These recent months have been hard in this Land of the Free. We want to sing, "Let freedom ring," but current events push us to ask: What is freedom? It is in this context that I want to ask the question: What do Christians believe about free will?
Although the conclusions about free will are disputed in theology and philosophy, the importance of the question is not. The Catholic Encyclopedia illustrates the point quite well:
“The question of free will...ranks amongst the three or four most important philosophical
problems of all time. The view adopted in response to it will determine a man's position in regard to the most momentous issues that present themselves to the human mind.”
The ongoing theological and philosophical debate about free will is well documented, and will not be solved in this short article. I will side with the historic tradition, which maintains: 1) you do have a will, and 2) it is free.
However, it is the set of questions that follow from this conclusion that take us out of the realm of the philosophical and into the realm of the practical. Not so much, “Is my will free?” but: “what should I do with it?”
And the Christian answer to this question is not ambiguous: give it to God, and be His slave.
But before we can give our will to God, it is perhaps worthwhile to comment on what a will is not. One of the great misunderstandings of our modern culture is confusing or conflating our free will with our desires and appetites and emotions. In our day, desire is almost as sacred to us as that other colossal god of our time: Mammon. And indeed, they are often in cahoots. Historically it was understood that it is my moral responsibility to exercise my will over my appetites, with a well-ordered reason. Which is just a fancy way of saying: Think with your head, not with your stomach (or any other part of you). It is a dangerous thing to equate my emotions and desires with my will. This is the absence of detachment.
Christians believe that perfect freedom is not found in our will at all, but in God's will. Perfect freedom is not found in the tyrant who has enough money and power to do whatever he wants. Perfect freedom comes to us when we give our freedom back to God. When we say, "You have given me freedom. I have made such a mess of this great responsibility to which you have entrusted me. Here, You take my will. You can have it. Not my will be done, but Thy will be done."
There is a word for this submission of one's will to God: love. And it is just this, love, that runs in radical opposition to the popular cultural mentality of our day, which considers the mere desire for something to be intrinsic justification for having it. The missing piece from our cultural conversation, which causes a vacuum that sucks in “justice” and “equality”, is love. Ask any married person what is more important in their relationship: justice or love? They will answer love every time.
Whatever your dogmatic conclusions about the freedom of your will, all Christians can agree on the word to describe our pop cultures' notions about freedom: sin. We can no longer hear freedom ring in the purple mountain's majesty or the amber waves of grain, because we have forgotten what freedom is for. Love is, again, the answer.
But love is messy and difficult. As Chesterton put it: “The Christian ideal hasn’t been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” And when it is left untried, we pay the price in our common life. A price written all over the evening news. As Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us, with freedom comes responsibility. As St. Paul reminds us, we will be a slave to someone (1 Cor. 7.22). It will be either the God of heaven, or the gods of this age. And we have the freedom to choose. If we choose God, we choose the hard way of love. But if we can love, then perhaps we can sing again:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
 Maher, M. (1909). Free Will. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 20, 2016 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06259a.htm
 G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World
The Rev. Joe Hermerding is Assistant Rector, Children and Family, at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.