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Do We Really Have the Freedom to Choose?


There are aspects of our current teaching about God’s character that are problematic. But because our leaders generally do not encourage open dialogue about dissenting doctrinal views, some are reluctant to probe into those difficult areas to avoid the “rebellious” tag. Consequently, we “accept” proffered explanations, suggesting that some questions about God are mysteries and are unprofitable avenues to pursue. We intuitively file such inscrutable questions into the mental “mystery” column. One such mystery is why evil continues around us if the creator God knows the future and loves us.

Why, for example, does an all-knowing God, who should be privy to his created beings’ future bad actions, still create them? It is one thing to create a Hitler, or to allow his maturation, if unaware of his murderous potential. But we deny that there are future actions our God may not know. It is something entirely different to grant such a being the privilege of life, knowing in advance that he will cause a holocaust. Yet we affirm this, analogizing that, like Jeremiah (1:5), God knows our beginnings and our futures.

We Christians are aware of the conundrum of positing belief in an all-powerful, omniscient, and loving God who somehow still allows preventable evil. One explanation we’ve advanced for this seeming incongruity in God’s character is the concept of freedom of choice, the notion that God gives everyone the opportunity to make autonomous choices for good or ill.

Writing as background on Creation, Ellen G. White describes the centrality of this concept to show that God is not capricious or arbitrary:

Without freedom of choice, his obedience would not have been voluntary, but forced. There could have been no development of character. Such a cause would have been contrary to God’s plan in dealing with the inhabitants of other worlds. It would have been unworthy of man as an intelligent being and would have sustained Satan’s charge of God’s arbitrary rule. (Patriarchs and Prophets, p 49)

One implication growing out of this thinking is that freedom of choice is sacrosanct. And further, that God’s respect for man’s free choice is so important that Satan is allowed free rein to do his worst so long as humans retain this freedom. If our autonomy is secured at such high cost, then it behooves us to guard it carefully.

But do we truly have such freedom to choose our lives’ courses?

We often suggest, sometimes too casually, that God gave us freedom of choice, and it is our improper use of this gift that damns us. I push back against this argument because it assumes too much. Our very ability to make appropriate choices is mediated by a complex web of independent variables.

One crucial variable that significantly impacts our future directions, but which still lies completely outside of our choice options, is where we were born. Nobody chooses the environment or circumstances of their birth. Being born into poverty or plenty, servitude or power; being born boy or girl, black, brown or white, is part of an endless mix of inherited circumstances that shape our futures.

It, therefore, makes a difference relative to the future trajectory of our choices if, for example, we are born into a Christian family or not. Even if we are born into a Christian household, it matters if that context is Adventist, Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, or any one of myriad versions of Christianity.         

Who among us had any say in their parentage? And we are increasingly becoming aware that, for some, “love” should not be the overriding factor in choosing life partners because children resulting from certain unions are predisposed to contracting an avoidable disease. This, for instance, is what happens if two dominant carriers of the sickle-cell gene have children. Their offspring will have the disease. And unless these parents do not intend to have children, it would be negligent if they did not consider the implications. These children, with no choice in how they arrived in this world, would come saddled with a painful, debilitating disease that would compromise them physically for life.

So, whether or not we recognize the dynamic interplay of unchosen forces that can dramatically affect the decisions we make in our adult years, there is little doubt that, as we grow up, our choices are significantly influenced by past circumstances. This may explain, at least in part, why only a small minority of people change religious affiliations as they mature. Children from Islamic households generally remain Muslim in adulthood as do those born into Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or any other religious group.

Consider a girl born in Afghanistan to Muslim parents. She would spend her school days in a madrasa, perhaps in Kabul, if they would have her, learning from the Quran. But, if born in Connecticut, she would likely attend a grade school and learn about the separation of church and state, etched in the American constitution. Thus, from the very beginning, an individual’s course in life is deeply affected by the external environment, without choice.

Even if we discount the role of our environments as contributory to, and determinative of, the choices we make in life, our very ability to comprehend God’s call or response to his love could be severely impacted by our mental capacity. Many diseases and health conditions – Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Down Syndrome, Psychosis, Alcoholism – make it difficult to choose wisely. The usual response to such questions about free-choice limitations is a general idea that God will take everything into consideration before relegating each of us where we belong and that God can be trusted to handle the details in an equitable manner.

I, too, have no doubt that God is trustworthy and can be counted upon to make the appropriate determination where each of us ends up after our earthly lives. But it seems to me that the grounds for sorting out our relative merits and demerits under present arrangements are challenging at best. Often, discussions of this nature risk consignment to academia only. But we must resist such easy impulses because a small scratch beneath the veneer and we are confronted with sobering real-life implications.

I was eleven when my mother died and left all five children with no primary parents. My two younger siblings and I were in elementary school. The extended family of uncles and aunts from both families convened, as was the custom, to “distribute” us children among those able and willing to absorb us into their own families. My older brother, Emmanuel, who had just turned 18, could not conceive of a home elsewhere and left, never to be seen or heard from again. The remaining four, two girls and two boys, were dispatched to three different homes hundreds of miles apart. The girls were taken in by my maternal grand aunt, and Benjamin, the youngest, and I went to two other maternal relatives.

It is Benjamin’s fate that still haunts me though Emmanuel’s is never far behind.   

In grade school, I passed for a semi-good student, but Ben, three years my junior, was the brilliant one who we all knew was marked for academic greatness. When our diaspora happened, I was taken in by a Muslim uncle. Though himself uneducated, he prized education above all else and spurred me to academic success. Ben, on the other hand, ended up in the home of an aunt, a Christian. Ben’s new family was in the moonshine business, and he was conscripted before he knew what turn his life had taken. He never set foot again in a classroom.

Ben is now an alcoholic. I have always wondered what could have been if Ben and I had traded places. So yes, later in life, we do tinker at the margins of choice, which then gives us the illusion of possessing the freedom to chart our paths. But do we really?


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Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

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