Often, when I taught a college class, I would tell the students that, given the realities of their lives, there was nowhere they would rather be at that moment than right where they were, in my class. Then I would ask if anyone disagreed with me.
You can try it for yourself if you would like, but with a twist since you are not sitting in one of my classes. Try to think of something, within the last week or two, you had to do but you really didn’t want to do. This would be something you dreaded doing or felt forced to do. Once you have that in mind, let’s return to the class.
You can imagine the reactions I would get from students. Some would agree with me, but many would argue they would rather be in Hawaii or some other exotic spot. The exchange would usually go something like this:
Me: “Can you afford a trip to Hawaii?”
Me: “Remember, I said ‘given the realities of your lives.’ If you can’t afford it then it is not in your reality.” Then I would push it a bit. “Do you have a credit card?”
Me : “Would your card allow you to put a trip to Hawaii on it?”
Me: “Then why don’t you go to Hawaii instead of sitting in my class?” I would usually get a bit nervous at this point lest the student would jump up and head for the nearest travel office and on to Hawaii. But it never happened.
Student: “I’m already far enough in debt. I don’t want to go deeper into debt.”
Other students would be less ambitious and say they would rather be in the library studying for a test or researching a paper or something of the sort. Some would just rather be walking in the woods or on the beach, if it was a nice day. When I would point out that all of those options were open to them and yet they had chosen to come to class, they would protest that they had to come to class. I would challenge them and ask why they had to come to my class. What was forcing them to do so? At this point some would get frustrated with me while others would begin to see my point.
Why is it that even though we are free to choose what we want to do, within the realm of our personal realities, it often feels as if we are being forced to do things against our wills? Why do we say “I had to do it”, rather than “I chose to do it”? Let me try to explain why I think this happens.
I once passed a religious book store with a shirt in the window. On the shirt was written: IN THIS WORLD THERE ARE ONLY TWO THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: THERE IS A GOD AND YOU ARE NOT HIM. Perhaps you have heard this statement before. It is quite common. I laughed when I first read it. Then I began to think about it and how very profound it actually was.
There are many ways in which I think it is profound, but I will look at one in particular. It gave me insight into my little experiment in class.
We are made in the image and likeness of God, but, as the shirt proclaimed, we are not God. This means a couple of things. First, one of the ways we are like God relates to the fact that we have free will. We can freely choose. Secondly, while we are free to choose, in a God like manner, our choices are limited to reality, God’s reality – not ours, because we are not God and did not create the reality.
Now, reality leads to consequences. Through observation and experience, we learn that certain actions have certain consequences. If I put a trip to Hawaii on my credit card, which I am free to do, I will have a very big bill on my credit card account at the end of the month. If I choose to go study for an exam instead of going to an assigned class, I may miss something in the class. Sometimes that may be the best option, to miss the class in order to get a better grade in another class.
All our lives we must weigh consequences for our decisions and pick what seems the best option. When we are torn between consequences, we do not feel very free. We feel forced. Recall to mind the situations I asked you to considered at the outset, those things you didn’t want to do but felt you had to do, were almost forced to do. There really was no force except the consequences you could see. In this world we don’t even know if the consequences we foresee will actually result, and often we get blind-sided by consequences we knew nothing about. No wonder we sometimes don’t feel very free.
Sometimes the strain in choosing between alternatives results from too many good consequences to choose between. We would like both or all the consequences, but can only choose one. This can also leave us feeling un-free or forced.
When we get angry about the choices we feel we have to make, I think we are really getting angry because we are not God. There is something in humans that hankers after being more than just made in the image of God. Think of Adam and Eve. They were free to choose, but they had been told of the consequences of a certain choice, eating the fruit of a particular tree. Yes, they were free, even free to disobey and eat of the forbidden fruit, but they were not free of the consequences. I’m not sure they even fully understood the consequences. After all, they believed the serpent when he told them they would not die. They seem to have been a little confused about just what dying meant.
We have this incredible power to choose, to will what we want, but it is always limited by the consequences of our choices. There’s the rub. In the end, it is God’s will that will be accomplished through his reality and his consequences.
How can we escape this predicament? One way is to say, “To hell with the consequences, I will do as I please.” This is what Satan chose. But it was not the consequences that went to hell.
Or, we could choose those consequences that lead us to heaven. Now, there are two attitudes we can have in choosing consequences that lead to heaven. We can choose out of fear or we can choose out of love. When we feel forced into a choice, we are choosing out of fear, fear of hell perhaps or, more often I think, fear of the immediate consequence. Often we think that God’s will is going to lead to unhappiness. We fear his will for us and often try to escape it much as Jonah tried to escape God’s will for him. This is a minimalist approach to heaven, just enough obedience through fear to get us in, but not so much obedience so as to make us unhappy. There is not much sense of freedom in this approach. In fact, those who rebel against God totally probably feel freer for the time being, until the truth, God’s consequences, catches up with them.
If, instead, we choose out of love, we do not feel forced nor do we fear. Simply because we know that God loves us enough to die for us, we respond by loving him and his will and by choosing to die to our wills, to our choices that are contrary to God’s will. If we truly trust God, we will not fear the death to our choices, nor will we fear God’s will for us, because we know it will lead to our true happiness, here on earth as well as in heaven. This is true freedom. In this freedom we are not torn between God’s will and what we think will make us happy. Rather, we know that true joy lies in God’s will, even if it means some suffering. This is the path that Jesus chose and modeled for us.
As Jean Pierre de Caussade said: “Sanctity consists in willing what happens to us by God’s Order. Yes, the sanctity of the heart consists in a simple fiat, the simple disposition of the will in conformity with the Will of God. What could be easier?”
It’s simple, but I’m not so sure it is easy. Ultimately, no matter how difficult it may seem, I have come to realize that there is nothing we should rather be doing than God’s will for us, and that we should choose God’s will with joy. That’s how we gain true freedom.