Fr Varghese Paul, SJ
I got a phone call from an unknown person from Mumbai. The caller introduced herself as Ms Sonea. She is an Advocate by profession and a Hindu by religion. She said that she reads the Bible daily. She got a small book entailed “What Does Jesus Mean to You & Me?” from Goa. Sonea read the 40 page pocket-size booklet written by me and found my mobile number and called me.
Sonea had a question to ask: Fr Varghese, the Bible says that a person has to live according to the will of God. But God has created us with free will. So an independent person has his free will. How can a person be free and at the same time follow God’s will? If a person wants to follow God’s will, then he/she should sacrifice his/her free will. Then, where is the freedom and independence of a person? How can a person be free and at the same time do God’s will? It is a difficult question! Isn’t it?
I believe that without the freedom or free will of a person, morality and ethical behavior is not possible. The way of God is the way of ethics and morality. We know through our experiences that a person experiences an interior tug of war between following God’s will and doing one’s own will. St Paul has expressed this inner tug of war very well. He writes in his letter to the Romans: “I don’t do the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do.” (Bible, Rom. 7:19). Here Paul bares his soul. He shares with us his experience of inner conflict.
The ancient Greek poet Ovid has said something similar to Paul’s words: “I see the better things and I approve them, but I follow the worse” – Ovid.
A well known biblical scholar William Barclay, commending on Paul’s words about his inner struggles, has explained that the Jewish people understood Paul’s words very well. The Jews spoke of a person’s two natures called “Yester hatob and Yester hara.” God created a person with two inner forces: one for the good and the other for evil. But a person needs not succumb to the evil tendencies in him/her. The free will is choosing between the good and the evil.
In this context it is appropriate to quote a passage from the biblical book, Sirach: “Don’t blame the Lord for your sin; the Lord does not cause what he hates. Don’t claim that he has misled you; he doesn’t need the help of sinners to accomplish his purposes. The Lord hates evil in all its forms, and those who fear the Lord find nothing attractive in evil. When, in the beginning, the Lord created human beings, he left them free to do as they wished. If you want to, you can keep the Lord’s commands. You can decide whether you will be loyal to him or not.” (Sirach 15:11-15).
The Jewish people believed that a person may not yield to the evil tendencies in him/her and commit bad things. So God has given them ethical principles and moral norms especially the commandments. So when a person is pulled in opposite directions, he/she can use his/her intelligence to distinguish between the good and the evil and follow God’s commandments. For, in following the commandments a person can confirm his/her own free will to that of God’s will.
Certainly God’s will for a person and the person own free will are not one but two different things. But when a person willingly follow God’s will, then his/her will become one with God’s will. Often a person’s free will keeps him/her away from following God’s will. For as Paul said, a person experiences inner pulls in opposite directions. A person, so to say, experiences two opposing powers within himself/herself. So the basic question is what shall we do in this conflicting situation? How can a person without losing his/her free will follow the will of God?
I think that a person can follow God’s will without losing or sacrificing his/her free will by taking three concrete steps. First, know oneself; second, know God’s commandments as well as ethical principles and moral norms of life; and third, learn to discern or develop the power of discernment to be able to recognize between good and evil with love and intelligence. Taking these three steps a rational and loving person can know that his/her true freedom or free will is exercised in confirming his/her will to that of God’s will. Let us reflect a little deeper on these three steps.
First, knowing oneself. A famous Secretary General of United Nations U Thant well known for his posthumously published Diary (book) ‘Markings’ said that the longest journey of a person is the journey inward. Knowing oneself involves that long inner journey.
Jawaharlal Nehru as a political prisoner during the independent movement read a lot and shared his reflection with his teenage daughter Indira (Gandhi) in the form of letters which was later published as a bulky volume entitled “Discovery of India”. In a person’s inner journey he/she will discover many more things than a book can contain. In knowing oneself there is much to understand oneself and others. A person may discover many hidden talents, and forces at work in him/her. A person can develop all such forces and talents according to his/her time and situations. In the inner journey it may help a person to try to see oneself as God sees him/her. Knowing oneself thoroughly also helps to understand others.
Intelligence is a unique power of a human person. Through the intelligence a person can increase his self knowledge and wisdom. In knowing oneself a person realizes that knowledge and wisdom are not enough. For instance, a person is wise and knows theoretically swimming. But if that theoretical knowledge is not supported by experiential knowledge of swimming, he/she will get drowned in deep water. So knowing oneself is not limited to knowledge and wisdom but they need to be enhanced with the power of rational thinking and discernment to recognize good and evil.
Second, to follow God’s will, first of all, one needs to know God’s commandments. A person can also read Bible to know God’s will. Meditating on the life and message of Jesus Christ can also help a person to know God’s will.
In other words, meditative reading of the Bible, contemplation of the life and message of Jesus as well as the knowing God’s commandments are very important in seeking God’s will. We also need to recognize God at work in you and me as well as in the whole creation. With the help of all these we develop our power of discernment to distinguish good and evil and we are able to recognize God’s will in still small inner voice which we call our conscience or the voice of our soul.
Third, developing the spirit of discernment with the knowledge of self and God’s will, a person also needs to develop the spirit of discernment to follow God’s will. A person’s rational thinking and discernment are developed by his/her religious teachings, moral principles and ethical norms. A developed or an enlightened conscience helps a person in discernment.
A person may know well himself/herself; he/she may be well aware of God’s commandments; she/he may also be able to discern well between good and evil. Still there may not be oneness of a person’s will and God’s will. A person also needs a firm resolve to follow God’s will. Still a person’s behavior is often at loggerhead with the will of God. We do not follow God’s commandment; but often break them. When such things happen, we need to recognize our helplessness and weakness and humbly turn to God in dependence and ask God’s forgiveness and continue in our efforts with God’s help to know and follow God’s will. Then we may experience oneness and unity of God’s will with our personal will.
Last changed on 16 July 2016
Next change on 1 August 2016
Copy right: Fr Varghese Paul, SJ