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Free will: How free are we? How are Catholic teens called to use their vast and powerful freedom in ways that enrich the world and honor the God who gave them this treasured gift?

Youth Update

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Free Will:
Choice Creates Challenges

by James Philipps

Had I known of a backstage exit, I might have made a run for it. There I stood, one nervous teenager, ready to launch into my speech. I was about to bury my head in my stack of index-card notes when Father Gartland caught my eye from the back of the auditorium. He smiled and signaled that I should put my notes away. His confidence in me gave me confidence in myself.

I breathed deeply, looked out at my audience and gave it my best shot. Not only did I tell my story, but I even won an award! What Father Gartland had done was help me see myself as he saw me: an articulate teen who could handle this job.

That—s how God sees each one of us: special individuals quite capable of handling all the —jobs— life sends—and then some! Our Creator shows this confidence in us through the gift of free will. God knows that we can learn to choose well and will do so.

Defining Free Will

What does it mean to say that God created each of us with free will? Let—s wrestle with this first.

Freedom of will means that human beings have the ability to choose to cooperate with God—s will—in other words, to do what is right—or to choose not to.

Not all of creation has this option. Objects that are not alive, such as your desk, do whatever the laws of nature say they—re supposed to do. No matter how often you drop your pencil on the floor, it will never go up instead of down, and it will always fall at the same rate of speed.

Living things, both plants and animals, perform actions based completely on instinct. A plant will always grow toward a source of light. Some birds will always fly south for the winter.

Human beings are different—precisely because of free-will choices. We do some things based on instinct—keeping away from danger, for example—but mostly we make choices.

Instinct says you need to eat, but you use your will to decide where and what. Even when you know someone very well, there—s no way to predict what that person will do in a particular situation.

Think about the last time your friend—s behavior surprised you in a positive or negative way. Perhaps she remembered to get your homework assignments for you on a day you were absent—without your even asking? Or she forgot to get the assignments even though you had reminded her?

Awesome Truth

There—s no limit to the wonderful things we can do, given our ability to choose freely. God didn—t consider creation complete until human beings who could choose their destinies—becoming partners with God in creation—came into being.

What if you had the power to bring the characters from your favorite book to life, as occurred in the film The Indian in the Cupboard? Keep in mind that each character—whether good or evil—would have the ability to make decisions beyond your control.

Would you do it? It might seem exciting for a time, but you might also decide that it wasn—t worth the risk. The characters might run off or turn on you, after all! Free will is God—s greatest act of faith in the human race and in you individually.

Genesis 1:27 says that each of us was made in God—s image. The main way you live out this God-given sacredness is when you use your free will to choose to love other people. As you enter deeper into relationship with God and with other people, you discover your own best self.

Not My Will

Jesus gave the greatest example of the possibilities of free will by the way he lived and died. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians (2:5-8), this choice to do God—s will extended back even before Jesus— birth. Jesus the Christ freely chose to be human and refused to —opt out— when the going got tough.

When the time came for his betrayal, Jesus found himself alone in a garden. While praying there, he demonstrated how much can be accomplished through proper use of free will: —Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will— (Mark 14:35-36).

In choosing to do God—s will, Jesus knew that much suffering lay ahead. Your choices to do the right thing can be hard too. But in those moments when you—re having second thoughts, think about the results of Jesus— free-will act—the salvation of every human being from sin and death.

Partners With God

Free will doesn—t simply mean that we have freedom to choose what we—ll eat for lunch or even what we—ll do for a living. We—re talking about the freedom to cooperate with God in making the world right and beautiful.

This may seem idealistic, but history offers many examples of times when a few people committed to making the right choices changed situations that seemed overrun by evil.

Consider the peaceful civil-rights marchers led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who ended a century of segregation between races in the southern United States. Perhaps you—ve seen a photo of the student in Beijing, China, who stopped a line of tanks by simply standing in front of them.

Try your own world-shaking change: Tell your mom, dad, brother or sister that you love her or him and watch what happens. You know it makes a difference in your day when someone compliments you or spends a few minutes listening to your complaints just because he or she cares about you. That—s freedom in action—and it looks and feels like love.

Snake in the Grass

Choosing to do God—s will means we choose to live the happiest, most fulfilling kind of life possible. Yet you have seen enough examples of people making selfish choices that hurt others to know that sometimes people don—t make the right choices. This isn—t to say bad choices equals bad person. You—ve probably made a few bad choices yourself—and you—re great!

Why do we willingly choose to go against God—s will at times? Why, in other words, do we sin?

The first time this question is considered in the Bible is in the story of another garden, the so-called Eden. The second creation story (Genesis 2, from which all these scriptural passages come) describes God—s careful creation of the first man (adam in Hebrew) and woman (Eve). The garden in which they live provides for all of their needs. The animals are their friends.

God gives all this to the man and the woman to enjoy, with one restriction: —You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat.—

Then the serpent arrives. He asks a question designed to plant doubt in Eve—s mind. —Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?— Eve—s faithful description of God—s command gives the serpent the chance to finish the job: —You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.—

Now the pair are curious. —The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.— The couple use their freedom to act, knowing that God wants them to act differently: —So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.—

Serpentine Test

What—s really going on in this story about fruit and eating? For hundreds of years, Christians have understood the serpent to represent the devil and the devil—s attempts to lead the human race away from God.

This was not the original meaning of the symbol, however. Think about the two stories in Genesis together and you—ll see why.

The story told in Genesis 1 reminds us that God creates everything and it—s all good. The first verse in Genesis 3 tells us that —the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made.— If the serpent is created by God, it can—t be the devil. The devil by definition is evil. God is good and would not choose to make evil!

When you think of the serpent as a symbol for temptation rather than as the devil, then Adam and Eve—s struggle becomes a marvelous illustration of what it feels like to be tested or tempted.

Temptation is the desire to go against God—s will based on an illusion of happiness. We believe that a wrong choice will bring us greater happiness than a right choice, even though—in our heart of hearts—we know better. We give in to temptation for two reasons.

First, we begin to wonder whether God really loves us as much as we thought. Does God have my best interests at heart? We wonder if what we—re thinking about really would go against God—s will at all. Isn—t —everybody doing it—?

One of my students recently experienced this momentary lapse of faith toward her parents. (This is not to equate your parents— will totally with God—s will. Sometimes parents may forget that you—re not a little kid anymore, for example. Many times, however, they can see dangers you are not able to see.)

One weekend this girl—s parents wouldn—t let her go to a party because they knew the host—s parents were out of town. Deep down, this girl knew that her parents loved and cared about her. But that weekend, she felt pretty sure their sole reason for existence was to ruin her life. Perhaps you—ve had a similar experience, even though most days you know parents aren—t created to ruin things, but to love, guide and support.

What You See Isn—t What You Get

Temptation usually contains within it something that, on its own, is good. You know that cheating on a test is wrong. But getting an A would please your parents, and help you get into college. Besides, your teammates are counting on you in the big game next weekend. If you fail the test you won—t be allowed to play and will let them down.

Making your parents happy, getting into a good college, being a good teammate: Each of these goals is desirable. In this case, however, you—d have to choose to be dishonest to achieve them. The end does not justify the means.

Much of the apparent good within every temptation is an illusion. Adam and Eve think that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will make them wise, but it only makes them uncomfortable. They cover their nakedness with leaves and hide under a bush so that God won—t see them.

Free Will Talks, Temptation Walks

Temptation is inevitable. Sometimes we will misuse our free will in response, but God—s love for us ensures that all is never lost.

Adam and Eve have to go out from the Garden of Eden, but not from the presence of God. In a simple but loving gesture, God makes leather garments for the couple (3:21), way more durable than the leaves they—d been using. This is a permanent sign of God—s long-lasting concern.

Whenever we stray, God calls us back. Free will gives you the ability to respond to that call in your own unique way!

Free will always remains intact; with it, your ability to choose life and reject death. Jesus made sure of this when, through his own free-will choices, he destroyed the power of temptation and sin to control you.

Besides all the good news already mentioned, understanding free will offers one more benefit. The more you come to see what free will is all about, the more likely you will avoid buying into one of two extreme misconceptions of God.

The first is God as a mean judge who frowns down from a high place just waiting to see you sin. The second is God as a sleepy old grandpa in a hammock in the sky, basically unconcerned about what humans do or don—t do to one another.

To say that we have free will is to say that our actions really do matter. Your daily choices can strengthen your relationship with God and with one another.

God isn—t trying to trap you into making the wrong choice. God is offering opportunities to keep the world together. It—s a great job, but it—s your call. You have free will.

'Exercising' Your Free Will

These approaches to good moral decisionmaking have proven helpful to many. Take five minutes to review your actions today using one of the following aids:



Sometimes the commandment as it is written is clear enough: For example, "You shall not steal." In other cases, such as the First Commandment's prohibiting statues of false gods, be creative and try to find a relevant connection for yourself. (Are there things in my life to which I give more weight than God?) Many good resources, often available in your parish or religious-education program, exist to help you. (Also check out Jesus' own interpretation of the 10 Cs in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7).



The real cost of sin is the damage it does to our relationships. Think about the things you have done—or haven't done—for friends and family. How are your actions affecting your relationships with the people you care about? Is there one particular attitude or action of yours that seems to make it difficult for you to get along with someone? Can you appreciate the choices you've made which have improved your relationships with others?



Go through your day in your mind but imagine Jesus is standing next to you. You'll be able to tell the difference between your good choices and bad choices because one will sound right and the other will sound off-base. For example, "Jesus and I helped my little brother with his math homework" makes sense. "Jesus and I spread a vicious rumor about someone today" doesn't. In real life, many moral decisions are not as clear-cut as these examples. Making the most of our free will is much like learning math. Start with the basic operations and gradually you get better at solving more complicated problems.


So—basically we give up our freedom so we can do what God wants—right? Otherwise you couldn't say "misuse," because if I'm free I can use my will any way I want.


I say misuse because God's will for any one of us is never arbitrary. If God made each one of us (see Psalm 139 for a beautiful reflection on that subject), then God knows what choices will enable each of us to be happy and to do the most good in the world. To go against the will of God is to act against your own best interests. You're also acting against the best interests of all those who benefit from you becoming the best person you can be.


If God created only good things, then how does evil exist?


Evil really doesn't exist. It's an absence of what should exist. The myths at the beginning of the Book of Genesis tell us that God carefully planned creation with every creature and created thing existing in right relationship. When the first man and woman make a choice that rips the fabric of that careful plan, things aren't always able to work the way God intended. The absence of peace and goodness is our experience of evil.


If God was so happy with us, why did he flood the earth, not so very long after creation, killing all those great people?


Your question assumes that the story of Noah's ark (Genesis 6—9) is based on a real historical event. It's not! The stories of Genesis 1—11 are myths: imaginative tales that contain important truths. This particular story invites us to imagine a world so evil that a loving God can only tear it down and start over. As we imagine this horrible scene, the story leaves us with two powerful truths: Sin and evil have terribly destructive power, yet God's love is even stronger.

Jim Philipps teaches on this subject and other important religious principles on the high school, college and graduate levels. He is a frequent contributor to Youth Update.

Laura Brichler (15), Joy Feichtner (16), Clara Hartlaub (17), Joe McManus (18) and Meaghan Stakelin (17) met (of their own free will) at Annunciation Parish in Clifton, a Cincinnati, Ohio, neighborhood, to review this issue. They were tough critics who asked lots of questions. Their recommendations helped to shape this final version.

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