By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
A thorny theological problem that occupies many people is the relationship between divine grace and human freedom. Nothing happens apart from the will of God, who creates and governs all things. And yet, we are still free to choose whether to go left or right every time we stand up and walk.
Moreover, we know that holiness, or purity of heart, is a divine gift and not the result of our merits and efforts. And yet, we alone are responsible for our sins, and so it does somehow fall to us to choose to cooperate with God in his work of salvation.
Such questions have fruitfully occupied the Church for centuries. But there are limits to how much we can dissect spiritual realities like grace and freedom. There is, after all, something contradictory about trying to find laws that completely describe what by its very definition transcends law, namely, divine and human freedom. Nevertheless, I think we can already find a satisfying answer if we simply establish the right framework in which to ask the question.
Whenever we try to think about the relationship between the Creator and his creature, we must discard a “competitive” framework that dooms our answers from the beginning. Only creatures can relate competitively. For example, a hungry lion chasing a gazelle wants one thing, while the gazelle wants something else entirely. To accomplish his will, the lion must annihilate the will of the gazelle. Their wills are in competition.
Now, this cannot be our model when we think about the Creator, since he wills to create, not to annihilate. Everything comes from him. Nothing would exist if he did not will it.
If we will freely, or do anything else, it is only because God wills that we will freely. In a sense, the more we will, the more God is willing in us. Our will cannot be threatened by God’s will because his will is precisely what sustains ours in existence.
This means that our freedom is real, but that it is always given to itself. It is dependent, secondary or contingent. In other words, we are truly free, but not absolutely or in the way that God is free. Our freedom is conditioned, and it does not take much reflection to see some of the innumerable ways it is determined by such things as our biology, history and community. An illness can weaken my freedom, even eviscerate it.
My freedom today is either reduced or expanded by the ways in which I exercised it yesterday (this is why virtues are so easy and delightful, and why addictions are so hard to escape). Finally, when a loving community forms its members, it makes them capable of doing new things and in that sense deepens their freedom.
To understand the relationship between divine grace and human freedom, we need a framework that shows how one can enhance another.
Spouses, for example, can make each other more free by inspiring each other. The joke that labels a spouse a “ball and chain” is silly. Love expands their possibilities rather than restricts them. For example, their love for each other and for their families pushes them to overcome laziness and fear, to do their best, to become stronger and more generous, and so more able to fulfill their potential in life.
Love expands our possibilities — our freedom. Why can’t this be true about God? Grace makes us more free, not less. The more God engages us, the more our actions become an effect of his grace. And this grace enhances our freedom.
Imagine a good basketball coach engaging his players. The more a player learns from his coach, the more his performance on the court is indebted to him. And yet, who would say that a mature player gracefully moving and controlling the ball at will is not free?
The same is true for us. God engages us by healing, correcting, teaching and inspiring our hearts at depths we cannot even fathom. He does all this to enable us to run through our lives with freedom and grace — like the basketball player. Just like the tender words spouses exchange can move men and women to make great sacrifices and accomplish tremendous things, the grace of God liberates us from laziness, fear and every other vice, and so expands our possibilities, our freedom.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.