There has long been an argument that if God is all-knowing, and is in complete control of this world, then is it possible for us to have free will? If the universe has been setup as a giant clock, then are we not just revolving along a gear in its predetermined motion?
I’ve also seen this same idea described in a different way, when some disciples question why they were able to hold steady, while other loved ones lost their faith. What experience or strength did God give to me, they wonder, that He didn’t give to them? And why did He give it to me and not to them? And if it wasn’t something that God gave to me, then how in control is He really?
With this study I would like to examine the extent of God’s control in our lives, and how our free will is maintained. How does God preserves our opportunity to choose, without making the choices for us? I would also like to examine scriptural accounts of people that chose one path, when clearly they might have gone down another.
Psalm 74:17, Exodus 23:31, Job 2:6
Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter.
And I will set thy bounds from the Red sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river: for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.
And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.
Thou hast set all the borders of the earth
And I will set thy bounds from the Red sea even unto the sea of the Philistines
Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life
God is a God of boundaries. In the Bible we see how He defined the limits of the earth and the seasons, set the physical borders for the Kingdom of Israel, and even placed restrictions upon Satan. This is significant, because within boundaries there is freedom. We cannot pass certain borders, but we can move between them as we please. The Summer may be powerful or it may be mild, the Israelites may pitch their tents here or there, Satan may tempt us in one way or another. The choices are open, so long as they do not over-reach.
Thus is God in control? Yes, of course. What else would you describe the being that defines the limits of everything in the universe? But are we also in control? Yes again. Relatively speaking, the bounds that God has set on our lives seem as wide as an ocean, and we are free to steer ourselves within it.
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.
We just discussed how God sets bounds on our lives, and within those bounds we can freely make our own choices. We often think that this freedom is inherent to our human experience, that for earth life to exist it must necessarily include agency. But this is not the case at all.
As seen in the story of the first creation, our agency is actually explicitly designed for by God. God planted a garden for Adam and Eve, and in it put many trees that they were sanctioned to eat from. More importantly, though, he also put a tree in the garden which they were not sanctioned to eat from. They could eat from it, but they were not supposed to.
Of course God could have created a garden populated only with trees that were appropriate for the couple to eat from, but then there would have been no freedom within those bounds. The couple would have remained good, but only because they had no other choice. They would not have had any agency.
The example of the Garden of Eden shows that forced obedience is not God’s agenda for us. He values our freedom so much that he will intentionally place a tree of knowledge within the reach of mankind, just so that they have the power to choose. So do we have free will? Absolutely. But it isn’t our default state, in truth we only have it because God is in control and He designed for us to. Thus God’s involvement in Earth life does not create a paradox for free will, it is what even makes it possible.
1 Corinthians 10:13, 2 Nephi 2:11
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
God will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things
In each of our lives, God preserves our freedom by allowing us to be drawn towards good, but also to be drawn towards evil. There are bounds set so that no temptation will be able to overwhelm us without our consent, but also no force for good will overwhelm us without our consent either. Exactly how far those bounds are placed will vary for each one of us, according to our own personal strengths and weaknesses, but they will always present us with the same opportunity to freely choose.
Thus you may assume that you will always have a reason to remain faithful, and you will always have a reason to turn faithless. You will always live as a person divided, so that then you may choose which half of yourself to follow. There is no mistake in this, it is by design. Thus that the world is a place divided is evidence of a God who is in control, not evidence against it.
2 Nephi 2:5, Moroni 7:16
And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.
For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil
For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil
Another way that God intervenes for our liberty is in giving us commandments and instruction. These include those written within the scriptures, of course, but also the ones written in our hearts. For into each of us God placed the spirit of His Son, commonly referred to as the conscience, and because of it we can innately perceive when we have done something that is right, or something that is wrong.
If there were was no law given, and if there was no conscience to direct us, then there would not be any moral choices to be made. For example, we would not be able to perceive the difference between helping or hurting another, and thus could not make any conscious, intentional choice about which act to perform.
This would not be freedom, this would be the bondage of homogeneity. One can be made a slave by not being allowed to make their own decisions, but one can also be made a slave by not being able to have their decisions mean anything. For even if one can choose what they do, if those choices carry no moral weight they still cannot choose whom they will become.
Thus our freedom actually depends upon the control of a God. We require Him to place rules in our books and in our hearts so that we can choose meaningfully. He comes into our vacuum and gives us something to either push off of or pull into, and thus we begin to have movement.
Genesis 22:1-2, 10-12
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son
Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him
Evidently, Abraham was not going to sacrifice his son, no matter whether he chose to follow God’s direction or not. God was going to intervene, and thus funnel Abraham’s life back to the other branch regardless.
But would we say that Abraham did not have any agency in this matter? Did he not still make a decision, and in so doing permanently change something within himself? Though the outcome was the same either way, the exercise still mattered, if only on an internal level.
It is true that foreknowledge would destroy free will, but only if it were held in the same being that was making the choices. If that foreknowledge belongs to a separate being, such as God, than the other may still choose freely.
Consider the example of a game show. Does the fact that the game’s creators already know which prize is behind which door negate the player’s choice between them? Certainly not.
1 Kings 9:4-7, 11:11
And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments:
Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel.
But if ye shall at all turn from following me, ye or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them:
Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people:
Wherefore the Lord said unto Solomon, Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant.
If thou wilt walk before me, then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever
But if ye turn from following me, I will rend the kingdom from thee, and give it to thy servant
When Solomon was anointed to be King of Israel, he had two possible futures detailed for him. He was told that on the one hand he could remain faithful and his kingdom would be maintained forever, or on the other hand he could forsake God and the kingdom would be taken away.
Of course only one of these possibilities came to pass. Solomon tragically fell into idolatry, and the majority of the kingdom was torn away at the beginning of his son’s reign. Later the remnant was overrun by the Babylonians.
Based on the passages we have previously studied, I am convinced that Solomon had full capacity to choose either good or evil. He did not have to go astray. Yes, God knew that he would, but only by his own choice, not because it had to be that way.
This means the future that God had detailed if Solomon remained faithful was not a fiction. Yes, God knew that that future would not come to pass, but also He knew that His purposes could still be accomplished even if it had.
If this were not the case, if God needed Solomon to go astray to make His plot for humanity work, then we would have a God who presents us false choices and predestines us to be saved or damned. This is unacceptable, and would contradict the statement that “God cannot lie” (Numbers 23:19, Hebrews 6:18).
The truth must be that there are many paths by which God could accomplish his purposes for the world. In the end, only one of those paths will be what actually transpired, but all the others were just as feasible. Thus we truly have free will, but the fact that we do does not jeopardize God’s control of the world. Your choices will not make or break God, they will make or break you.
Hezekiah 20:1-5, Luke 22:41-42
In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.
Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, saying,
I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.
And it came to pass, afore Isaiah was gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying,
Turn again, and tell Hezekiah the captain of my people, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord.
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed,
Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die
Thus saith the Lord, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee
We just examined how God is able to effect his purposes over an array of possible outcomes. Our future will be one thing, but we get to choose that one from a plethora of different options. Hezekiah’s life could have ended after the pronouncement of the prophet, but he asked if there was another option and was told yes. God was willing to heal Hezekiah, because to do so did not frustrate the greater arc He intended for humanity.
If thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done
When Jesus sought to know if there was another path available, though, the answer was no. It was essential to God’s plans that this moment play out in one very specific way. The atonement had to happen for mankind’s redemption to occur. This does not deny Jesus’s ability to choose, mind you, but one would assume that if Jesus had been unwilling to fulfill this one essential path, then God would have had foreknowledge of such and would never have even created humanity, as it would have been destined to damnation.
God has set bounds on each of our lives. There are things that we can do and there are things that we cannot. There are alternate paths available if we ask for them, and there are other alternate paths which can never be. We do not know exactly what bounds God has set for us, but He does, and we are free to inquire. He may not show us the entire chessboard, but He might show us a part.
There are those that fall into sin, and then wonder how they were ever expected to prevail given the hand that they were dealt. There are also those that have remained faithful while those around them fell into sin, and then feel a sort of survivor’s guilt for it and wonder why they were kept hedged safe.
Predicaments such as these serve to test our faith in free will. It is far easier to say that you were made to be good or made to be bad, rather than to take responsibility for your actions. On the one hand you don’t want to be boastful, and on the other you don’t want to condemn yourself, so it is easier to assign the responsibility elsewhere. But false modesty and false accusation are still false, and ultimately get us nowhere.
We do ourselves a terrible discredit when we deny our own power. Any time we fail to take ownership for our own actions, we cut our feet out from under us. I have certainly done myself that disservice, both in terms of not wanting to accept responsibility for my sins, nor of my obedience. A large part of my discipleship has been learning to give myself my fair due.
And so, I have done things that I am ashamed of, and I have done other things that I am proud of. It is true that I was enticed towards each of these. In fact the thoughts to do them did not necessarily originate in me, on the one hand being inspired by Satan and on the other inspired by God. Thus one can say that those beings are the authors of my choices, but they are still my choices. I take full ownership of them. Neither God or Satan has ever wrested control from me. I have only ever done what I have done.
The question of how we are able to maintain free will while also acknowledging God’s control has never been very bothersome to me. For whatever reason, I was comfortable that that was simply the case, even though I didn’t have any specific answers for why. I believe each of us have some elements of the gospel that we understand, others that we don’t understand but aren’t bothered by, and others that we don’t understand and are bothered by.
A gospel study can be conducted to answer the questions that you personally find prickly, but it can also be conducted to answer the ones that others do. In a healthy religious community, members will be able to express their sincere concerns, and then the whole will reason it out together.
I hope the points that I have gone over in this study may be helpful to someone out there. I would love to hear any other counsel that you might be able to add to it. For now, here are the main points that I discovered through my study.
God’s Control is Necessary for Free Will
It is very easy to take the common things in life for granted. The fact that something has always been a certain way makes us believe that things must be that way by their inherent nature. We are so accustomed to the dawning of each new day, that it almost feels like that is just the way suns and planets must work. But of course, this is actually often not the way that they work at all. There is nothing inherent in a planet which says it must have a stable orbit, smooth rotation speed, and an ideal placement from a sun. None of it had to be this way for us.
Furthermore, why did it have to be that the laws of physics are such that gravitational forces keep a breathable atmosphere around us? Or that water would continuously cycle and remain fresh? Or that carbon-based life would return itself to the earth and thus perpetuate further generations?
And even beyond all that, why did it have to be that we have a conscience that drives us toward good and a carnal nature towards evil? Why is it that we are able to distinguish good from evil, and also possess the ability to choose whichever we please? Why are we able to be intelligent, moral beings, and not robots carrying out programmed orders?
The answer that this is just how things are now, and so they always had to be this way, is insufficient and unfounded. That such freedoms and opportunities are integral to our earth life is the result of conscious design.
Genesis 2:15-17- And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Moroni 7:16- For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
God Will Not Let Any Other Overpower Us
To be given a world that allows for free will is not enough, though. For a system cannot only be created once, it must be maintained. We are told that an object in motion will remain in motion, but that assumes that the object will never encounter any other force. In our world of entropy and friction, that is not only unlikely, it is impossible.
In fact we see that human nature itself is one of the greatest forces opposed to free will. For as far back as we know, it has been the intention of many men to suppress the will of others. This pattern has not ceased in modern days. Satan also works to change us from self-governed actors into puppets dangling from a string. And yet, never has any individual, nation, or temptation ever been able to gain the dominance of the world that they seek. No matter how powerful any of these oppressors seems to become, they have always fallen. It is as if some higher being is faithfully measuring the balance of the world, and disrupting it as needed when it tips too far to one side.
Furthermore, that higher being seems to be the only one exercising any personal restraint. If God is powerful enough to upset all who would control us, surely He is also powerful enough to control us Himself. And yet He does not. God is governed by God alone, and He exercises His own free will to preserve ours.
1 Corinthians 10:13- There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
2 Nephi 2:11- For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
God’s Plans Can Survive Our Freedom
It is understandable that we would consider God’s plans as posing a threat to our free will. The fact is that every other person we know is able to have their plans overrun by the choices of others. “The best laid plans of mice and man often go awry,” and usually because the other mice and men were free to throw a wrench them!
But while free will usually trumps any plan that crosses what, what if the plans were concrete and immutable? What if they were not man’s plans, but God’s, and therefore could not be denied? Then naturally we conclude it is man’s freedom that must turn instead, and so our lives must be predestined for us.
But I submit that God’s plans, while undeniable, are also adaptable to our choices. God will achieve what He must achieve, but most often He is able to achieve it whether you travel down the left path or the right. Perhaps there are a few times that He may disrupt us into the path that He has chosen, such as mentioned above when an oppressor grows too strong, but these are rare occurrences.
Never forget that of all the points in God’s plans, one of the highest priorities is that man should have free will. His plan isn’t going to stand against our agency, then, it is going to maximize it!
Alma 41:7- These are they that are redeemed of the Lord; yea, these are they that are taken out, that are delivered from that endless night of darkness; and thus they stand or fall; for behold, they are their own judges, whether to do good or do evil.
Doctrine and Covenants 58:28- For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.