As God’s greatest gift to us, freedom also carries the greatest risk.
The people in the Great Flood. The Egyptians in the Red Sea. The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. The firstborn in Egypt. Israelites in multiple plagues. Amorites in a hailstorm. Soldiers and kings alike.
This is just a sampling of the people in the Bible that God sentenced to an untimely death. Whether particular individuals or entire nations, the Bible is replete with stories of God bringing about their demise.
As human beings, even when explanations are put forth with regard to God’s decision, it is not easy to reconcile how the God that created us would choose to destroy us. But beyond this morbid, time-honored question, there is a particular line of query that rarely gets much discussion. It is this: Instead of killing his people, why did he not just “change their hearts” to the loving, committed people he seemingly desired them to be?
This question brings us back to the issue of free will, which I have spent much time exploring. Thus, as I noted in the opening piece, God is willing to sacrifice life and even allow a lack of unity to occur (i.e., hell) so that we might freely choose him and his glory.
But notice that in all the instances where God orchestrates the death of his people, a common truth emerges — he never removes these people’s free will. No matter how bad humanity gets (e.g., the Holocaust), he never infringes on our ability to freely choose our course, even if it is not his will. He may provide countless opportunities to change our ways, and he may be available at any moment to receive those who choose to follow him, but it remains each individual’s choice of what he or she will do.
We as Christians believe that God is omnipotent and thus can do anything. If this is true, then in any instance above, why could he simply not “change the hearts" of the people instead of having to kill them? The answer is that either his omnipotence stops when he created humans as autonomous beings or he simply chooses not to infringe on free will.
Regardless of the reason, this reality is a remarkable statement on just how much free will truly is the cornerstone of God’s design. He will kill people. But our theology and experience teaches us that he will not undermine free will even if it means the death of millions of people (by him or others) or an individual's eternal damnation.
Assuming this is all true, and that even God’s own presence in the Holy Eucharist doesn’t change this, it seems that there is nothing more important we can do as parents than to form the free will of our youth.
How we go about forming their free will affects every aspect of their lives, including their psychological, physical, social and spiritual well-being. Their ability to use free will in an intentional, conscientious, informed way will not only aid them in pursuing God’s will and working to avoid sin, it will also open avenues of personal growth that simply are not available to those whose free will has become diluted into a stream of daily addictions, desires and distractions.
As noted in the prior article, everything begins with the formation of attention and focus capabilities. All other tenets are affected to some degree by this. But in total, there are seven components, which are represented by the acronym of FREEDOM, that will determine how an individual uses the gift of his free will. They are as follows:
F - Focus (Attention)
R - Resilience (Ability to Deal with Pain and Adversity)
E - Endurance
E - Emotional Regulation
D - Delayed Gratification
O - Opportunity/Options
M - Motivation
The less these elements are cultivated in our kids, the less likely our offspring will harness free will as we desire. This is what the Old and New Testament has been trying to tell us for thousands of years when it comes to not just our spiritual development, but also our neurological and psychological development. As God doesn’t force himself on us, our ability to receive him and his entire creation as we desire (and for our kids to do the same) absolutely depends on these components of free will.
The question is, how do we as parents foster strategies and an overall atmosphere that encourages FREEDOM, the kind of free will that maximizes their ability to seek God in all they do and follow him at all costs?
As the world offers endless opportunities for dependence — on devices, food, entertainment, drugs and mindless distractions — masked as freedom and autonomy, the free will we speak of is what Viktor Frankl once described as “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s own attitude in ANY given set of circumstances.”
It is the kind of freedom that can never be removed, whether we find ourselves in solitary confinement or in the middle of a vast desert. It is the freedom that has led martyrs to offer themselves as a complete sacrifice and men to the shores of Normandy when everything in their being said they must turn back. It is a freedom that supersedes fear, hatred and ignorance, one founded on love, truth and gratitude.
Used properly, it is responsible for the greatest feats the world has ever known. Used improperly, it is responsible for atrocities of equitable magnitude. As God’s greatest gift to us, freedom also carries the greatest risk.
As Christians and as parents, we are repeatedly taught to pray to God (and teach our children to do the same) in supplication, gratitude, forgiveness and adoration. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “It is altogether ‘fitting and proper that we should do this’” as our existence depends and ends with God. But as prayer remains vital as faithful, loving beings, so the formation of our free will from the youngest of ages remains vital as human and spiritual beings.
Sadly, though, it is the latter that is sorely neglected even for the faithful. How many times do we plead with God to change the ways things are, only to hear echoes of a God saying that he has already given us the ability to do so?
Maybe, just maybe, it is because our definition of prayer is simply too limited, and because we lack the cognitive resources to understand how the union of our will with his will might be the perfect offering.
When St. Paul said to “pray without ceasing,” perhaps he was trying to say that any act of free will oriented toward God’s will was actually a living, breathing prayer. Not just acts to feed the poor and visit the imprisoned, but all acts designed to preserve and enhance the greatest gift God ever gave, the greatest risk he ever took.
For all the stars, the planets, the elements, the animals, and the trillions of entities that exist, we (his people) are the only ones who were afforded the ability to choose our own way, in what we think and what we do. When you regard just what a gift this is, and what an incredible risk God took, it might make us consider that we as Christian parents should do everything to protect and nurture it for our children each day.
For practical ideas and considerations in forming free will in our youth (and ourselves), see Dr. Schroeder’s forthcoming book entitled Free Will: How We as Parents (and People) Can Harness the Greatest Gift Ever Given.