I was posed a question about free will with regards to vocation choices recently and decided to explore it. The below are my personal thoughts and reflection.
For those of you who have lived long enough, you might recall the 1993 film “Free Willy”. It was one of my favourite shows growing up. It tells the story about an Orca trapped in a sea aquarium, longing to be free. Despite the devious plotting of the management to end its life for insurance money, Willy manages to be set free with the help of a young boy.
This story captures how many of us feel when we have to make hard decisions in the storms of our lives. Are we like Willy, trapped in the aquarium of this world, forced to do tricks and swim a certain path at the behest of the mysterious ‘management’ behind the glass? Where is our freedom to exercise this so-called ‘free will’ that we have been promised? More specifically, each of us has a desire in our hearts to fulfil this vocation (leading to true happiness) that we are called to – but we did not choose the vocation that was planted in our hearts, God did. Therefore it seems like we have been programmed to feel and think a certain way that ultimately follows His plan. This is inherent in us and seems to go against the concept of ‘free-will’, does it not?
Maybe so, but I will argue that the idea of a loving God demands that we accept the fact that we each have a specific vocation and purpose, whilst ensuring our ‘free will’ stays intact. In fact, perhaps I can convince you that we do not need a young boy to save us, because we were never in that aquarium in the first place!
Firstly, the idea of a loving God presumes that He cares for us, and wants only the best for us, like all parents do. Yet because He is God, He is the perfect parent and loves perfectly. Take the example of a carpenter who decides he wants to build an object. A careless carpenter would lazily join parts together to make a random object that he has no purpose for (“I’ll think about it when it is done/ along the way”). He might end up with a wooden contraption that can only be described as an ‘avant-garde wood sculpture’ (here I apologise to all art majors I may have offended), with no practical use whatsoever. On the other hand, we have a careful, meticulous carpenter who believes that wood taken from a tree is precious and must be crafted for a purpose. He makes of the oak a nice rocking chair that reflects his craftsmanship – his identity he has imparted into his work. A loving God would be more like the second carpenter than the first. In more ways than we can understand, He would have known our purpose before He made us to be. He would have planned exactly how we would turn out, and being beyond space and time, would have measured everything to perfection such that we would be taken care of for the rest of our lives. This is as revealed in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Such is the requirement of a loving God who creates for a purpose. Consider this question: Would you rather know that your existence in this world has a meaning and purpose behind it, that you were made for a specific reason by a loving God who cares for you, or would you rather believe that your existence was random, by chance, the outcome of a careless carpenter? I hope this explains the problem of why we are made with a vocation, why each of us has the desire in our heart to fulfil this inner purpose that God has made us for – as St. Irenaeus puts it, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”
This then brings us to the question: can we call this free will? In order to answer this, I will adhere to (since this is written in a catholic context) the concept of freedom that St. John Paul II spoke about in his 1969 book The Acting Person, and reaffirmed in his 1974 paper The Personal Structure of Self Determination and 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, . Very quickly, freedom as the Church understands it is always linked to the Truth – in the words of Christ, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32). This philosophy of freedom runs counter to the value-free concept so prevalent in contemporary culture where many people today would say that freedom and truth are wholly separable, since anyone is free to affirm the truth and abide by it, to ignore the truth, or even to deny it and act against it. To better understand this, please visit this page (http://bit.ly/PGzhXK). I am afraid I will not be analysing or challenging his points (perhaps another time). Further, the Saint argues that God willed to leave them [human beings] “in the hands of their own counsel,” so that they would seek their Creator of their own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God. (Gaudium et Spes 17; Veritatis Splendor 38). This is transposed to the political realm by Lord Acton when he says “[freedom] is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Lastly, it does not follow that the whole course of our life is prescribed in advance by an objective order of truth that excludes any originality and creativity on our part. In most situations we are faced with a choice between several competing goods. Just as I am free to eat what I want, or to walk naked in the snow, so too am I at liberty to choose any occupation or walk of life that is honorable in itself and suited to the talents I am endowed with. It would be wrong to imagine that there would be only one ‘right’ course of action. In this way, God invites us to make decisions, albeit in consonance with the moral law, the inescapable Truth.
A good point is raised by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. on a meditation by St. John Paul II: In this connection one must consider the idea of vocation. God may invite us, without compelling us, to do more than duty requires. Looking at the call of the rich young man at the beginning of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II points out the distinction between obedience to the Commandments, which is required for salvation, and a particular vocation, which may enable an individual to attain more perfect freedom. Many spiritual writers hold that the rich young man, whom Jesus urged to give away his goods to the poor, was not strictly required to perform this generous act. He could presumably have saved his soul by continuing to observe the Commandments, as he had been doing for years. Ordinarily, at least, the vocation to the life of the evangelical counsels does not come as a command but as a gracious invitation. Although we cannot achieve perfect freedom without accepting the highest possibilities opened up to us by God’s grace, we are morally free to do all that God does not forbid.
By its nature, the ability to exercise one’s free will is inevitably tied to one’s freedom. God, as merciful as He is, despite creating us with love and for a purpose, has given us the choice to decide whether we want to follow the path He created for us to walk, or to go our own way. In any decision that we make, He in His infinite mercy, blesses us still (“…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. -Matthew 5:45). Moving beyond that, God in His love sent His Son to die in order to redeem for us eternal life. Yet, He imposes none of His will upon us, and allows us the freedom to make our choices. Although one cannot deny that every action and choice has its consequence, we ultimately have the final say over the choices we make. Therefore, we are indeed given the freedom to exercise our own free will. By no means are we ordered to swim in synchronised movements or jump through hoops – rather, the world is our ocean, and we are already free willy-s.
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