God has gifted us with free will. We can choose between right and wrong, good and evil. We are free to follow Him or walk away. The gift of free will is the highest expression of love in God’s creation of Adam and Eve. To be created free is to be created in the image of God. Like God, we are free to love. God allows us to be co-creators in the world, to give gifts to others, and to be charitable. With the gift of free will, we can also deny the gift-Giver. And through God’s giving, Christ sacrificed Himself for us.
As important as free will is, there is one question that we don’t ask ourselves enough: “Do I respect my free will?”
We seek to protect our free will from potentially repressive laws, but do we truly understand what it is we are seeking to protect? While we stand alert for legal or societal factors that may restrict our freedom, do we stand alert for the internal factors that may hinder that same freedom? Are we properly using the gift God gave us? Do we respect our own free will?
All of our actions are, at their core, freely-determined. However, our free will is not the only source from which we make decisions. For example, our bodies force us to recognize the limitations of our free will. While we can freely will anything imaginable, we are only free to actualize our will through our bodies. The limitations on our freedom is then dependent upon our will’s relationship to our body. Through our free will, we can move our bodies to do amazing things, but our bodies can also limit our freedom more than any totalitarian regime ever could.
Our physical limitations allows us to grow in virtue. They push us to acknowledge the difference between good and evil, self-mastery and gluttony, pride and humility. While God gifted us with a free will, he also gifted us with a body and created a relationship between the two. If we lacked a body, would our souls be able to experience the extent of our dependence upon God? Could we fully understand our dependence upon God? Sure, we could argue that a soul with infused knowledge could have such an understanding, but there is a real distinction between infused knowledge and knowledge through experience. It is one thing to innately know that our existence depends upon God; it is another to know we are dependent upon God because we experience our own weakness and fragility. Through our bodies we know suffering; we know that peace is found in God because we have experienced pain.
The strength of our free will fluctuates according to the ways we respond to the demands of the body. Our bodies constantly ask us to make decisions and act: eat, drink, sleep, study, work, play, etc. The actions we choose condition our body to either respect our free will or suffocate it. The less ‘air’ our free will receives, the weaker it gets over time.
At the risk of sounding callous or sanctimonious, I will use addiction as an example. Most addictions begin with a choice. I choose to do, drink, smoke, or consume something that will provide me with bodily pleasure. After the intended bodily pleasure fades away, I may desire that pleasure again, so I make another choice and do, drink, smoke, or consume that same thing. I freely choose to repeat this process until over time I am not so much acting voluntarily out of my free will, but rather I am submitting to the needs and demands of my body. After reaching this level of addiction, I may no longer want to give into my bodily impulses. However, my body now overpowers my free will and I am left feeling forced to act according to the ‘will’ of my body. Ultimately, by using my free will, I gave priority to my body’s desire for pleasure to the point where that desire became stronger than my free will. Of course, even at this point, my free will is not gone. However, to overcome the demands of my body, I must ignore those demands and give myself over to those who can help me achieve what my free will desires, but has become too weak to achieve on its own.
In this case, our bodies cage our free will. We can continue to freely will anything imaginable, but our willed acts transform our bodies, which subsequently limit or expand our freedom.
Do we respect our free will? That means caring for it, nourishing it, and seeing it as a gift. It also means being thankful to the Giver through whom we come to understand the nature and purpose of the gift we’ve received.
While it is important to be alert for ways in which the world can restrict our freedom, it is also important (if not more so) to be alert for the ways in which we are restricting our own freedom. This is why Christians of various denominations sometimes incorporate penance, mortifications, fasts, etc. into their lives. By training the body and growing in self-mastery, we become better able to act according to our free will. The more we respect our own free will, the freer we become.