Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
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
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.—
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
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
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
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.
Sobasically we give up our freedom
so we can do what God wantsright? Otherwise you couldn't
say "misuse," because if I'm free I can use my will any way
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 69) is based on a real historical
event. It's not! The stories of Genesis 111 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.
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.