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If God is in control, how can we have free will?

Updated on November 19, 2014
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I’ve heard the problem of free will discussed countless times in my life. The dilemma goes something like this: How can God be in control of the universe, knowing our every thought and action with the omnipotence to stop it if He wished, and yet hold us accountable for our actions? If He is in control, why are we punished for the choices we make?

I’m not a trained theologian, and I will not try to entangle myself in the higher complexities that that study entails. But the question warrants an answer, and it is one that Christian are probably going to face often, educated or not. That being the case, I will not give a systematic answer (that would be beyond my capabilities) but I will give an analogy that I think will put the issue in new light.

Let us take a story, say, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (for our purposes let us assume that Macbeth was indeed written by one man named William Shakespeare and not someone else or several other persons, as some scholars may claim). Macbeth betrays and murders his king, thus ascending to the throne himself. He ultimately dies for his treachery, his forces broken. I think it safe to say that, while Macbeth had admirable qualities such as intelligence and strength, Shakespeare thought him worthy of death. We as readers certainly see Macbeth as deserving of his fate, as he betrayed a man who was good to him. Yet why? After all, it is really Shakespeare that chose to have Macbeth commit the heinous crimes he did. If he had wanted Macbeth to be a good man, he could have easily done so. What choice could Macbeth actually have? Yet I have never heard anyone berate Shakespeare for writing what he did.

The fact is, when an author creates a story, he is in control of everything that happens. All the events, the choices that his characters make, are up to him in the long run. Yet in the context of the story, the characters choices are legitimate. Macbeth chooses to kill Duncan; it is decided by Shakespeare who is making up the story, yet the choice is no less Macbeth’s. And while Shakespeare could have made him act differently, I think, and I believe Shakespeare would have thought, that the man would no longer have been Macbeth. Divine will can interfere, but it seldom does when doing so would destroy our identity.

I rather think this is what Paul meant when he told us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). The question in discussion—“Do I have free will, or is it really God just acting through me?”—is almost a misnomer. We cannot even have will to begin with if God does not bring us into being and sustain us. Macbeth would not have existed if Shakespeare had not imagined him into being. Macbeth’s exercise of his will is itself an exercise of Shakespeare’s will. But it is still Macbeth’s will.

In the end, we cannot stop acting because we think that God controls our actions, and there would be no sense in God giving us commands if we were incapable of choosing to obey them. We must act as if the will were ours, while always remembering that it is God who empowers us to will.

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