How God Moves Us Without Destroying Our Free Will

Free will compass

This article discusses how God moves us to choose Him without diminishing our free will but, rather, perfecting it.

How many times have you heard, or even said, the Holy Spirit moved me to say or do this or that thing? What do people mean when they say this? How does God move us without diminishing or destroying our free will? Does He move us like chess pieces, or does He simply help us to move?

Scripture says, “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21). And, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). These verses tell us that God moves us by a whisper and a light. He does not force us with a shove or a prod.

Understanding how God moves us is important because an improper understanding leads us to heretical conclusions about who God is or who we are. So, let’s look at how God helps us to follow Him without destroying free will. I will use two analogies to explain.

Coconut Cake

I love coconut cake. If I had one in front of me right now, I could eat the whole thing. So, let’s look at the following scenario:

One day, I come home from work. Before I walk through the door, coconut cake is not on my mind in any way. In fact, my mind is considering other things. However, as soon as I step inside, I see and smell this delectable coconut cake that my wife prepared. The cake enters my mind. My mind understands what the cake is and how much I have enjoyed it in the past. My will desires the cake, and I move toward it. I eat a slice, and it satisfies me. What happened?

In this scenario, the cake entered my mind through my nose, eyes, and brain. My mind understood what the cake was and my love of it. It presented this understanding to my will, and my will chose to obtain it. Accordingly, I chose to eat the slice of cake and did so. In this sense, the coconut cake moved me; it led me to consume it. I did not have to eat it, but I chose to do so, and the cake’s presentation helped me to get there.

The scenario above is apt for describing how God begins to move us without destroying our free will. However, it is not a complete description because, when we move toward God, we do not move toward the natural. Rather, we move toward the supernatural, which we cannot do with natural powers alone. So, I will further demonstrate how this works using baptism.

God Moves Us

Assume you have never heard about Jesus Christ and His salvific actions and plans for your life. One day, a friend comes to you with the Gospel message. Somewhat similar to the cake scenario, you hear the message through your ears and understand it with your mind. It sounds appealing, and you desire it. You know you should follow it, repent, receive baptism, and turn away from your sins. However, you are also deep in your sins, and you do not want to turn away from your favorite one.

The sin you prefer seems, at the moment, to be stronger than the desire to live according to the Gospel. On a purely natural level, the two objects (the desire for both sin and grace) are causing spiritual dissonance. You want to move toward both, but you cannot. It is one or the other. You and God both know that you need help.

This is where actual grace comes in. Actual grace simply helps you to act (John 6:442 Corinthians 12:9). It helps you to embrace good and reject evil when someone or something presents them to you.

Because God desires to save all men (1 Timothy 2:4), is the Savior of all men (Titus 2:11), and loves all men (John 3:16), He gives us His favor (i.e., grace/divine aid), which proceeds from His love, to help us achieve holiness.

In the above scenario, you want to continue sinning, but you also want to live a holy life, even if the holy life is a lesser desire. So, God helps you by giving you actual grace. But how does actual grace work without destroying your free will?

Keeping Free Will Intact

Let’s say you have a nearly impossible home project to complete, and you dread doing it. You want to complete it, but the difficulty in doing so more strongly influences your decision than the need to get it done.

So, one Saturday, a friend comes over, learns about your task, and offers to help you. You realize that your friend could help you accomplish the task with much less difficulty, and you both complete the task.

In this scenario, your friend did not destroy your free will. In fact, your friend aided your free will by making the task easier. You completed your previously insurmountable project, and you even did it with joy because your friend made the task enjoyable.

Free Will and Justification

Similarly, when difficult spiritual decisions arise, we need God’s grace to choose the good out of love for Him. He is the friend (or Father) who helps us to overcome the obstacles that prevent us from achieving the good. And He even helps us to do the good with joy and love for Him.

Regarding the example of baptism above, your friend shared the Gospel message with you (Romans 10:14-15). Your mind beheld the truth and your will desired this good. Unfortunately, you also wanted a sin more than the grace of baptism. So, God gave you His help (actual grace) to repent, turn away from your sins, and receive baptism. His help was free, but you could always reject it.

At the moment of baptism, God simultaneously washed away your sins and infused your soul with sanctifying grace. This grace removed the enmity between you and God that sin had caused, thereby making you His son or daughter. It made you holy, and it was the beginning of your walk with God toward moral perfection (i.e., complete sanctification and entry into Heaven).

St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “…grace is taken in two ways: first, as a habitual gift of God. Secondly, as a help from God, Who moves the soul to good” (ST I-II, q. 112, a. 2). So, actual grace, which is God’s help, moves the soul toward the habitual grace called sanctifying grace, and it does so while improving your free will.

Divine Help Versus Force

Notice that God does not force us to choose good or reject evil. Rather, He helps us to do these things. He is not a dictator who moves us around like chess pieces, totally against our wills. Rather, He is our Father who knows when we need help, and he gives it to us without overriding our free wills. In fact, His help makes our free will freer because, without it, we would not be able to choose the eternal and ultimate Good out of love for Him. This is important for a couple of reasons.

Since God is free will and He makes us in His image and likeness, He gives us free will. Given this fact, if He were to force us to act in a way that He chooses, we would arrive at one of two conclusions: 1) Either we do not have free will and are, therefore, not really made in His image and likeness, or 2) He makes us in His image and likeness, and He does not have free will. One conclusion destroys human nature. The other conclusion destroys God. Both conclusions are heretical. This is one reason why once saved, always saved is a gravely erroneous doctrine (click here for more on this abhorrent teaching).

God Improves Our Free Will

Additionally, the natural cannot reach the supernatural (above nature) by its own abilities. So, God must reach down to us to help us turn to Him, receive sanctifying grace, and walk in His ways. Otherwise, we could never turn to Him out of love and a desire for Him to reform us and bring us into Heaven. We would be stuck in this fallen condition, only to die and suffer in Hell. In other words, this condition of helplessness would impede our wills’ abilities to turn to God and love Him. Whereas grace helps us to do something we could never do by our natural powers alone.

Although we can certainly say that God moves us, we would speak with much more theological precision if we said that God helps us to move toward the good to which He calls us while simultaneously improving our free wills to do so. Therefore, we must invite God’s grace by praying fervently for it. He gives us the actual grace to do so, but He does not force us to do it. Understanding how His grace works in our lives (helping us to choose the good and become holy), why would we not pray for it?

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