The relationship between the grace of God and the free will of man is one that has led to many heated debates, often to try and reconcile those who would place the emphasis too much on one side than on the other. The area in which it is most difficult to resolve the two elements is in the matter of faith itself: how do we come to believe – is it by the grace of God or by our own free will? Ultimately, the dilemma remains beyond any neat solution, given that the operations of grace work on and have their source in a level beyond human comprehension, and also because our free will is itself a gift of God.
One thing we can say therefore, is that in any assessment of how grace and free will relate to one another, the grace of God must be pre-eminent, simply because of who God is and who we are. But, from the human point of view, we still want to know how free our free will is – our will (indeed our whole being) is a gift of God, but given that this is the case, when we come to believe, to make the act of the will to have faith in Christ, is this act of the will free for us in any meaningful sense? It is important again to note that there is no absolute solution to this problem – we cannot see things from God’s perspective, and to a certain extent we do have to accept that we are His creatures, receiving all (including our free will) from Him.
However, there is a way in which we can make sense of the issue from the point of view of the one who comes to faith, and this means of understanding is provided by Saint Augustine of Hippo. In one of his homilies on the Gospel of John, he discusses the famous saying of Christ, that ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (6:44), and makes the following conclusion:
‘I say it is not enough to be drawn by the will; thou art drawn even by delight. What is it to be drawn by delight? “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart.” There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet. Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,”—not necessity, but pleasure; not obligation, but delight,—how much more boldly ought we to say that a man is drawn to Christ when he delights in the truth, when he delights in blessedness, delights in righteousness, delights in everlasting life, all which Christ is?
Or is it the case that, while the senses of the body have their pleasures, the mind is left without pleasures of its own? If the mind has no pleasures of its own, how is it said, “The sons of men shall trust under the cover of Thy wings: they shall be well satisfied with the fullness of Thy house; and Thou shalt give them drink from the river of Thy pleasure. For with Thee is the fountain of life; and in Thy light shall we see light”? Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say. Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such, and he knows what I say. But if I speak to the cold and indifferent, he knows not what I say. Such were those who murmured among themselves.’
from Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate XXVI.
Saint Augustine here reorients the issue from one of an arbitrarily free will versus an overpowering divine grace to one of the will as free, but conditioned by what it most desires. Our wills do not exist in a vacuum, but choose certain things because we are attracted to them. We do this freely, but it is not an act of cool selection, weighing up the pros and cons of each option without any bias one way or the other – we prefer certain options because we desire them more. What each one of us desires at any given moment will be the result of a complex admixture of the character we have developed through a history of prior choices made, and the beliefs we already hold, but it will still be free.
This is perhaps clearer if we look at temptation – we often desire things that we know are not good for us, but despite the powerful force these desires exert upon us, if we desire truth and goodness (and for the believer – Christ) more than these things, we will avoid sin. If we prefer what we are being tempted by to the Good, we will succumb. Thus we freely resist the sinful desires, but are only be able to do so consistently if we truly love the Good more than the things that tempt us. This is why it is necessary for us to constantly renew and strengthen our relationship with God, so that our desire for Him remains strong enough for the things of the world not to overpower us.
The most excellent example in everyday life of how our will remains free yet is conditioned by what attracts it, is in the case of love. When we love, we feel ourselves to be at our most free – the love I feel for another is more truly my decision than any other I have yet made; but at the same time, I am overpowered by the love I feel and thus the overwhelming attraction for the other that is engendered by my love (and is indeed part of it) can be said to have drawn me outside of myself. It is with this in mind that Saint Augustine says ‘Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say’, and in his homily he develops this point with regard to the fact that if this can be our experience in life, how much more can it be so when we encounter the Truth:
‘One whom the Father has drawn says: “Thou art Christ, Son of the living God.” Not as a prophet, not as John, not as some great and just man, but as the only, the equal, “Thou art Christ, Son of the living God.” See that he was drawn, and drawn by the Father. “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar Jonas: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” This revealing is itself the drawing. Thou holdest out a green twig to a sheep, and thou drawest it. Nuts are shown to a child, and he is attracted; he is drawn by what he runs to, drawn by loving it, drawn without hurt to the body, drawn by a cord of the heart. If, then, these things, which among earthly delights and pleasures are shown to them that love them, draw them, since it is true that “every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” does not Christ, revealed by the Father, draw? For what does the soul more strongly desire than the truth? For what ought it to have a greedy appetite, with which to wish that there may be within a healthy palate for judging the things that are true, unless it be to eat and drink wisdom, righteousness, truth, eternity?’
This of course raises the question of why some receive the revelation from the Father which draws us to Christ, and some do not. But, given the context of attraction and desire, we can see that despite it being the case that everyone has an inborn desire and love for truth, this innate desire is occluded in some people. As each person’s character is something partly formed by the decisions made over a lifetime, it is clear that in many subjects the choices they have made will muffle the innate desire for truth, and other desires will have become preeminent in that person. This is part of the tragedy of sin – that it has a compound effect on us, and makes it harder for us to see light as light.
This is not to say that for such people there is no chance of the light ever getting through – by no means, as with God all things are possible, and noone can tell how deeply (or not) the truth seeking faculties planted within us all are buried within another. It is simply to affirm what was stated at the beginning of this post – that there is a complex and mysterious relationship between grace and free will, and that our cooperation with and rejection of the grace of God will have some effect upon our future ability to respond to it. But, whilst the relationship between grace and free will remains essentially mysterious, Saint Augustine’s meditations here do provide us with some means of understanding our own personal decision to believe in Christ.
It is not an arbitrary choice of a naked, autonomous will, separated from any real context; nor is it the imposition of God upon us against our will. Rather it is an act of love – we choose what we desire most, what we love most, and in seeing Christ for who He really is, we see the fulfillment of all we know to be of value in this world and the next. In seeing Him this way, we are overwhelmed as the lover is by the beloved, and though more liberated than ever before by this new knowledge, we are irresistibly drawn to Him – we cannot but say with Saint Peter, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16). This is both an utterly gracious gift of God to us, and yet also the greatest enrichment and awakening of our will.