One of my favorite Economics professors in college also taught an Honors Philosophy course, which I enjoyed more than I had expected. A key topic of discussion was: If everything we’re going to do is already known (by God), do we really have agency? A corollary to that is: Why does God ask us to do something he knows we won’t choose to do? These are fascinating and often befuddling queries, but the answers are perhaps simpler than we realize.
Do I Really Have a Choice?
Every person has unique physiological traits, which combine with upbringing and socioeconomic context to create tendencies across the broad array of human behaviors. As an example, I was never seriously tempted by alcohol in high school (nor have I been since), and yet many of my classmates exhibited fierce desires to “try” it, and then to indulge in it. I faced my own set of difficult temptations, of course, some of which those same kids didn’t struggle with.
Having tendencies, and facing stronger temptations due to those tendencies, doesn’t mean we don’t have choice. I’ve overcome many of my negative tendencies, through my own determination and God’s help (mostly God’s help), and I work hard to remain diligent, knowing what I know about myself.
There were times when it seemed I didn’t have “control” over my reactions to certain temptations. That’s not a good feeling. But my day-to-day experience is far different now. When Christ makes us new creatures, he doesn’t necessarily change us physically, and he doesn’t erase the memories of the past experiences which have shaped us. But he provides us a key to unlock doors we didn’t even know existed, revealing both eternal, law-based mysteries and our own untapped power as sons and daughters of God.
He never makes us walk through those doors, however, and we can all cite examples from our own lives when we have refused his invitation to step through an important doorway (usually to receive another chance later). In other words, God understands our incredible potential, and he lovingly, mercifully grants us opportunities to reach it, without forcing us along a particular path.
Why Not Just Make Us Do Right?
Some people claim that if God exists, then he/she/it must not love us, because suffering is cruel, and life is full of suffering and malevolence (as Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist, professor, and self-doubting Christian, has famously noted). Ironically, the fact that suffering is “allowed” by our Creator is perhaps the greatest argument that we indeed have agency, for what serious creator (or “intelligent designer,” as scientists who begrudgingly admit that such exists choose to call our Creator) would build something that doesn’t work?
Our Heavenly Father designed Earth as a testing and training ground, to help us unlock our potential as his children. Forcing us to obey eternal laws doesn’t teach us to appreciate or understand those laws, nor does it allow us to develop our capacity to love by helping each other through challenging circumstances. In addition, without experiencing sorrow and struggle, we cannot attain majestic highs of joy and accomplishment. God allows us to make mistakes … and learn from them, for our own benefit (not his.)
Jesus Christ himself is the ultimate example of the reality and power of choice. He supported Heavenly Father’s plan, agreeing to come to Earth and take on mortal flesh. He chose to lead a sinless life, resisting temptations of every kind (see Matthew 4:1-11 for one instance), suffering the greatest of ignominies from those who persecuted and ultimately killed him, and laboring intensely under the weight of our sins to atone for them in a way we can’t yet fully comprehend, despite wishing the burden could be removed (see Luke 22:42).
Lucifer, or Satan, is the one who wishes to force us to blindly follow. His false promises of “peace” and “safety” plague us with one horrific episode of misery after another. He seeks glory only for himself, and instead of loving and respecting us, he despises and hates us, seeing us as mere tools or playthings. There couldn’t be a greater difference between the former Son of the Morning (see Isaiah 14:12) and the triumphant, resurrected Son of God (see Isaiah 9:6-7).
Why Does it Have to be So Hard?
As the literal offspring of God (see Acts 17:28), we are powerful eternal beings, far more than we presently understand. In fact, just catching a glimpse of the value and potential God sees in us—not to mention his overflowing love for us—is a transformative experience, and certainly part of becoming a new creature in Christ. And we don’t need a near-death experience to figure that out.
The most difficult and all-encompassing commandment of God is to “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48). How can we possibly wrap our minds around such a request? Why would he ask such a thing of us, especially when we fail so often at simple, seemingly mundane tasks?
There are two important things to remember: First, he is not asking us to be perfect “right now”; he is asking us to consistently work toward perfection, aiming not just at the end of this life, but beyond; and Second, the powerful, joyful process of repentance—linked inextricably to Christ’s intercession for our sins—allows us to become perfectly clean of past transgressions … as if we never committed them. When the Lord told Isaiah that our “scarlet” sins could be “white as snow” (see Isaiah 1:18), he meant it. When this life is over, and we stand before the perfect judge, Jesus Christ himself, he won’t harrow up our minds with remembrances of poor choices for which we’ve already earned his forgiveness. And he’ll focus every bit as much on our successes—and progress—as our failures.
Isn’t Individual Accountability Fundamentally Unfair?
We hear many voices in our society today asking that question, which really isn’t new—it’s just packaged differently than in generations past, using specious reasoning based on false compassion. God understands each of our circumstances perfectly, and will execute just judgment based on our choices within that context. He knows our desires and our potential, and he also knows we cannot abide his holiness if we have not become holy ourselves—it would be like trying to stand on the sun (which burns at about 10,000 degrees F) in our mortal bodies.
The parable of the talents is wonderfully instructive in this regard (see Matthew 25:14-30). Some are given many talents, some just a few, and others almost none. That seems unfair. But from an eternal perspective, all that matters is what we do with the talents we’re given. If we seek to employ them for good in ways we believe will please the master who gave us those talents, he will help us multiply them and then reward us as rulers “over many things” (i.e., unlimited things). But if we let fear or slothfulness overcome us—if we choose not to gainfully employ our talents—the Lord will reject us … for our own good, because we have rejected Him and could not bear to remain near him.
The Lord rewards honest effort, and he rewards it fairly. Yes, there are many mansions in God’s kingdom (see John 14:2), because our efforts will vary, but it is the effort to do good and build the kingdom of God with whatever gifts you possess that will be rewarded, not the raw number of people reached by your voice, or the amount of money you donated to charity, or the number of worldly accolades you received.
The choice is yours, and it always has been.