The Conundrum of Obedience and Free Will
“How can we exercise free will when God wants us to be obedient to Him?” This question has been asked in various formulations down through the ages by theologians, philosophers…and children. How indeed? As parents, a natural corollary question is, “How do we teach our children to be obedient to us but help them properly develop their own free wills?”
In our own family, particularly in our homeschooling endeavors, we have learned that the answer to that question is, “By practicing”. By practicing, you ask? What does that mean?
Asking the Correct Questions
From the time our children have been small, we have given them practice in exercising their free wills, within limits acceptable to us. Homeschooling our children provides many opportunities for this formation. One of our rules is that our daughters wear dresses or skirts and blouses to Mass. When they were very little, we asked them, “Would you like to wear this dress or this dress?” while holding up two acceptable choices. The question was not, “What would you like to wear?” because a truthful and legitimate answer to that question is “I would like to wear my fuzzy yellow ducky pajamas to Mass.” The question is not even “Which dress would you like to wear?” while staring at a closetful of possible choices. Even adults freeze in the face of that prospect.
At lunchtime, the question is not, “What would you like to eat?” A truthful and legitimate answer to that question is, “I would like to eat two quarts of cookie dough ice cream and Cheetos.” A more defined question – with each possible answer being acceptable to us – is, “Would you like an apple or banana for lunch?” A legitimate answer is not “No,” because we did not ask a yes/no question. Either answer to that specific question, “an apple” or “a banana” is legitimate, as well as acceptable to us.
Setting a Good Example
From the beginning of history, God gave man freedom: “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19). Clearly, God intended for man to exercise his free will.
In the story of Creation, God also gave us an example of giving us freedom within acceptable limits. “And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all His work which He had done in creation (Gen. 2:2-3).”
Here, God Himself set the example. Then He gave us freedom within these limits when He gave us the third Commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work…for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Ex 20: 8-11). He gave us the freedom to accomplish all our work on six days. The limit was to keep the seventh day holy.
Freedom, Properly Understood
And there certainly cannot be a greater example of God giving man freedom within limits than His instruction to Adam: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die'” (Gen. 2:15-17). The freedom? To eat of every tree in the garden except – the limit – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And God certainly established that there would be a very bad consequence should Adam choose to exercise his free will outside God’s limit, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”.