Category Archives: God’s Will

Lead Us Not into Temptation?

In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.”  It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.”  The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it.  Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction.  Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.

What God Desires

In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us.  God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us.  He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him.  No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more.  He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him.  He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it.  Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.

Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers.  When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity.  Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity.  As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it.  It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.

Grace and Nature

It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said.  Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.”  This is more than just “saying the same thing.”  If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace.  It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace.  In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace.  Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on.  This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.

What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life.  It is grace that comes first.  No amount of work on our part can change that.  Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are.  Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life.  All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy.  It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through.  Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.

What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved.  The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined.  We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous.  We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act.  For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized.  It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.

Temptation from its Proper Perspective

Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light.  Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more.  It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue.  Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.”  Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality.  But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness.  Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue.  It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.

Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations.  It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good.  If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it.  This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations.  What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.”  This is not only not true, but also counterproductive.  God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts.  But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us.  Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow.  No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.

Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said.  It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on.  Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth.  Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue.  The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.

We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly.  As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1).  “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.”  We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it.    Unfortunately, Jung was wrong.  Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.

On Free Will

What do we mean when we say that man has free will?  To address this question, we must first look at man in his totality, both body and spirit.  Man exercises powers of both animals and angels.  Each of these powers is naturally inclined towards a given object.  For example, hearing is naturally inclined towards sound and eyesight towards light.  If you clap beside someone’s ear or pass something before his eyes (assuming they are not diseased in any way), then he cannot help but hear the clap and see the thing.  Our spiritual powers of knowing and willing likewise are naturally inclined towards truth and goodness.  Focusing only on the will at the moment, we can say that the will is fixed towards always choosing the Good.

This is an important point to understand because it often leads to moral confusion.  It is not possible for us to act contrary to the Good.  Everything we choose is because we have perceived it to be good, even if we are objectively wrong.  As a thought experiment, think about the person who commits suicide.  Why do they do it ultimately?  Because they deem it better to be dead than alive.  So too with the teenage girl who cuts herself—the pain of the cut is better than feeling the interior angst.  We could come up with any number of other examples, but the point is that no one can choose something they know to be bad for its own sake.

Given that we are bound by necessity to choose the Good, in what ways can we say that we have free will?  We have free will with respect to individual goods.  This is because each individual good merely participates in the Supreme Good itself, namely God.  Thus it is lacking in some way and we are free to choose it or to choose another (albeit also limited good) in its place.  But this is not the only manner in which we can exercise our free will.  We can also choose the means towards those good and acts associated with them.

For example, because it is a limited good, I am free to choose to become a pianist or not.  Once I decide to pursue that goal, I am free to choose what kind of piano I will buy.  I am also free to choose how I will practice or even if I will practice at all.

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This also helps us to understand the question as to how, if we cannot sin in heaven, we could still have free will.  The idea that the will is naturally inclined to the Good means when we sin, we are actually choosing only what are apparent goods and not real goods.  In Heaven because we are caught up in Goodness itself, there are no apparent goods, only real ones.  Therefore, we can no longer sin.

This naturally leads us to wonder about the relationship between our free will and God.  When I said that no one can force our will, this includes God Himself.  This immediately presents a problem in that it seems that God is then limited.  But properly understood this is not a limitation at all because He has the power to change our wills.  While this seems like a mere intellectual sleight of hand, it is an important distinction for us to understand.  God is always the divine pursuer and lover.  He will never force Himself upon us like a rapist but will woo us like a lover.

God can change our wills in two ways.  The first is to create a desire in us for some good that was not there before.  The second is by introducing what St. Thomas calls a “form.”  This could be something like an actual grace in which our minds our enlightened as to what is really a good for us here and now or by strengthening our wills to achieve the concrete good.  In either case however it is still the person who chooses, even if he has had assistance from God in knowing and desiring.

St. Thomas offers a helpful analogy (De Veritate q.22, a.8) that makes the distinction clearer.  He notes that a stone has a natural inclination (i.e. gravity) to fall to the earth.  To throw it up in the air, is to violently alter its inclination.  But God could also change the inclination by removing gravity so that the stone had a new inclination to go up.  In that way, the stone would still be acting “freely” according to its own inclination.

With a proper understanding of free will, not as the power to do whatever I want, but the power to want what is good, comes the ability to act with authentic freedom.  It helps us to see freedom not as an end itself (mere license) but as given to us for a specific purpose, moral excellence.  That is why the Second Vatican Council called freedom “an exceptional sign of the divine image within man” (Gaudium et Spes, 17).  God is totally free not just because He is God, but because He is Good.  His laws for mankind are only blueprints for sharing in His Goodness.  In this Lenten season when we atone for all of our failures of living freedom excellently, may we embrace the true freedom to live as children of God.

 

Knowing God’s Will

Aside from its self-refuting character, one of the reasons that I find the position of Sola Scriptura untenable is because there are so many places in the Bible where we find seeming contradictions.  Without an authoritative interpreter of Scripture we are left, at best, scratching our heads.  The best interpretive method in this case then is to simply ignore either passage or both.  Most heresies are a direct result of not finding a way to hold two apparently contradictory things in tension.  But it was not the will of God that we should not understand His Revelation even if we might have to wrestle with it.  With the idea of knowing the will of God in mind, I would like to address one of these apparent contradictions today; namely, how it can be that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1Tim2:5) and yet “there are many who enter the gate to destruction” (Mt 7:13).

To begin it is necessary to frame the question properly because people often try to solve it by merely referring to man’s free will. That is certainly as aspect of it, but we need to make sure we keep man’s free will properly situated within the mystery of God’s Providence. The mistake comes about in equating our own free will with God’s free will. But they are different—our free will is contingent upon the good that is present, God’s is not. In other words, if God is omnipotent then He depends on nothing outside of Himself. What He wills, happens. He might will that they be brought about by free will decisions (that He already knew) or He might use other causes, but God is not in any way be dependent on our free will decisions. A God who is dependent is not really God.

While this keeps us from taking a short cut around the problem, it does not address it. To address the problem we need to make a further distinction with respect to God’s will. We can really on St. Thomas to help us with this because as he routinely shows in the Summa Theologiae, he was a master of making distinctions that explained away what many viewed as contradictions. When he addressed the question at hand he made the distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will.

Antecedent will is an expression of one’s will prior to considering all the circumstances and facts surrounding a particular situation. Once those facts are taken into account, a judgment is expressed through the consequent will. Aquinas offers an analogy to help us better understand by presenting a just judge who wills that men should live freely. However once an individual man is found to be a murderer, the judge wills the good that the person should be justly punished. It is the judge’s consequent will that all men live freely while it is his antecedent will that a particular man should suffer punishment. This analogy helps us examine St. Paul’s words in that we understand that he is expressing God’s antecedent will rather than His consequent will, which allows some men to be eternally punished.

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This distinction allows us to go a little deeper and examine the problem of evil. God’s antecedent will is what He wills for a thing in isolation. He considers only individual parts of His plan (individual men) and not the entire plan. While it is true that God creates out of love is true, it is more accurate to say God creates to share His goodness. It is His goodness that He finds in us that makes us lovable. Therefore His consequent will for creation is to produce the most goodness as a whole and not as sum of individual parts.

What does this have to do with evil?  God will permit evil only in order to manifest His goodness to the greatest extent.  Without the presence of evil, much goodness would be lacking in the universe.  This is so foundational to our faith that we can often overlook it.  Without the evil of Adam’s fall, the greatest good of the Incarnation would never have happened.  “O happy fault, that gained us such a Redeemer!”(*see note below)

This has practical implications for us all. In the presence of suffering and evil we will find good. We all know this, but I think we don’t realize that it is not just generic “good” but very concrete and specific goods. These very specific goods for us would not come about any other way. That is the only reason why any evil is allowed to be there—because there is a particular (more accurately many) good attached to it. If we truly believe this then we do not need to shy away from it but instead look straight at the Cross so that we might pluck the fruit from it. This is not optimism but the very truth of reality. Optimism says “it could always be worse. I could have XYZ instead.” The realist says “this could be worse. I could miss this fruit.” In truth the only truly evil thing is to miss the good that a particular evil has attached itself to. Embrace the Cross and taste the sweetness of the fruit that Our Savior has left attached to the true Tree of Life for you.

 

**NOTE: I realize there has been debate between Franciscans and Dominicans as to whether the Incarnation would have still happened without the Fall, I would lean towards the Dominican view that the Incarnation would not have happened because everywhere in Sacred Scripture (e.g. Lk 19:10, 1Tim 2:15) suggest that the Incarnation happened solely because man sinned. It may be a speculative question but by speculating on it we see the great love of God Who seeks out the lost sheep while explaining the very reason He allowed us to be lost to begin with.