Truly Choosing

By Tim Miller

Tempted to think you don’t have free will? Seek to connect with God’s wisdom and realize your freedom.

Do you think we have free will?

Sam Harris doesn’t. He bases this on his understanding of science. One piece of evidence he cites is Einstein and Minkowski’s four-dimensional spacetime “block universe” model. In this model, time is laid out along one axis from beginning to end and an imaginary observer sits outside of spacetime taking it all in with a single glance. No wiggle room is left for alternate possibilities. No space for choices.

Still, science begins with observation. Many of us have struggles in which inertia and short-term desires pull us in one direction while our ideas of a better life and long-term thinking pull us in another. If you have faced such a struggle and made a decision that stuck, you likely feel you made an actual choice, that your deciding wasn’t just an illusion.

Regardless, Sam Harris thinks it was an illusion. Weathering a couple of particularly hard struggles myself, I feel sure I made real choices that liberated me, that have enabled me to become a more aware and loving person. That has been my experience—and the very bedrock science rests upon is experience!

But I had help from someone who cares.

Open and Relational Theology suggests that God shares our experiences with us. A relational God engages—is within time—and cares deeply about what we do, yet gives us freedom to create our own futures and to help create the future for everyone, including God. God’s respect for us is so immense that God has made us co-creators. Process Theology adds that, at the outset of every occasion of experience, God offers us a set of life-enhancing initial aims. We can choose one of the options God proposes—or choose something else, often less wise and less loving.

While I am not as spiritually sensitive as some, in a couple of my bigger decisions, I have felt God’s love, concern, and deep interest in how I would choose.

My sister Connie and I were both sensitive to animal suffering in childhood. We had two dogs, and when they were hurting, we hurt too. At the same time, we belonged to a meat-loving family. It never occurred to me to question where that meat came from and how it was obtained. Or whether humans could be healthy without eating it. And like my siblings and parents, eating meat gave me great pleasure.

But just after college, I happened upon the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Not only did she describe the suffering our food systems cause animals, she detailed how it’s possible to forgo meat and maintain excellent health. It didn’t take long for me to decide to try vegetarianism. I was deeply Evangelical at the time, yet I also felt sure God wanted me to act compassionately toward all life. Most other Evangelicals I knew discounted animals as in any way relevant to God’s concerns. Still, I was certain God cares for every living being able to experience suffering.

Shifting to a plant-based diet was not difficult. Sticking with it after three years was. Life got messy. My faith evolved. The people I was close to didn’t share my concern for animals. I missed meat. I drifted back to eating it. In the back of my mind this troubled me, but those feelings were easy to stuff down.

Then in late 1988 I bought John Robbins’ book Diet for a New America and inhaled it in a single day. Compelling stories of animal suffering in factory farms coupled with detailed information on the health benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets brought me back to vegetarianism in a mere twenty-four hours. Not only did my decision stick this time, it initiated a slow shift into veganism as I learned more about how the dairy industry treats cows and chickens. Again, I felt God’s urging to take the suffering of all living beings seriously.

A more recent change, though, has been harder. This one took more determination. Determination to be deliberate and to seek a connection with God in times of temptation. And it even led me to recast the Lord’s Prayer in words I find more meaningful.

My partner Blake and I have lived together for three-and-a-half decades. We know each other’s ways well, and accept our differences—which are many. One difference is that Blake is not vegan or even vegetarian. He doesn’t believe nutrition has any bearing on health. He subscribes to the Julia Child school of culinary philosophy, the most pertinent aspect of which is that good eating is for pleasure, not health. As a consequence, our pantry is well stocked—larded I’m tempted to say—with wonderful tasting snack foods whose nutritional value is less than zero, often far less! Moreover, Blake is an avid drinker, so quantities of wine sit aging in our cellar.

Over the decades, Blake’s imbibing ways rubbed off on me. Slowly, slowly my drinking increased. For many years I felt I could keep my consumption moderate. But about five years ago I realized I was drinking way too much every day. Sometimes I couldn’t remember what had happened the evening before. One thing I usually remembered was that after a glass or two, I became much more impulsive and would raid Blake’s stores of snack foods—the vegetarian ones—with abandon.

So I was compromising my health on a couple of different fronts. I decided it had to stop. When I tried, though, I found I could abstain for a couple of days but then would always slide back into my intemperate ways. I could limit myself to two wine glasses per evening, but only by gritting my teeth for all the hours after. Not very fun. Not conducive to getting positive things done.

Then I remembered God cares deeply for me and about my choices. God is in time with me and within me, feeding me, as Process Theology maintains, affirming initial aims at the start of every occasion of experience. I don’t want to minimize the effort it required, but once I decided to remember God’s concern, things turned around in just a few days.

At each moment of temptation, whether to drink or eat something unhealthy, I entered a sort of meditative state, opening myself to perceiving God’s aims for me. I am not particularly mystical, and didn’t have dramatic otherworldly experiences, but I could feel my desires, my temptation, easing each time I did this. Was God actually helping?

After a few days of what felt like determined effort on my part—effort to remember God’s caring—I found I no longer wanted wine or junk food much. At first, my desires were dramatically lessened, but soon they were absent. No withdrawal. No depressed longing. Just a mild but sustaining sense of peace.

This is when I decided the wording of the Lord’s Prayer needed work. In particular, the phrase, “Lead us not into temptation.” I had always suspected God wouldn’t put temptation in our way, but now I knew it. God was taking temptation out of my way, not leading me into it. So I began to say instead, “Help us overcome temptation, and keep us free from evil.” I reworked the prayer in its entirety and it has become a mainstay of mine, something I meditate on for about half an hour every morning to wonderful effect.

What I learned through hard experience is that consciously opening ourselves to God’s initial aims, while requiring deliberation, can be a powerful tool in any struggle to overcome temptation. It works because God really cares. God cares not only for us and about us but also cares that we mature into giving members of God’s community.

My experiences have made me think about free will too. What I realize is that, when I give in to my desires with little thought or struggle, I am not being free. But when I stop, deliberate, think about what God wants, try to feel what God feels, see what God sees, experience God’s care, then I am practicing authentic freedom—at least a degree. I am truly choosing.

And, for the curious, here is my personal revised version of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our loving Creator,

who is with us and in us and infinitely beyond the multiverse,

your wisdom, goodness, and creativity fill me with awe.

May your vision of a joyful, harmonious community be realized

for every sentient being who was, is, and ever shall be.

Until then, spur us to meet needs without grasping or destroying.

Forgive us when we fail to act in perfect love,

and inspire us to forgive those who fail in their love for us.

Help us overcome temptation and keep us free from evil.

For one day we will all learn to cherish and honor you, each other, and ourselves

in a community of love and joy that will never end.

Question: Why does deeply considering what God wishes for you, and working to act accordingly, actually lead to real freedom?

Tim Miller is a retired high school teacher and software and web developer. He maintains the website for the small Episcopal Church he’s a member of in Knoxville, Tennessee. His partner Blake and he celebrated their 36th anniversary lately. Tim is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry from Northwind Theological Seminary.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Book-Cover-683x1024.jpg