revelation. Within us is the flesh and without us is the spirit of the world and the world of spirits. These are always forcing themselves upon us and producing "impressions." It is true that, if we know the Scriptures, the divine directions will, to a large extent, displace these sinister influences, but this comes through the activity of faith, not the passivity which blindly obeys impulses. God seeks open-eyed, active obedience. The forces of evil desire blind passivity.

To imagine that God has created a multitude of lesser deities, with wills absolute, so that they stray beyond the pale of His purpose, is to dethrone Him and dishonor every attribute and essence which defines deity. To give them the consciousness of self-determination is quite another thing. That His creatures should be oblivious of the power which impels them is essential to the exhibition of His love, for the response must be without conscious constraint. When we seek an agreeable environment we need no urging from without. But we do need pressing into circumstances which will prepare us for the fullest enjoyment of ideal conditions. So God is not depending on His implanted antagonism to bring men to Himself, but to drive them away, so that the rebound will usher them into His presence, the only environment in which man's will can ever be permanently comfortable and unconstrained.

Lately, I listened to a sermon over the radio by one of the great preachers of England. One thought was often reiterated. He insisted that Omnipotence itself, must knock at the door of the human will. But what sort of an omnipotence is this? Surely if it were orthodox omnipotence it could at least break open the door. But the omnipotence of Love would act otherwise. It might present itself before the door with objects of desire or it might set fire to the rear of the house. There are a million ways of entering a man's heart without using force. Give me control of all circumstances in any country and I will guarantee to regulate its religion, pattern its politics, change its thinking--in fact, do almost anything not too greatly at variance with its past.

Jehovah Elohim, Who sits supreme above the realms of time and space, is the only being in the universe unshackled by the chains of circumstance. Our versions have well-nigh hid the truth, but the highest and most powerful of earth's potentates gladly play the part He assigns them, though they know it not. The book of Esther is full proof of this. A simple circumstance, such as a sleepless night, reversed the king's plans to accord with God's. The wise man assures us that the king's heart in the hand of Jehovah is like a tiny rill of water with which the gardener irrigates his plants. He can run it whither he wills (Prov.21:1). Moreover, every way of a man is straight in his own eyes, yet Jehovah regulates the hearts (Prov.21:2).

In this connection I am reminded of the infidel who raised his hand aloft and dared God, if there be a God, to bring it down. It was a silly thing to do, for God wants hands raised against Him now and refuses to use force in compelling obedience. Yet God has other ways, quite as effectual and far more impressive, though ridiculously simple, for accomplishing His purpose. It happens that, in this case, the infidel was bald. And it also "happened" that there was a fly buzzing about. Just as the infidel had hurled his challenge, and stood waiting for an answer, the fly alighted on his pate and, without a moment's consideration, down came the hand to swat the fly! God had answered a fool according to his folly! It did not need omnipotence to answer his boast. It needed insignificant weakness.

The whole philosophy of "free will" is contained in this silly incident. The infidel was urged to his spectacular act by the desire for fame. This he inherited. He was impelled by the presence of an audience. He would not have "willed" to do this foolish thing when alone or in the solitude of a desert island. He doubtless thought he was "the captain of his soul." But he was only a cabin boy subject to a rope's end in the hands of Captain Forebears. The fly appealed to both of these factors. We have all inherited a sensitive skin and he was especially touchy where his hair should have been. This was not his "free will." No man wills to be bald.

So we see how easy it is to set the human "free will" against itself. He willed to hold up his hand, but the tickle of a fly was far more momentous in his life than the existence of God. The factors that formed the will to defy God were not so strong as the factors which produced the instant decision to destroy the fly. His will was set against itself and defeated itself.

One of the most soul-satisfying and spirit-soothing truths given to us is found in Paul's epistle to the Philippians (2:12,13): "Be carrying your own salvation into effect with fear and trembling, for it is God Who is operating in you to will as well as to work for the sake of His delight." If I thought that it devolved on me to originate and empower all the acts with which I hope to please Him, I would be utterly discouraged. While consciously I will to do many things that delight Him, I realize that it is really the operation of the spirit of God within cooperating with the word of God without. No independent, sovereign will can ever be in harmony with God. The bliss of the future will not arise from independence from, but freedom in, the divine despotism. Conscious accordance with God is the only liberty: freedom outside of this is only an illusion.

To sum up. There is only one independent "free" will in the universe, and that is the will of God. This will, during the eons, is manifest in two distinct ways, through nature and revelation. By nature, mankind has been placed by God in an environment which leads it contrary to His revealed will. Naturally, mankind's heritage from Adam disposes it against His manifest pleasure. This is God in nature working out his will in the realm of subconsciousness. In order to perfect His purpose men must not be aware that they live and move and are in Him. They must be oblivious of all but the fruit of His operations through their progenitors and in their associates. They must imagine that they are independent deities, well able to match their wits and wills with that of their Creator. This is the great democratic doctrine of "self-determination."

The false "free will" which men claim arises from ignorance of God's ways and of their own limitations. Not realizing that God is working against Himself in order to become known, they imagine that their will is independent of His. Not being able to analyze the intricate processes which underlie their own determinations, they delude themselves into thinking that each volition on their part is a creative act, indeed, far more than that, for creation is not, as commonly supposed, based on nothing. But man's will is itself a creature of circumstance and can be molded and shaped by the great Controller of Circumstances, to suit His own pleasure.

We, who know God, are no longer in the realm of nature, where, all the factors continue to oppose God. For heredity, we have God's spirit within. For environment, we have God's word without. The only function of our will is a negative one, for we find that we do not need an independent volition. More than that, we do not want our own way. Our cry is that of our adorable Lord, "Not My will, but Thine!" In His will we are free. All else is slavery.

The world is full of schemes to increase the power of the human will, and promises of vast advantage lure the ungodly to part with their pelf in order to gain ascendancy over their fellows. They are like the farmer who waters his weeds and cultivates his thistles. The will to win brought Europe to its present pass. It is a lurid illusion. But there is a method of cultivating willpower infinitely greater and more mighty than any man's. There is a freedom of will far beyond our highest aspirations. It is found in renouncing our own self-determination and resting in the will of God. Let us earnestly acquaint ourselves with His purpose and fall in line with His plans!

How can this be done? The method is simple. We have God's spirit within. We have His word without. Let us make them our all. The factors which once formed our wills may be ignored. Let us assiduously cultivate the new factors. By His spirit, through His word, we have access to the will of God. This is now our will. Let us acquaint ourselves with it. Let us revel in it. Let us apply it. We shall then delight in the freedom of the great renunciation: Not my will, but Thine!

This publication may be reproduced for personal use
(all other rights reserved by copyright holder).