Although very rarely rising to the surface, profound anguish and anger hid within me for a very long time. I was once angry at the ones who tormented me as a child, causing such painful wounds. I was angry at God for allowing it to happen and not intervening. And I was angry at myself. Could I have made different choices? Maybe if I tried harder to be part of the “in” crowd. Maybe if Little Nick had acted more aggressive, or had worked out and took karate. It would be fair to say I was angry at choices made all around, choices the bullies made, choices God made, and choices I made. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that perhaps no one in this story had any choice at all.
Choice, and the freedom to choose, is fundamental to how we see ourselves in the world. We feel powerful when we have choices, and powerless when we have none. There’s an inherent human desire to be powerful, to feel we’re agents of change making choices that impact our lives and the lives of others.
However, whatever we might think of the plethora of choices we make, for good or for ill, we tend to forget an underlying assumption, namely that we really do have the ability to consciously make a decision. We’re assuming we have free will or personal agency, the ability to make decisions on the behalf of what we perceive to be our selves. On closer examination, though, it isn’t at all clear that we do.
Numerous studies in the field of neuroscience, for example, have examined our decision-making process, with some surprising results. In a typical study, researchers measure activity in different areas of the brain while having subjects make various sorts of choices. They found that certain kinds of activity in the brain predicted the subject’s eventual decision, well before the subject was conscious of making a decision.
Perhaps, then, free will, in terms of a person consciously making a decision, is an illusion. Maybe what we call free will is simply the story we tell ourselves after the decision has been made. Some part of my brain begins the process of pushing a button, and then several seconds later my conscious self pushes it. In that scenario my conscious choice is only a story about my own sense of volition in the world, with the real choice happening below consciousness.
Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks a lot about freedom, slavery, sin, and our apparent choices. On the subject of sin, Paul’s view is similar to what we find in the Book of Common Prayer: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God…” In other words, sin describes the human condition under which we make this most crucial choice: do we surrender to God’s will… or not? As far as Paul is concerned, all else we do or think or feel in the world comes as a consequence of that one choice.
The theologian, Paul Tillich, believed that this one choice is essentially the only choice we ever get to make… the only thing free in our supposed free will. So, like Paul of Tarsus, he believes we’re either a slave to sin or a slave to God, but either way we’re still a slave to something. From a relative point of view, in human terms, we believe we’re making choices that are either sinful or not, but ultimately those choices are being made for us, simply the fruit of what we’ve already chosen to be enslaved to.
Now, that will probably sound like bad news to our egos, or as Paul might say, our “flesh.” That’s because our attachment to a separate sense of self creates a desire for the freedom and power to make whatever choices we want, as separate individuals beholden to nothing. It turns out, though, that the only true freedom is the choiceless servanthood offered to us by God, something I once learned firsthand.
When God’s will unfolded as the reconciling of my own sense of separateness and suffering, three things became clear in rapid succession, literally within a few minutes of each other.
First, it became clear that Little Nick had had no power to avoid those years of torment and bullying. The horrible treatment I suffered wasn’t about some poor decision on my part, and so I learned these important truths: it wasn’t Little Nick’s fault, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. And, with that realization, that I couldn’t have somehow chosen differently, I forgave myself.
Second, it became clear that those who tormented me, causing me so much pain as a child, they also had no choice. This came to me in a sort of re-lived memory, of a young girl from grade school spitting in my face after I picked up some books she dropped and offered to give them back to her.
The memory itself wasn’t new, usually provoking some combination of sadness, grief, and anger. But, this time was different, and I was surprised by an overwhelming feeling of compassion. With new eyes I looked upon that girl of my memory, and it was suddenly obvious; she was only a little girl, likely terrified of showing any kindness to the kid lowest in the pecking order. In that moment if I could have wished for anything it would have been to travel back in time and just whisper in her ear, “It’s OK.” And from that new place of compassion, it was clear that none of my childhood tormentors had any real choice. And so, I forgave them, too.
Third, it became clear that God had no choice. I was sitting there, still marveling at the first two revelations, when I asked “God, why couldn’t you have done this sooner?” Why wait as I endured 40 years of suffering and often debilitating depression before stepping in? For that matter, why any of the trauma in the first place? Why?
It was at that point that I remembered a strange and sad song Little Nick would sing when feeling especially down, the “Why me,” song of painful self-pity. And as I remembered that song, the question, “why?” began losing substance, as if slipping between my fingers, and I couldn’t quite hold onto it anymore. And that’s when I knew that “why?” was a pointless question, because God had had no choice at all, everything unfolding as it needed to. Actually, I did get the sense that God had one choice. God chose to be with me, to be with me in the suffering and in the healing. And so, I forgave God as well.
C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, wrote “For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” Our ego, our sense of being an independent self, doesn’t like being reduced to the role of a servant, but even if we cling to the illusion of free will, of our will be done, we’re still serving God’s will, just reluctantly and perhaps begrudgingly.
It’s like we’re on a slide in a playground… we’re going down the slide one way or another, fighting all the way, or accepting the journey. The way of fighting God all the way down or even denying we’re on a slide, is the way of Judas, and it only leads to more suffering. The way of John means being fully aware of being on the slide and that truly there’s only one path beneath us and ahead of us. So, we just let go and enjoy the ride.
When we’re slaves to sin we act as if we’re in control, as if choices made in the world are independent of God’s will. Sin is our denial that God’s will be done, and our insistence that we’re all free to exert our own will separate from God’s being.
The only true freedom is in being slaves to God, the perfect freedom of being God’s humble servant. We accept this gift of perfect freedom when we surrender everything to God, exchanging willfulness for willingness in union with Christ. From this place of surrender and servanthood, we see that what appears to be choices in human terms, choices made by God, ourselves, and others, are ultimately just the unfolding of God in the world. And that is when recognizing the absence of choice wondrously blossoms into the peace and joy of true freedom, allowing us to live each moment of life with open hearts, and bearing the fruits of acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, and healing.
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