For example, I could, with no government interference, buy a house in Gates Mills. I am free, if I want to, to preach this sermon in Albanian. And I am free at any moment to stop what I’m doing and solve a problem using calculus.
But I have to admit that my freedom to do all those things is somewhat tempered by the facts at hand. I can’t afford a house in Gates Mills, I cannot speak a word of Albanian, and I don’t actually know what calculus even is.
All this goes to show that my freedom is limited by my talents and abilities. Just because I’m free to do a thing doesn’t mean I can do it. And when it comes to theology, a lot of people get these two concepts confused— especially when it comes to human freedom.
Freedom is defined as the absence of external coërcion; and in that sense, God indeed leaves us absolutely free to do as we please. Free will is a real thing if we look at it that way. The question is, are we actually able to choose? Does the power of making perfect choices lie within us?
As I tried to demonstrate just now, to say that we are at liberty to choose good over evil is very different from saying we have the power to choose good over evil.
Knowing the difference between right and wrong, Doesn’t necessarily mean we have the power to always do the right thing. That’s because our appetites aren’t really controlled by our will— which may indeed be to do what is right— but rather by what is obviously our natural inclination; that is, it’s not a question of human virtue, but of the human condition.
It’s not just Old Testament prophets that talked about this sort of thing. It was also important to New Testament theology. I think most of us are aware of how beautiful the 8th chapter of Romans is. That’s the chapter that tells us that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. And it’s Romans 8 that asks, If God is for us, who can be against us? …just before we’re told that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
But in order to get to that reassuring verse, Paul spends an entire chapter discussing how he wants to do one thing, but usually ends up doing the other— that the good that he wants to do all too often loses the fight against the bad that he doesn’t want to do. Now, if Paul wanted to discuss the difficult issue of free will in theoretical terms, he would no doubt start an argument. But that’s not what he does. He simply tells the Romans of his own experience. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I don’t do the good I want, but instead the evil I want nothing to do with is the very thing that I do. And there’s really no way they can argue with that. And it’s also pretty likely that they’ll see themselves in what Paul is saying.
Maybe this is the origin of a common image of a person trying to make a decision. I’m sure you’ve seen it: they have a little angel sitting on their right shoulder, and a little devil sitting on their left shoulder. It’s how we feel ourselves. And we also have to admit that we let the little devil win the day more often than we should.
Romans 7 may sound depressing, but remember the chapter that follows it. The very first verse of Romans 8 says that There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. One of the best things the entire Bible has to say about God’s grace!
Believe it or not, a modern metaphor for the grace of God overcoming the kind of contrariness found at the heart of human nature had its roots in La Jolla, California, where I served for 11 years. That’s where Theodore Geisel (going by the name Dr. Seuss) wrote a famous book called Green Eggs and Ham— a story about a grumpy guy (who remains nameless in the book) being offered a dish he’s never tried before by his friend Sam. The dish, of course, is green eggs and ham.
You might argue that this book isn’t about the struggle between good and evil. And I guess you’d be right. After all, green eggs and ham aren’t bad—not at all! Apparently, they’re nothing but pure unadulterated deliciousness! And Sam’s grumpy friend offers no bad alternative to this good food he so steadfastly refuses. All he knows is that he is not interested in this deliciousness:
Not in a box. Not with a fox.And as we progress through the book, his resistance to it spirals out of control until finally, standing knee-deep in water with a sinking ship in the backdrop, he tries the green eggs and ham. And what do you know? He discovers that he likes it!
Not in a house. Not with a mouse.
I would not eat them here or there.
I would not eat them anywhere.
I would not eat green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
Say! I like green eggs and ham!Dr. Seuss tells a story about how stubbornness is conquered by goodness. Jeremiah prophesies that human weakness will be transformed into inner strength. And Paul’s account leads us from powerlessness to grace.
I do! I like them, Sam-I-am!
And I would eat them in a boat!
And I would eat them with a goat!
And I will eat them in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree.
They are so good, so good, you see!
I do so like green eggs and ham!
Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!
Three different examples, but the movement is essentially the same— a movement that tells us that the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things are forever. God loves us, and those who trust in God can see their lives changed— turned around even. But we have to trust, and that can be hard sometimes. We see ourselves as we’ve always been. But God takes that which is stuck in the mud and makes all things new.
God offers us healing, renewal, and transformation— not just for individuals, but for the whole world. Our inner struggles come out in the open in public conflicts— Democrat against Republican, liberal against conservative, Jew against Arab, Sunni against Shia, Protestant against Catholic, black against white, gay against straight, rebel against government, Ohio against Michigan, Catalan against Castilian— the story is repeated over and over again on every continent: We must stick to our traditions because, even if those traditions bring us down in the end, at least those others will sink with us, because we’re all in the same boat.
To paraphrase Paul at the end of Romans 7, Wretched person that I am, who can deliver me from this mortal conflict? Paul’s answer isn’t just a statement, but an exclamation: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In a world where our teeth are continually set on edge by the sour grapes our parents once ate, God in Christ offers us a new delicacy, as foreign to our palates as green eggs and ham were to Sam’s friend.
Paul reminds us that we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory, and that—individually and together— we often lose the inner struggle between right and wrong. The obstacle is simply too great to surmount.
And yet, in Christ, a crack appears in the wall— no, a gateway. On the other side lies God’s love, a love that offers forgiveness for all our past failures, and—despite bad choices—offers new possibilities. All we have to do is go through the gate. Now, if it were only big enough for one, I think we might walk through it without question. We’re on our own, aren’t we?
But it’s clear that it was designed for two, side-by-side, hand-in-hand. We’re taught in our culture that salvation is strictly a personal choice. But that’s not really the way the Bible describes it. Jesus talks to a people. Paul writes to entire communities. The pronoun you that we read throughout most of the New Testament is easily misunderstood in modern English. In Greek, it’s not you singular. It’s you plural— ye, in the old King James Version. And so we’re invited to find wholeness together with others, in a community that invites outsiders in. When we get to the gate and look across the way and see that we might have to enter into the realm of God’s love with one of those others, one of those we shudder to think about, we pull up short. “But I’m not like that,” we want to protest. “I’m not Republican,” or “I’m not Catholic,” or “I’m not a Wolverine fan,” or “I’m not _______” (you fill in the blank).
Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
the invitation is to all.
Come, all the world; come, sinner, thou—
all things in Christ are ready now.
These are our concerns, not God’s. We cannot call ourselves followers of Christ and not love God. And we cannot love God and not love God’s people. And so when the psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” let us remember Sam-I-Am, and—even in the midst of destruction— how much better were his green eggs and ham than our own sour grapes.
—©2019 Sam L. Greening, Jr.