Seeking to Know Why
As a hospital chaplain, I see a lot of suffering. Illness, financial insecurity, disability, betrayal, loneliness, and loss are common. Some patients wonder why God has afflicted them so. Even those who understand that we can’t divine a reason for suffering will still search for one. It is part of being human, this desire to know why.
One patient told me, “I know ‘why’ isn’t a helpful question. I know there’s no answer. But sometimes I wonder if I did something wrong. Am I being punished? If so, maybe I can make it right. Maybe I can mend my ways, and then God will cure me.”
We want to know what went wrong, because we want to know how to fix things. If can figure out the reason why, maybe bad things won’t happen to us anymore. Maybe we can get our lives under control.
There is some precedence for this. When we don’t take care of ourselves, when we get lost in addictions, when we put up with abuse because we fear saying “no” or because we think we can save our loved ones if we just stand by them, we can improve our lives by figuring out the underlying issues. Or, if we have more burdens than a person can stand, if we have a mental illness, if we have nowhere to sleep, if we’re caught in the relentless cycle of unpaid bills or insurmountable legal requirements or relentless abuse, and someone offers us help, it can make all the difference. Discovering a reason when a fix is available is not a bad thing.
Yet most of the time, life happens to us, and though that’s no reason to give up, it isn’t something we can control. Why do bad things happen? Because they do.
The Reasons We Believe In
Yes, there are other explanations. Some people believe God uses disasters, illness, and poverty to punish us. In other words, if we’re good, our life will be blessed. If it’s not, then we must not be as good as we thought.
Other people think we suffer because we need to learn something. Whether that lesson comes from the universe, from God, or from our own subconscious doesn’t matter. The point is that if we can figure out what we’re supposed to learn, and then learn it, we won’t have to go through that same hell anymore. It’s another way of trying to control how our lives unfold.
Or maybe it’s just a way we can come to accept what life gives us. One learning I often hear people talk about is that of strength. “Well, at least suffering makes us stronger.” As if strength is something to aspire to.
Not that strength is bad. I’ve always wanted to be strong. Besides, most people are joking when they say that. It’s a way to accept our lot, and we do often gain a courage and resilience with suffering. These are a kind of strength.
But is strength what God most wants us to learn? What about the wisdom or kindness or compassion we might develop through suffering? If indeed there is a god who is trying to teach us something with the traumas, tragedies, and disasters that pepper our lives, I would like to think this god would prefer us to develop a deeper faith and a more generous love, and maybe even to lose our fear of weakness and vulnerability. It seems to me that sometimes strength is something we need to let go of.
Assuming Free Will
All these reasons assume we each have the same freedom to make sense of our lives and choose to change. It assumes we have a free will that does not depend on luck or education or experience or the vagaries of life, that if we can figure out what the problem is, we will have the will to make it right.
For instance, we might not be able to control what happens to us. Natural disasters, some diseases, or even a random bullet can wound us for no reason at all, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them from striking. Not as individuals. Yet we believe we can control how we respond.
Some people have good control; others not so much. How free are we in this? Is it fair to expect the person who has suffered a lifetime of abuse, or has lived through war or torture, to be as calm and competent in the face of chaos as someone who has been loved and cared for? The first will feel triggered; the second not so much. Of course, the first may be more generous and concerned for those around her, for our suffering does sometimes make us more compassionate. If so, it will be because of things that person was given before the trauma, or work that person did afterwards, or a genetic predisposition to inner stillness. Is this free will, or is it luck?
The Religious Challenge
From a theological perspective, free will is a problem. In the Hebrew Bible, God knows everything that will occur in our lives. For instance, in Psalm 139, we read “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16 ESV). Before we were born, God knew what our days would be like.
In science, it would be like believing that from the moment the Big Bang burst, the specific form of the explosion determined everything that occurred afterwords. Even my writing these words and your reading them were preordained.
Yet the Bible also claims our will is free. After all, how else could we choose life or death, blessings or curses as it says in Deuteronomy 30:19?  If we didn’t have free will, why would God reward or punish us?
For early Calvinists, it was a given that God had foreknowledge of everything we would ever do. Thus, before we were born, God chose which of us would be saved and which damned. Nothing we do can impact our salvation or lack thereof. In his mystery story, Revelation, set in the mid-16th century when Calvinistic ideas influenced the religious and political leaders in England, author C. J. Sansom explores how this belief led some people to despair, madness, and even murder. It’s bad enough to think we might not have free will, but it can be terrifying to believe that the god who created us to be this way would indiscriminately choose to punish us.
Calvin may have been trying to reconcile various pieces of biblical teachings: that God has foreknowledge of all we will do, that we were born to sin, that God is a forgiving God, and that some of us will go to hell. However, his conclusion was convoluted and corrosive. Can we not find another answer?
Free Will and Fairness
Norman Swartz, in his article “Foreknowledge and Free Will,” offers two logical fallacies that discredit our belief that a knowledge of what will happen in the future necessarily causes that thing to occur. First, he explains, contingencies always exist. Second, if our knowledge of the past doesn’t cause an event to occur, neither will our knowledge of the future.
Swartz gives the example of dinosaurs being in South Dakota. We know they lived there because we discovered their bones, yet our knowing didn’t put them there. In the same way, the future is not caused by our knowing. Different possibilities of what might happen remain, no matter what we know, and a future different from our knowing could be chosen. As he tells us, the future “was, is, and will remain forever contingent.”  This means free will continues to exist.
Free Will and Punishment
Most of us are not philosophers, however. We cling to the idea of free will because to do otherwise makes us uncomfortable. If free will did not exist, how could we justify the punishment of children or the imprisoning of criminals? Whether punishment makes practical sense or not, whether or not it does what we hope it might, is not relevant here. That’s an argument for another day. In this discussion, what matters, is that if we have no ability to choose our actions, then we don’t deserve to face consequences for what we do.
This would be ridiculous. Children need to be taught to behave. So do many adults. Those who cannot contain their criminal impulses ought to be controlled. It would be nice if society was fair in how it treated different classes of criminals and if wealth and power didn’t serve to protect us from facing consequences, but again, that isn’t relevant right now. Right now, we’re talking about what is fair. If we have no free will, then we must reconsider how we treat those who hurt others.
I suspect that if we stopped assuming everyone had free will, or at least that everyone had the same measure of freedom, we would develop a deeper kindness and a more gracious wisdom. We might teach rather than chastise, encourage rather than shame, and in so doing, might discover a more effective way of creating a just and peaceful society.
But again, that is not the point. Right now, we’re asking if we have free will at all. And does it matter?
Free to Love
In his book, Addiction and Grace, Gerald G. May explores why free will must exist. To make his argument, he first explains why God doesn’t make Herself known to us. God hides because, May states, if She stood in front of us and ordered us to follow Her, “[w]ho would say no?” 
But of what use is such a faith? If we have proof of God, He becomes just another fact, like gravity or rain. We might obey Him, but not out of desire.
This leads May to love. God wants us to have faith not so we will believe, but so we will love. Yet if we are to love, we must choose love freely, or it becomes coercion. To be free to love, we must also be free to hate. To be truly embraced by us, God must risk being rejected. She must give us free will.
Free Will and Bad Things
In this section of his book, however, May does more than explain why we have free will. He also explains why we experience pain.
He writes, “The joy and beauty of freedom and love must be bought with pain.”  Otherwise, we would take freedom and love for granted, dismiss them, let them go without thought, knowing we could choose them again at any moment.
No. To be truly free, he tells us, we must know what it is to be stuck in the misery and turmoil of a broken life. For freedom to exist, there must also be slavery, whether it be the literal owning of another person’s body, corporate or political control of a person’s life and livelihood, or the shackles of addiction, lust, fear, resentment, hatred, loneliness, or self-loathing.
There are so many ways to be trapped. But if May is right, then those very traps help us discover what it means to be free.
Yes, our free will sometimes causes us to hurt others. Even without meaning to, we can, for instance, pollute rivers, causing cancer in fish and people. We can continue to heat up our world, even though thousands starve when crops wither in the heat or die in violent hurricanes. Our free will makes it possible for us to choose death over life.
Does Free Will Give Us a Free Ride?
But how much freedom do we really have? After all, even the parasites in our body exert some influence over what we do. The decisions we think come from our conscious intelligence instead come from the convergence of chemicals, education, trauma, nurturing, memories, messages we’ve heard, shame we’ve experience, love we’ve received or been denied, ideas we believe, and emotions that swirl inside us. We aren’t even aware of most of what makes us choose or reject an idea or an action.
Then, once we’ve decided, we rationalize our decision and convince ourselves we made the choice all on our own. Our minds are filled with cognitive biases and thinking errors. We may feel as if we have free will, but we don’t.
And perhaps that’s all true. If we can understand how little freedom we have, maybe we’ll stop judging one another, stop being intolerant and resentful. Sure, not everyone with a bad childhood becomes a wife-beater or thief, but if we look carefully, we may discover the differences that led one to compassion and one to hatred. We’ll understand the underlying causes and be able to forgive. Indeed, learning about another’s story and feeling his pain is one of the steps to forgiveness.
On the other hand, if we have no free will, then nothing we do can be our fault. Our genes, parents, and gut bacteria made us do it. So how can we hold people accountable?
Free Will and Accountability
The teacher Michelle Kuo put it well when she wrote about Patrick, a student she developed a special relationship with, one she mentored in an effort to help him develop his talent.
Patrick was struggling. She wrote, “I wanted to tell him: It’s not your fault alone.” She listed the negative influences in his life: a poor neighborhood, lousy schools, a dysfunctional family, generational trauma, racism, a depressed and oppressive economy. But she was afraid to lay this all out, afraid that in this litany, he would hear her saying, “You are not the agent of your own actions.” 
Would he no longer believe he could change, that a better future was possible? Would he give up?
The fallacy here is in thinking that if we have no free will, we aren’t responsible. Maybe we can’t change who we are right now, and we certainly can’t change our past, but we can use what happens to us and around us to inform our future. As members of a free society, or one that aspires to be free, we can guide people to make healthy and healing choices by providing encouragement rather than despair, compassion rather than shame, affirmation rather than censure.
To change, we first need acceptance. Then we need to be offered the opportunity to make amends. What can we do to set right what we have disturbed or damaged?
Just because we are who we are does not mean we cannot choose to change. Nor does it mean we cannot encourage others to change. But it is easier to change when we first learn to accept and love the person we are now.
Is Free Will Possible?
In his book about free will, Mark Balaguer draws on lessons from quantum physics to explain how even creatures so affected by the combination of nature and nurture as we are can still make free choices. The Newtonian world in which apples fall from trees and billiard balls follow preordained trajectories when struck does exist. Seeing this, we may choose to believe in determinism.
At the same time, there exists an unpredictable world beyond what we can see, the world of subatomic particles. Here, things pop in and out of existence without rhyme or reason. Predictions are impossible. The future is unstable and cannot be known, not even by God. 
Yet we creatures behave as if matter makes sense, as if we can always count on a chair to hold us up and clouds to stay in the sky. And since our bodies and minds exist in a Newtonian world, unless the chair is broken or the clouds turn to rain, we can.
Nonetheless, all existence is influenced by random and unpredictable quantum events. That means, the future isn’t determined; it’s probable. Like the electron that can be a particle or a wave depending on a choice made at one particular instant, we humans can choose to reflect hate or love, depending on a choice made at one particular time. Out of many probable futures, we create one.
Choosing Love and Healing
In our world, free will makes sense. After all, we feel as if we are free to make choices based on our values and rational thinking. Perhaps we are. Certainly we must live as if we were, for to think we had no freedom at all would be too disorienting.
At the same time, we ought not to discount all that influences us, all that makes it easy or hard for us to be sober, kind, brave, successful, ethical, and popular. Some of us suffer a lot; some little. That matters. Some of us learn what love is as soon as we leave our mother’s womb; some never learn. That also matters. Still, we are responsible for seeking the healing that will transform our suffering into love. And those of us who know how to love, who have learned to be empathetic, who understand that suffering is not the end, are responsible for helping the wounded find the healing they need. In this way, we can be free to choose love.
In faith and fondness,
- The text reads: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
- Swartz, Norman, “Foreknowledge and Free Will,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/foreknow/#SH6a, accessed 8/22/20.
- May, Gerald G., Addiction and Grace, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 116.
- Ibid 117.
- Kuo, Michelle, Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, New York: Random House Audio, 2017, page unknown.
- Balaguer, Mark, Free Will, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014, 19-22.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved