Friday

Is free choice real, or is it just an illusion?

One of the oldest questions in psychology, and in other fields such as philosophy, is whether humans have free will. That is, are we able to choose what we will do with our lives?

Our choices feel free, don't they? I decided to be a psychologist because I felt called or inspired to understand what makes people tick. That was my choice, wasn't it?

The free will issue is especially thorny because it represents a collision between two opposing, yet equally valid, perspectives. From a purely metaphysical perspective, if we don't have free will, why are we here? What is the point of life if we cannot choose our own paths? Yet from a purely scientific perspective, how is it possible that anything can occur without having been caused by something else? If we really can choose, then these choices must be uncaused - something that cannot be explained within the model of science that many of us rely on.

There is no consensus within psychology as to whether we really do have free will - although much of our field seems to assume that we don't. Freud and Skinner didn't agree on very much, but one thing they did agree on was that human behavior was determined by influences within or outside the person. Freud talked about unconscious conflicts as causes of behavior, and Skinner talked about environmental contingencies, but either way we were not free to decide.

New "threats" to the possibility of free will have come from fields such as neuroscience and genetics. Many neuroscientists, armed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other brain scanning tools, argue that, now that we can peer into the brain, we can see that there is no "agent" there making choices. John Searle (1997) approaches consciousness from a biological perspective and argues that the brain is no more free than is the liver or the stomach. Geneticists are discovering that many psychological experiences are linked with gene-environment interactions, such that people with a specific gene are more likely to react in a certain way. For example, van Roekel et al. (2013) found that girls with a specific oxytocin receptor gene felt more lonely in the presence of judgmental friends than did girls without this gene. These results suggest that at least some of what we perceive as "free" responses are really determined by our biology, our environment, or both.

In a controversial set of experiments, neuroscientist Ben Libet (1985) scanned participants’ brains as he instructed them to move their arm. Libet found that brain activity increased even before participants were aware of their decision to move their arm. Libet interpreted this finding as meaning that the brain had somehow “decided” to make the movement, and that the person became consciously aware of this decision only after it had already been made. Many other neuroscientists have used Libet’s findings as evidence that human behavior is controlled by neurobiology, and that free will does not exist.

Further still, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner and his colleagues (e.g., Pronin et al., 2006) have conducted studies suggesting that people claim control over events that are initiated by others. Fans try to "give good vibes" to a basketball player shooting critical free throws, or to a football quarterback trying to complete a pass. Yet common sense tells us that our “vibes” have nothing to with whether the player makes that free throw or completes that pass. Wegner argues that what we call "free will" is really just events whose causes we don't understand.

So is there any hope for free will?  Are we really controlled by our biology and our environments?

Do human beings truly have a free will?

If “free will” means that God gives humans the opportunity to make choices that genuinely affect their destiny, then yes, human beings do have a free will. The world’s current sinful state is directly linked to choices made by Adam and Eve. God created mankind in His own image, and that included the ability to choose.

However, free will does not mean that mankind can do anything he pleases. Our choices are limited to what is in keeping with our nature. For example, a man may choose to walk across a bridge or not to walk across it; what he may not choose is to fly over the bridge—his nature prevents him from flying. In a similar way, a man cannot choose to make himself righteous—his (sin) nature prevents him from canceling his guilt (Romans 3:23). So, free will is limited by nature.

This limitation does not mitigate our accountability. The Bible is clear that we not only have the ability to choose, we also have the responsibility to choose wisely. In the Old Testament, God chose a nation (Israel), but individuals within that nation still bore an obligation to choose obedience to God. And individuals outside of Israel were able to choose to believe and follow God as well (e.g., Ruth and Rahab).

In the New Testament, sinners are commanded over and over to “repent” and “believe” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Acts 3:19; 1 John 3:23). Every call to repent is a call to choose. The command to believe assumes that the hearer can choose to obey the command.

Jesus identified the problem of some unbelievers when He told them, “You refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:40). Clearly, they could have come if they wanted to; their problem was they chose not to. “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7), and those who are outside of salvation are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20-21).

But how can man, limited by a sin nature, ever choose what is good? It is only through the grace and power of God that free will truly becomes “free” in the sense of being able to choose salvation (John 15:16). It is the Holy Spirit who works in and through a person’s will to regenerate that person (John 1:12-13) and give him/her a new nature “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Salvation is God’s work. At the same time, our motives, desires, and actions are voluntary, and we are rightly held responsible for them.

Why is God a jealous God?

It is important to understand how the word “jealous” is used. Its use in Exodus 20:5 to describe God is different from how it is used to describe the sin of jealousy (Galatians 5:20). When we use the word “jealous,” we use it in the sense of being envious of someone who has something we do not have. A person might be jealous or envious of another person because he or she has a nice car or home (possessions). Or a person might be jealous or envious of another person because of some ability or skill that other person has (such as athletic ability). Another example would be that one person might be jealous or envious of another because of his or her beauty.

In Exodus 20:5, it is not that God is jealous or envious because someone has something He wants or needs. Exodus 20:4-5 says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God...” Notice that God is jealous when someone gives to another something that rightly belongs to Him.

In these verses, God is speaking of people making idols and bowing down and worshiping those idols instead of giving God the worship that belongs to Him alone. God is possessive of the worship and service that belong to Him. It is a sin (as God points out in this commandment) to worship or serve anything other than God. It is a sin when we desire, or we are envious, or we are jealous of someone because he has something that we do not have. It is a different use of the word “jealous” when God says He is jealous. What He is jealous of belongs to Him; worship and service belong to Him alone, and are to be given to Him alone.

Perhaps a practical example will help us understand the difference. If a husband sees another man flirting with his wife, he is right to be jealous, for only he has the right to flirt with his wife. This type of jealousy is not sinful. Rather, it is entirely appropriate. Being jealous for something that God declares to belong to you is good and appropriate. Jealousy is a sin when it is a desire for something that does not belong to you. Worship, praise, honor, and adoration belong to God alone, for only He is truly worthy of it. Therefore, God is rightly jealous when worship, praise, honor, or adoration is given to idols. This is precisely the jealousy the apostle Paul described in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy...”

Does God punish us when we sin?

In order to answer this question, we first need to distinguish between punishment and discipline. For believers in Jesus, all our sin—past, present, and future—has already been punished on the cross. As Christians, we will never be punished for sin. That was done once for all. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Because of the sacrifice of Christ, God sees only the righteousness of Christ when He looks at us. Our sin has been nailed to the cross with Jesus, and we will never be punished for it.

The sin that remains in our lives, however, does sometimes require God’s discipline. If we continue to act in sinful ways and we do not repent and turn from that sin, God brings His divine discipline to bear upon us. If He did not, He would not be a loving and concerned Father. Just as we discipline our own children for their welfare, so does our heavenly Father lovingly correct His children for their benefit. Hebrews 12:7-11 tells us, "As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Whoever heard of a child who was never disciplined? If God doesn't discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children after all. Since we respect our earthly fathers who disciplined us, should we not all the more cheerfully submit to the discipline of our heavenly Father and live forever? For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God's discipline is always right and good for us because it means we will share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it is painful! But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.”

Discipline, then, is how God lovingly turns His children from rebellion to obedience. Through discipline our eyes are opened more clearly to God's perspective on our lives. As King David stated in Psalm 32, discipline causes us to confess and repent of sin we have not yet dealt with. In this way discipline is cleansing. It is also a growth catalyst. The more we know about God, the more we know about His desires for our lives. Discipline presents us with the opportunity to learn and to conform ourselves to the image of Christ (Romans 12:1-2). Discipline is a good thing!

We need to remember that sin is a constant in our lives while we are yet on this earth (Romans 3:10, 23). Therefore, we not only have to deal with God's discipline for our disobedience, but we also have to deal with the natural consequences resulting from sin. If a believer steals something, God will forgive him and cleanse him from the sin of theft, restoring fellowship between Himself and the repentant thief. However, the societal consequences of theft can be severe, resulting in fines or even incarceration. These are natural consequences of sin and must be endured. But God works even through those consequences to increase our faith and glorify Himself.

Wednesday

Why was God so evident in the Bible, and seems so hidden today?

The Bible records God’s appearing to people, performing amazing and undeniable miracles, speaking audibly, and many other things that we do not often witness today. Why is this? Why was God so willing to reveal and prove Himself in Bible times but seems "hidden" and silent today?

One reason God may seem hidden today is the simple fact of willful, unrepentant sin. “Then they will cry out to the LORD, but he will not answer them. At that time he will hide his face from them because of the evil they have done” (Micah 3:4; cf. Deuteronomy 31:18; 32:20). Also, without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Sometimes people miss evidence of God because of a refusal to believe (see Mark 6:1-6)—it’s hard to see when you refuse to open your eyes.

Far from being hidden, God has completed a plan of progressive revelation to mankind. During His centuries-long process of communication, God at times used miracles and direct address with people in order to reveal His character, His instructions, and His plans. In between God’s times of speaking, there was silence. His power was not as evident, and new revelation was not forthcoming (see 1 Samuel 3:1).

God’s first miracle – creation – has never been hidden in any way. Creation was and is the primary evidence of God’s existence and the way He exhibits many of His attributes. From what was made, man can see that God is powerful, sovereign, and eternal (Romans 1:20). The creation was His first declaration to mankind. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the expanse proclaims His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Following creation, God spoke to people to further declare Himself and to inform man of His ways. He first spoke to Adam and Eve, giving them commandments to follow and, when they disobeyed, pronouncing a curse. He also assured them and all mankind that He would send a Savior to redeem us from sin.

After Enoch’s translation to heaven, it seems that God was “hidden” once again. But later, God spoke to Noah in order to save him and his family and to Moses, giving him the Law for His people to follow. God performed miracles to authenticate Moses as His prophet (Exodus 4:8) and to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. God performed miracles again in Joshua’s time to establish Israel in the Promised Land and again during the time of Elijah and Elisha to authenticate the prophets and to combat idolatry. In between those times of clear divine intervention, generations passed without seeing a miracle or hearing the voice of God. Many probably wondered, “Why is God hidden today? Why doesn’t He make Himself evident?”

When Jesus came to earth, after 400 “silent years” from God, He performed miracles to prove that He was indeed the Son of God and to foster faith in Him (Matthew 9:6; John 10:38). After His miraculous resurrection, He enabled His apostles to continue performing miracles in order to prove they were truly sent by Him, again so that people would believe in Jesus and heed the New Testament that the apostles were writing.

There are several reasons why, after the time of the apostles, God is no longer speaking audibly to us or making Himself as evident. As noted above, God has already spoken. His words were faithfully written down, and they have been miraculously kept for us through the ages. The Bible is finished. God’s progressive revelation is done (Revelation 22:18). Now we have the completed canon of Scripture, and we need no further miracles to “validate” the Bible, which has already been validated. In God’s perfect Word is everything we need “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible is perfectly able to make us “wise to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). It is a “more sure Word of prophecy [more sure than miraculous experience] to which we would do well to take heed” (2 Peter 1:19). We need nothing more, and we are not to seek extra-biblical revelations. To do so calls into question the efficacy of Scripture that God has declared to be sufficient.

But doesn’t the Holy Spirit speak to us? Yes, He is our Comforter in this world (John 14:16). And He may work with our conscience to help guide us. But it’s important to understand that the Spirit is not giving new revelation today. Rather, He speaks to us through the written Word of God, which is the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The Spirit will often bring specific Scriptures to mind at times when we need them most (John 14:26); He enlightens us to understand the Word and empowers us to live it. But no one can say, “The Spirit has revealed to me a new fact about heaven, not found in the Bible!” That is adding to Scripture and the height of presumption.

Another reason for the “hidden” state of God today is alluded to by the prophet Habakkuk: “The just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). God does not give His people a continual chain of miraculous signs; He never has. Rather, He expects them to trust what He has already done, search the Scriptures daily, and live by faith, not by sight (Matthew 16:4; John 20:29; 2 Corinthians 5:7).

Finally, let us remember that, even in those times when it seems that God is doing nothing, He is still the sovereign Lord of all creation, and He is constantly at work, bringing about the completion of His perfect plan. One of the best examples of God’s “hidden” working is the book of Esther, in which God is never mentioned but which plainly shows His sovereign hand at work from beginning to end.

Why does God love us?

This short question is among the most profound questions ever asked. And no human would ever be able to answer it sufficiently. One thing is certain, however. God does not love us because we are lovable or because we deserve His love. If anything, the opposite is true. The state of mankind since the fall is one of rebellion and disobedience. Jeremiah 17:9 describes man’s inner condition: “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Our innermost beings are so corrupted by sin that even we don’t realize the extent to which sin has tainted us. In our natural state, we do not seek God; we do not love God; we do not desire God. Romans 3:10-12 clearly presents the state of the natural, unregenerate person: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” How then is it possible for a holy, righteous, and perfect God to love such creatures? To understand this we must understand something of the nature and character of God.

First John 4:8 and 16 tell us that “God is love.” Never was a more important declaration made than this—God is love. This is a profound statement. God doesn’t just love; He is love. His nature and essence are love. Love permeates His very being and infuses all His other attributes, even His wrath and anger. Because God’s very nature is love, He must demonstrate love, just as He must demonstrate all His attributes because doing so glorifies Him. Glorifying God is the highest, the best, and the most noble of all acts, so, naturally, glorifying Himself is what He must do, because He is the highest and the best, and He deserves all glory.

Since it is God's essential nature to love, He demonstrates His love by lavishing it on undeserving people who are in rebellion against Him. God’s love is not a sappy, sentimental, romantic feeling. Rather, it is agape love, the love of self-sacrifice. He demonstrates this sacrificial love by sending His Son to the cross to pay the penalty for our sin (1 John 4:10), by drawing us to Himself (John 6:44), by forgiving us of our rebellion against Him, and by sending His Holy Spirit to dwell within us, thereby enabling us to love as He loves. He did this in spite of the fact that we did not deserve it. "But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

God's love is personal. He knows each of us individually and loves us personally. His is a mighty love that has no beginning and no end. It is this experiencing of God’s love that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. Why does God love us? It is because of who He is: "God is love."

Does God hear / answer the prayers of a sinner / unbeliever?

John 9:31 declares, “We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will.” It has also been said that “the only prayer that God hears from a sinner is the prayer for salvation.” As a result, some believe that God does not hear and/or will never answer the prayers of an unbeliever. In context, though, John 9:31 is saying that God does not perform miracles through an unbeliever. First John 5:14-15 tells us that God answers prayers based on whether they are asked according to His will. This principle, perhaps, applies to unbelievers. If an unbeliever asks a prayer of God that is according to His will, nothing prevents God from answering such a prayer—according to His will.

Some Scriptures describe God hearing and answering the prayers of unbelievers. In most of these cases, prayer was involved. In one or two, God responded to the cry of the heart (it is not stated whether that cry was directed toward God). In some of these cases, the prayer seems to be combined with repentance. But in other cases, the prayer was simply for an earthly need or blessing, and God responded either out of compassion or in response to the genuine seeking or the faith of the person. Here are some passages dealing with prayer by an unbeliever:

The people of Nineveh prayed that Nineveh might be spared (Jonah 3:5-10). God answered this prayer and did not destroy the city of Nineveh as He had threatened.

Hagar asked God to protect her son Ishmael (Genesis 21:14-19). God not only protected Ishmael, God blessed him exceedingly.

In 1 Kings 21:17-29, especially verses 27-29, Ahab fasts and mourns over Elijah's prophecy concerning his posterity. God responds by not bringing about the calamity in Ahab's time.

The Gentile woman from the Tyre and Sidon area prayed that Jesus would deliver her daughter from a demon (Mark 7:24-30). Jesus cast the demon out of the woman’s daughter.

Cornelius, the Roman centurion in Acts 10, had the apostle Peter sent to him in response to Cornelius being a righteous man. Acts 10:2 tells us that Cornelius “prayed to God regularly.”

God does make promises that are applicable to all (saved and unsaved alike) such as Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” This was the case for Cornelius in Acts 10:1-6. But there are many promises that, according to the context of the passages, are for Christians alone. Because Christians have received Jesus as the Savior, they are encouraged to come boldly to the throne of grace to find help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). We are told that when we ask for anything according to God's will, He hears and gives us what we ask for (1 John 5:14-15). There are many other promises for Christians concerning prayer (Matthew 21:22; John 14:13, 15:7). So, yes, there are instances in which God does not answer the prayers of an unbeliever. At the same time, in His grace and mercy, God can intervene in the lives of unbelievers in response to their prayers.