Q&R: How does God’s will prevail without violating ours?


I’ve been in sort of a debate over the choice to follow/believe in Jesus. My friend argues that our choice determines our destiny, i.e. heaven or hell.  I argue that God’s will ultimately prevails over our individual choice. How would you address the subject? Just curious.


Great question, my friend. I would put it this way:
First, God truly does honor our agency and the consequences of our choices.
We can verify this just by watching the world and our own lives.
Second, Christ assures us that he will draw all people to himself (John 12:32). Paul tells us that ‘every knee will bow and joyfully confess to the name of Jesus,’ including everyone ‘in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth’ (Philippians 2:11-12). Peter says that ‘God is not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).
How can both be true? How does Christ get his way without violating human freedom? Gratefully, one of history’s greatest theologians, Maximus the Confessor, weighed in with a response that resonates with me. He puts it this way (in my words):
1. The human will was created to freely and willingly respond to the Good. Maximus called this “the natural will” because responding to the Life of God, uncoerced, came naturally to us. It was part of our design.
2. The fall of humanity in the first garden was an act of self-will that damaged the human will. Our will had become dysfunctional so that instead of responding naturally to God’s love and what is best for us, we now vacillate. Maximus called this the ‘gnomic will,’ And while we can make these bad choices, it’s a bit strange to call it ‘free will,’ when in fact we’re in bondage to the delusion of self-will. Self-will is not free will. It’s a kind of slavery or disability.
3. But if our rebellious wills are dysfunctional, how can God condemn us for being blind so they cannot see the light of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)? Condemnation for a disability, even self-inflicted, would not be just. What is God to do?
4. There was another garden, Gethsemane, and in that garden, Jesus Christ vicariously turns humanity back to the life of God through the perfect surrender of his will to his Father’s will. This becomes the foundation of the healing of the human will through him, even in this life, such that by grace, we are freed to obey.
5. But what of those who die blind? Those who pass away whose gnomic will continues to wander and waver to their last day? In Maximus view, as I understand him, when at the End, “every eye shall see him,” (Revelation 1:7), the same Light who created our eyes will heal our spiritual eyes and restore our natural will so that “the light comes on” (as it did for Paul on the Damascus Road). Only then can we, at last, make a “freed will” response. Rather than violating our will, Christ will free and restore it to its original state. Saying YES to God without delusion or compulsion will become our normal, willing response.
One question that occurs to me is why Adam and Eve turned away in the first place. If they had a natural will to begin with, how was it possible that they lapsed into rebellion? And why won’t we again? The easy answer is that it’s a mystery within a myth story about ourselves? Why did WE first rebel? But lest we cop out too quickly to mystery, I will add briefly that Gregory of Nyssa addressed this in his classic Life of Moses. His theory is that the issue in the first garden was immaturity. In the story world of Adam and Eve, humanity was created innocent, not perfect. And as such, they were moral toddlers, susceptible to deception, and the delusion of self-will. Stumbling was as inevitable as it is for any child learning to walk. And therefore, given their “thrown-ness” into that situation, mercy is God’s only just response… and that’s exactly what he does.
Why not just create us complete and mature? Because that’s not how humans are made. We grow up. We develop our personalities and mature toward Christlikeness. Willingly. Thank God. But at the End, when we are complete and mature and glorified, without the deception and seduction of the fallen world, flesh, or devil, we expect that grace will adorn our natural will with perfection forever.
Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More