The agony we feel when we see loved ones or friends ruining their lives, or, at least, making bad choices, often brings us to our knees before God. At times we worry about the unknown and fear the worst. Even years of ceaseless prayer may appear to prove useless. What does this say about God? My friend, Lisa, describes just such an experience.
My family lived in a small town where everyone went to church. My mother was the church organist so we were the first family to arrive and the last family to leave on Sunday. We were a typical Midwest American family. There were 4 children in my family; 1 boy and 3 girls. My father was a farmer and my mother was a stay at home mom.
As I was starting high school, my older brother, Kevin, left to join the Navy. I expected he would do a lot of cool things and see interesting places, but I was also sad because I knew I would rarely see him. I knew the importance and power of prayer and I prayed for him often.
As the years went by, my parents seldom mentioned my brother. After I left home for college, I was busy with my own life and made fewer inquiries about how he was doing. Did he have a wife, kids etc. My mom would say “Oh you know your brother; he’s married to his job.”
The truth was that 6 or 7 years had passed and I no longer knew my brother. Every time I would drive to my parent’s house for dinner or a holiday, I would see his photos on the wall, but nothing recent. I was told he frequently traveled to different countries and my mother sometimes wasn’t clear on where he lived. I thought this was just how the military was but also thought it odd that he was in the navy for so long. There weren’t cell phones then and I was told he had no home phone to call.
I finished school, began my career, got married, had children, bought a home and never spoke to my brother. My mother’s conversations with Kevin were always repeated at holidays. I can remember the phone ringing at Christmas one year and I prayed it was him. My heart stopped for a moment at the thought of hearing his voice again. But it wasn’t him. What if he just walked in the door? That would be a glorious day for my family.
In later years, my dad told us that Kevin was working in Alaska on a new pipeline and would be out in the uninhabited free land zones. I felt my family had lost him. The distance and lack of communication had taken its toll and I had stopped praying for him every day. The days of praying with my parents and siblings sitting around a table holding hands was becoming a very distant memory for me. I missed that and I missed my brother.
My husband and I taught 1st and 2nd grade Sunday school. As the children talked of their brothers and sisters, I would get a glimpse of Kevin again in my own life as we grew up. That ache in my heart and the hope that my brother was OK would come rushing back.
When the family gathered at my parents’ house, my sisters and I would express concern that my mother’s only comments regarding Kevin were “Haven’t heard from him in a while”. We heard the same comment many times.
Frustrated, I asked my mother for the name of the company Kevin worked for…. or was he still in the military. She said it was a private company and gave me the name. I called the human resource department to get an office phone number or a supervisor name. The lady I spoke to was very kind to me and understood how anxious I was to speak to Kevin. She said she would look up his contact information and call me back later that afternoon. When she did, she simply stated that he was unreachable. This made no sense to me but she had no details. The ache I had was very palpable now. My prayers to hear his voice were not going to be fulfilled. I prayed that afternoon for his happiness, and his mental and physical health wondering if he still prayed or missed us.
On a busy Monday morning at my hospital. I received a page that my mother was trying to reach me. Initially she asked me to just listen. She explained that my brother had become homeless and had been addicted to heroin for the last 2 years. He had been found in a shelter, very ill, and had been sent to a hospital. That was all she knew that morning. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I didn’t want to believe that our God had forgotten about Kevin and left him this way.
I left work, went to my car and cried harder than I ever had in my life. I remembered my scripture in Deu. 31:6; “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you or forsake you.” I prayed out loud asking God ‘why?’. How did I not know that Kevin needed help? I was so mad at myself for being so involved with my own family that I didn’t try harder to find him. I could fix all my patients at work, but not my own brother. I was also mad at God. “Lord, why did you leave him?” How could this happen to an educated man from the Midwest with a good family?
The next day I received another call from my mother letting me that Kevin had passed. I learned much more of my brother’s life after his death; not much of it good. Throughout my life, the power of pray was amazing and worked. I’d seen it many times with my church family. My only hope is that now God is holding him close so Kevin feels his addiction was not the heart and soul of his being. Addiction had taken over his life and my hopes to see him again, to hear his voice, to hug him, dissolved.
This is a scenario repeated in far too many families. But as stated in Romans 8:28, for those who are God-conscious and listening to His Spirit, some good will develop from it. In this case, Lisa was drawn to take on the organization of a large street ministry at her church, feeding hundreds of people each month.
The street ministry from Oakhurst United Methodist Church is the perfect way for me to lift up my brother by feeding the homeless. I think of him while I’m there. The faces of those being served each have a story. They may be there due to addiction, health reasons that prevent work or a financial crisis in their life. I see my brother’s face in them. When I pray with them, I feel I’m praying with my brother standing next to me.
Due to the lack of communication with his family, it isn’t possible to know what Kevin’s relationship was with God during his adult life. The choice to take drugs, which then turned into an addiction, doesn’t mean Kevin turned his back on God. The addiction may have been a battle for him that he lost.
However, if Kevin did give up the faith of his youth, this is the option that God provides which we call Free Will. God wants us to have communion with Him by our own choice. He is not going to force anyone to value their life more, to act in a certain way, or to use their resources reasonably, even if many others pray that He will.
A thorough discussion of Free Will delves deeply into philosophy and there are many well developed as well as vague views on the subject. Below are abridgements of a few of them that may give you some insight.
The Catholic View of Free Will
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church asserts that “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will”. It goes on to say that “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel, so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.” It concludes with the role that grace plays, “By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world.”
Catholic Christianity’s views on free will and grace are often contrasted with predestination in Reformed Protestant Christianity, especially after the Counter-Reformation, but in understanding differing conceptions of free will it is just as important to understand the differing conceptions of the nature of God, focusing on the idea that God can be all-powerful and all-knowing even while people continue to exercise free will.
Oriental Orthodox View of Free Will
The Oriental Orthodox church explains that the more one follows one’s conscience, the more it brings one good results, and the more one follows one’s arrogance, the more it brings one bad results. Following only one’s arrogance is sometimes likened to the dangers of falling into a pit while walking in pitch darkness, without the light of conscience to illuminate the path.
Eastern Orthodox View of Free Will
Some Eastern Orthodox Christians use the parable of a drowning man to plainly illustrate their teaching regarding free will; God from the ship throws a rope to a drowning man, pulls him up, saving him, and the man, if he wants to be saved, must hold on tightly to the rope; explaining both that salvation is a gift from God and man cannot save himself, and that man must co-work with God in the process of salvation.
The Methodist View of Free Will
Christians who were influenced by the teachings of Jacobus Arminius (such as Methodists) believe that while God is all-knowing and always knows what choices each person will make, He still gives them the ability to choose or not choose everything, regardless of whether there are any internal or external factors contributing to that choice.
The Lutheran View of Free Will
Lutherans adhere to the teaching that Humanity is free to choose and act in every regard except for the choice of salvation. Luther used Jesus’ image of “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). Like the bad tree that can only produce bad fruit, before a rebirth through faith, people are in bondage to the sinful desires of their hearts. They only want to do bad. Luther concluded that, without a spiritual rebirth, the “free choice” that all humans possess is “not free at all” because it cannot of itself free itself from its inherent bondage to sin.
The Anabaptist View of Free Will
The Anabaptist movement was characterized by the fundamental belief in the free will of man. Denominations today representing this view include Old Order Mennonites, Amish, and Conservative Mennonites.
The New Church View of Free will
As an example of one of the deeper philosophical views, Emanuel Swedenborg, upon whose writings the New Church is founded, argued that if God is love itself, people must have free will. If God is love itself, then He desires no harm to come to anyone: and so, it is impossible that he would predestine anyone to hell. On the other hand, if God is love itself, then He must love things outside of Himself; and if people do not have the freedom to choose evil, they are simply extensions of God, and He cannot love them as something outside of Himself. In addition, Swedenborg argues that if a person does not have free will to choose goodness and faith, then all of the commandments in the Bible to love God and our neighbors are worthless, since no one can choose to do them – and it is impossible that a God, who is love itself and wisdom itself, would give impossible commandments.
The Islamic View of Free Will
Disputes about free will in Islam began with the Mu’tazili vs Hanbali disputes, with the Mu’tazili arguing that humans had qadar, the capacity to do right or wrong, and thus deserved the reward or punishment they received, whereas Hanbali insisted on God’s jabr, or total power and initiative in managing all events. Schools that developed around earlier thinkers searched for ways to explain how both human qadar and divine jabr could be asserted at the same time. Ash’ari develops a “dual agency” or “acquisition” account of free will in which every human action has two distinct agents; God creates the possibility of a human action with his divine jabr, but then the human follows through and “acquires” the act, making it theirs and taking responsibility for it using their human qadar
The Hindu View of Free will
In Hinduism the Advaita (monistic) schools generally believe in a fate-based approach, and the Dvaita (dualistic) schools are proponents for the theory of free will. The Bhagavad Gita also states: “Nor does the Supreme Lord assume anyone’s sinful or pious activities (Bhagavad Gita 5.15). From wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, one must certainly withdraw it and bring it back under the control of the self (Bhagavad Gita 6.26)”, indicating that God does not control anyone’s will, and that it is possible to control the mind.
The Judaic View of Free will
In Judaism, the belief in free will is closely linked with the concept of reward and punishment, based on the Torah itself: “I [God] have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore, choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). God exists outside of time, and therefore, his knowledge of the future is exactly the same as his knowledge of the past and present. Just as his knowledge of the past does not interfere with man’s free will, neither does his knowledge of the future.
If you so choose, there is much to ponder and study regarding free will and you may even develop your own thought.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” Luke 13:34 (NKJV)
One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord,
And He will repay him for his good deed. Proverbs 19:17 (NASB)
He who]is generous will be blessed,
For he gives some of his food to the poor. Proverbs 22:9 (NASB)
And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28 Berean Study Bible