Ki Tissa
For the week of March 14, 2009 / 18 Adar 5769
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 30:11 - 34:35;
Bemidbar / Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

Free Will

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, "Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:13,14; ESV)

Some of you may understand this sort of thing better than I, but I was really surprised recently when I heard an atheistic scientist claim that his rejection of God or any other supernatural forces led him to conclude that there was no such thing as human free will. I had thought that if someone didn't believe in God, then objective morality didn't exist, thus giving people freedom to do whatever they liked. But if I understand the scientist correctly, he was saying that since we live in an exclusively naturalistic universe, everything is the product of physical forces. Human activity on Earth may appear to be self determining, but that is only an illusion. The whole universe is like a highly complex arrangement of dominos where the falling of one domino causes another one to fall. The patterns and beauty of life are simply the result of absolute randomization.

Until I heard this I had thought that determinism, that is the concept that all of life's outcomes are preset, required the belief in a supernatural force, who asserts sovereign control of the universe. But now I see with the help of this scientist's statement that the existence of human free will is due to God.

There is a lot of confusion among Bible believers over the issue of free will. For some free will is regarded as absolute as if God never takes the upper hand in human affairs. For others free will is made to be nonsense similar to the way atheists understand it. For these people it only looks as if we have free will, when in fact God is working behind the scenes like a puppeteer controlling our every word and action.

One of the problems with all this is the word, "free". It is obvious that humans don't have free will in an absolute sense. We cannot will to do absolutely anything we want. We are limited by all sorts of factors. While most of us can learn to perform well beyond our perceived limitations, on our own we cannot do anything beyond our actual limitations.

The question that remains is if God has given free will to people, how free are we? I don't know if we can say for sure, but the Bible provides us with significant insight.

Purim (the Festival of Esther; see the Book of Esther for details) is a one-day festival that begins this Monday evening (March 9). Purim commemorates the turning of the tables on the Jewish people's enemies in the face of destruction. The story of Esther is a wonderful weaving together of the sovereign work of God and human free will.

As the story goes, the Jewish people were in trouble yet again. The resolution to their predicament came about by a fascinating set of events and the purposeful actions of Mordecai and Esther. One of the unique features of the book of Esther is that it is the only book of the Bible to not have a single explicit reference to God. God's supposed silence is often legitimately interpreted as an emphasis on how God often works on his people's behalf behind the scenes, so to speak.

The effective, yet hidden, working of God doesn't mean that the people involved had no actual part to play. Mordecai's encouragement to Esther to speak on behalf of their people well expresses the interweaving of God's sovereignty and human free will. Mordecai was certain that God would take care of his people. Esther's refusal to be involved would not prevent God's plan for the Jewish people from succeeding. But her refusal would have dire consequences for her and her own family.

There is no sense in this story that every aspect of the outcome of the situation was preset by God and thus could not be affected by people's decisions. At the same time the overall outcome was not dependant on Esther or any other human being. While Esther was God's chosen instrument to save her people, she was free to decide to accept or refuse the challenge.

To think that the outcome of history is dependent on human decisions is ridiculous. Yet God in his sovereignty created human beings whom he calls to freely respond to his will. While we can never force his hand, let us not expect him to twist our arms before we do what's right.

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