Ayers face

Conversations about believing

“People can be so cruel,” said my friend.  “It’s like they take some twisted pleasure in saying or doing something that will make someone suffer.  If God is really so good, why does he allow that?”

“When you’re on the receiving end of someone’s malice,” I said, “mostly it just hurts, and most attempts to explain it away sound pretty trite. But let me say that I’m sure sorry that they’re treating you that way.”

“Well, they’re not any more,” he said. “I think I’m pretty well over it, in fact. But I would really like to know why God allows people to treat each other so badly.”

“It is a puzzle,” I acknowledged. “We can see so clearly the wrongness of someone else’s cruelty; and yet at one time or another each one of us has been the one causing the pain for someone else. Maybe at the time we imagined we had some kind of good reason, even though we might now look back and feel pretty ashamed of the things we said or did.”

“OK, but all that does is point out that we all do it,” he objected. “And I guess my real question is why God allows us to do that sort of thing at all.”

“The choice to do something that we know will hurt someone, or the choice to do something without bothering to consider how painful it might be – that’s part of the gift of freedom that God has given us. God has trusted us with freedom. It’s a wonderful gift. But now that we have it, we often misuse it, with terrible consequences.”

“No, that explanation just won’t work,” he insisted. “If God really is all powerful, then he ought to have been able to give us the freedom to choose well, while keeping us from choosing badly.”

“Are you saying,” I asked, “that God should have given us the freedom to do what is right and good, but withheld the freedom to fail to do so?”

“Exactly.”

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.  “People say those words, sometimes, but it has never made sense to me.  It has always seemed to me that if I am actually free to do something, then it’s up to me either to do it or not.  God has made me free: that means I can choose to do good, or choose not to.”

“But why did he do it that way?” he asked.  “Why didn’t God just create us so that we would freely choose to love him? And then we’d freely choose to do good, on that basis.  If he’s all powerful, he ought to be able to do that.”

“Certainly God is powerful enough to make us do whatever he says,” I nodded. “With one word he could simply and decisively overcome our resistance once and for all. God could compel us to do the right thing. But what if God does not want the response to be compelled?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if God desires a response that is free and voluntary, a response that is not caused by anything other than our own choice?”

He hesitated.  “Then he’d have to present it in some way where it would be up to us to decide.”

“And imagine,” I said, “imagine how an all-powerful God, who speaks a word to create a universe: imagine how he would have to go about telling us about this desire of his.”

“That’s interesting,” he said. “He would have to speak a word that is considerably weaker than any word of compulsion would be. He would have to speak a word that would not overcome our freedom, where it remains possible for us to resist, or even refuse.”

“Suppose, because you are my friend, I put together a feast for your enjoyment, all decorated with fresh flowers and candles, filled with the aromas of all kinds of good food. I want you to come to my home and delight yourself in it all: the feasting, the laughter, the conversation.”

“Sounds pretty good,” he said.

“But if I simply invite you, you might not come. You might forget; you might have plans to do something else; you might not like me well enough to attend. If I were powerful enough, and if I didn’t want to take a chance that you might turn me down, I might want to find some way to compel you to come:  perhaps by threatening to get you fired if you don’t show up, or by having you brought to my house by soldiers under my command.”

“Yuck. That doesn’t seem attractive at all.”

“No, it really doesn’t, does it?  If I were powerful enough I could make you attend the party. If I were powerful enough I could probably motivate you to act like you’re having a good time. But I can’t be powerful enough to make you actually enjoy it, because enjoyment is up to you. I can’t be powerful enough to make your heart fill with delight, because that kind of response is made only on the basis of your own decision, rather than by some compelling force outside of you.”

“So if it’s up to me,” he said, “God can’t control what my response will be?”

“Perhaps it would be more precise to say that by deciding to leave it up to you, God has decided not to control what your response will be.”

“But doesn’t that mean,” he asked, “that God’s running a risk that I might respond badly, or even cruelly?”

“Indeed.  God has given us the freedom not only to attend feasts but also to create them, and to share in gladness of soul with one another. We have the freedom to respond to God’s invitation to discover all the wonder of the life he has for us; and quite often we’ve used that freedom to cause pain, instead.”

“But that’s a mighty big chance that God is taking, that we will decide to use our freedom well instead of badly.”

“It is,” I agreed.  “He might not have taken it, and then we would be puppets instead of people. But he saw the potential for good and love and wonder that this freedom makes possible for us; and so he gives us the opportunity to make all these things come true. Because when you love someone as much as God loves us, you want them to have gifts like these, and to learn to use them well.  Now it’s up to us to do so.”

Jay Ayers is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Louisiana and the First Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green.

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