On Free Will and Restless Hearts

I want to pick up on a theme from yesterday's post about the role of human freedom in how we think about hell and the possibility of universal reconciliation.

As long time readers know (and more recent readers who have delved into my early writings on this blog), I used to write a lot about my struggles with what we'd call "free will." Some of my questions and doubts I shared back then about "free will" were (and continue to be) quite alarming to some readers.

I haven't written about this topic for many years so a brief note to update you on where my thinking is currently on this subject.

Perhaps surprisingly, my view of human freedom has become quite Augustinian. Specifically, my view of human freedom is nicely summarized by the famous lines at the start of Augustine's Confessions:

"Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

It's not that we aren't free. It's just that with our disordered and broken affections our freedom doesn't move us forward, doesn't bring us anything but more sorrow and frustration.

That is to say, I think the discussion about "freedom" and "will" is missing critical and essential parts of human nature. We might be "free" but what do we want, crave, desire, love or care about? The discussion about "free will" is a thin, hollowed out discussion which misses these critical elements.

So it's not that I don't believe in free will. It's that I think a discussion about freedom and will separated from a discussion from affections and desires isn't a conversation that truly reflects human experience. A debate about "freedom" doesn't address what we love and the restlessness that disorders our desires.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about an old and perhaps unfashionable metaphor for sin:


Sin-as-sickness is a metaphor that really preaches out at the prison. The men in the prison know they have made mistakes. They know they have made bad choices. Note how the language of mistakes and choices focuses upon the will, the free will.

But what the men really, really struggle with is this deep sense that sin is a sickness, that deep down their desires are disordered and broken.

Yes, the men in prison want forgiveness for their crimes, for the wicked choices they have made. But what they really, really want is something much, much deeper...


What they long for--what I long for--is healing.

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15 thoughts on “On Free Will and Restless Hearts”

  1. I've asked on many occasions and to many people if they believe that sin is a crime that needs to be punished or a disease that needs a cure? I get some funny looks but not many replies. Jesus did say that we were in need of a physician.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I have often given thought as to how my free will is so free, when I HAVE to believe that God is in all things, and all things are in God; when I HAVE to believe that each particle and moment is engulfed and indwelled by God; when I HAVE to believe that the person who passed me while walking through the Farmer's Market, a person with long greasy hair, who obviously had not had a bath in a while, just might be the hungriest heart in the place for God; when I HAVE to believe that God is greater than all thoughts and doctrines about God; and, when I HAVE to believe that the word of God is not simply on paper, but in the conversations, laughter, and tears of all children of God.

    Someone might be saying, "i don't feel obligated toward these things". OK. But I do.

  3. As far as I can tell, sin as sickness and the church as the hospital has always remained one of the central metaphors of the Orthodox Church. Of course, they have had and continue to have lots of other problems. (Sometimes I get the sense that some -- not you, but others -- who dig into the history of the church expect to find some "perfect" church.) That's no shock to them. What else would you expect in a place where sick people are trying to get well and even the staff are numbered among the sick?

    And we suffer from our diseased world. Passions, in the ancient understanding, are the things we suffer. They are perhaps natural drives or aspects of living as human beings that have become disordered and rule us instead. They often subvert and bypass our will, even in those situations where external forces leave us meaningful choices. So both internally and externally our 'free will' is generally compromised and constrained. Our will is another part of our being that requires healing.

    I responded to a question about an atheist yesterday. I don't believe what I said was original. (How much of what any of us say is truly original or novel?) I'm pretty sure I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko say something similar. We don't truly know the other, but it's not hard to imagine that in certain life situations, especially in today's world, atheism might be the healthiest choice available to a person.

    God has never had a problem with forgiveness. If that had been our only problem, it would have been resolved from the beginning. We need healing. We need life. And the only way God could provide those was to become one with us in every way, even death.

  4. Yes, excellent. The problem with free will (I would say) is (a) that some sort of independent agency called the "will" does not choose, I choose, and (b) that my choices are never undetermined -- i.e., I am never volitionally in a state of indifference or equipoise before I choose and act (only God wills and acts ex nihilo) -- rather my choices are always predetermined by my attitudes, inclinations, desires, and motives which, because I am a sinner, are -- yes -- disordered. In a thin sense of "free", and within limits, I may be able to choose and do what I want, which is why I am responsible; but I cannot will what I will, which is why I am not free

    The bishop of Hippo is indeed a good guide here, but you don't have to go all the way to North Africa to be disabused of the silly and haughty idea that we have free will, you can also go to New England and attend to the parson of Northampton -- Jonathan Edwards, of course.

  5. Loved and continue to use/plagiarize something you wrote (back in the early days of ExpTheo) concerning free will - "try losing 20 pounds"

  6. Re: sin as "sickness", I completely agree that there are deep issues in the depths of my being that my "will" is powerless against - powerless to "fix", powerless to heal. If that's what is meant by "people don't have free will", then that makes sense. Who will save me from myself?

    I'm not convinced that's most often what's meant when talking about "free will" though. Maybe this reality - that the inner healing of desires etc can't be forced as an act of the will - isn't so much the result of a will that isn't "free", but rather that there are things that aren't a matter of the will at all - free will or not.

    "Free will" as most often presented seems to be about choice which seems to be a completely separate thing from the rightness of the underlying passions, desires, etc that the "will" acts upon.

    I can't explain how people are wired and I'm not convinced that anyone else can either. But most of the time when I hear about "free will" as a lie it's vitally linked to TULIP and double predestination - that's why I find the idea so troubling.

  7. Good grief, Richard, you are becoming more Orthodox as time passes ;)

    This post by Fr Stephen Freeman perhaps gives some more words to describe your thoughts. His comment on Jan 16 at 9:15 a.m. is also helpful.



  8. I would add that this approach to sin, grace and "free will" makes it easier to endure, much less forgive other people. It also makes us less likely to fall into the trap of classifying others as "good people" and "bad people".

    Abraham Lincoln developed a reputation for being tolerant of other people's personal weaknesses and eccentricities. Of course, that has been traced to his heavy predestinarian/determinist leanings: this person is a pain in the @$$ because the good Lord willed in some inscrutable way for him to be a pain in the @$$.

  9. I have felt since childhood, broken into and vandalized emotionally, physically & my spirit has undergone a hidious change when I was sexually abused & simultaniously lost my innocents and was introduced to a penatrating evil that destroyed my core beliefs abt being safe in my family & community. Alcohol relieved some othe pain and I felt temporarily fearless. Over the years I arrived at the last stage of alcoholism where my god, alcohol and dugs stopped working. I thank god that I still had a little free will left to turn it over to him per the suggestion of A.A. friends bc I was powerless in every other domain of life.

  10. Just read 'Salvation in a Post-Cartesian World' and just....wow. Discussion of free will while pursuing my Philosophy BA, and coming to the conclusion that it didn't adequately reflect the world around me, counts among the earliest influences of my rejection of the Christianity with which I was raised.

  11. I have never thought of my own midlife, road to Damascus, conversion as an act of the will. At least not mine. It's much more like someone saved my life while I was unconscious and afterward I was forever grateful.

  12. Yes, indeed! Emotianal, Mental, Spiritual....the whole person. Society also needs healing,ma theme you address in various ways on this blog.

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