Uncontrolling Love, Free Will, and Responsibility
By Noel Cooper
God created us with free will, which comes with responsibility. Therapists can help people face the anxiety of that and take responsibility for their lives.
The necessary corollary to God’s uncontrolling love is human free will. God’s creative plan for us necessitates that we are free to act, to choose our path and create our world. A sometimes-overlooked aspect of free will is the importance of individual responsibility. If God does not force us or compel us to go in a particular way, then we must then decide for ourselves which path to take. To freely choose is a freedom that comes with its own weight. To have the responsibility for one’s decisions also means accepting the consequences of those decisions, a heavy burden indeed, and one that can inspire a great deal of anxiety in the face of life’s big choices. Every choice involves uncertainty because the future is unknown and unpredictable, but humans have a strong preference for certainty and become distressed when it is not available to them.
Existential and Gestalt psychologists have made human responsibility central to their theories. They encourage clients to take responsibility for their actions and choices and embrace the uncertainty of life. Existential therapy particularly emphasizes confronting the anxiety entailed in responsibility. Humans try to avoid, deny, or deflect their anxiety, but this evasion only exacerbates the anxiety and prevents people from living whole and authentic lives.
Sometimes clients are truly unable to see that they have a choice, or they have any agency or free will in a situation. They feel swept along by forces outside of their control. And it is important to acknowledge that there are plenty of circumstances in life that are outside of our control. Structural racism, economic inequality, disparities of all kinds—these are all outside the control of any one person. And many tragedies and hardships, that we are not responsible for, come to us. But in the face of all these situations, we always have a choice in how we respond, both internally and externally.
Christians are sometimes eager to relinquish some of this responsibility of free will to God: “If it’s God’s will, God will make it happen. God is in control, so I’ll just wait on God and see what happens.” While their faith is genuine, their abdication of responsibility for deciding and choosing a course of action allows them to avoid the anxiety that is entailed. God then becomes a kind of scapegoat for things not working— “I guess it just wasn’t God’s will.” This kind of thinking is not consistent with the theology of a God who is self-limited by love.
Moreover, most people do not implement this kind of thinking where God is given full control consistently. They are perfectly happy to make smaller, less anxiety-provoking, decisions on their own, e.g., what to wear, what to eat, which show to binge watch next. These decisions have fairly minor consequences, so individuals feel competent to exercise independence and free will. But when faced with more important decisions, like what career to pursue, who to marry, or whether or not to make a particular life change, God becomes their fallback. Anxiety for the unknown can make them hesitant to act in their God-given free will.
Therapy clients might try to avoid their responsibility by sharing it out with the therapist: “What do you think I should do? Can you give me any advice?” And if not from their therapist, they are often asking others in their life for the same advice, as if getting input from others lessens their own sense of responsibility and subsequent guilt if things don’t go right. An overly submissive stance to authority also allows clients to bypass accountability— “I was just doing what I was told.” All of these attempts to evade anxiety only worsen the problem.
The role of the therapist then is two-fold: to help clients see their options where they feel like they have none, and to help clients face the anxiety of making a choice that is wholly their own responsibility. In the first part, the therapist helps the client imagine different possibilities for themselves than the ones they thought to be constrained by. There is a creativity required to help expand their way of seeing the world and their way of seeing themselves. The therapist’s questions seek to draw aside the veil that has been obscuring their vision: “Does it have to be that way? Is there another choice you could make in that situation? What might you be able to do differently?” Clients are often surprised to find that there are more possibilities than they thought when they really stop to look. For some clients it is a relief to be able to make their way out of where they were stuck. But often there is an anxiety and dread that may accompany that relief, because now it is indeed their own choices that will direct their path. There is a felt safety in being carried along by outside forces, even if they are unpleasant.
And thus comes the second role of the therapist, to help clients face the existential dread and anxiety that are the natural consequences of free will. First, we help clients name and identify what they are feeling. They might not recognize that they are procrastinating a decision, continually seeking advice, or just generally avoiding change because of anxiety due to the responsibility of free will and the uncertainty of the future. Once they can recognize that, we can normalize it for them. This existential anxiety is part of the human condition. This was recognized by the existential philosophers—to be human is to be free, and this freedom is anxiety-inducing because we cannot know with certainty the outcome of our choices.
Nothing will completely remove this anxiety. But we can come to accept it, embrace it, and stand firm despite it. When we stop avoiding anxiety, it loses some of its power over us. We can face the unknown and dare to move forward anyway, living courageously. God created us to be free and to exercise free will, so when we do so we are living in the fullness of God’s creative intentions. Therapists will stand together with their clients at the edge of the abyss of the unknown and let them know that it is okay to not know, because no one can know, but they can still make a decision. Therapists will be with their client in a stance of empathy, acceptance, and unconditional positive regard. These “core conditions” of therapy mirror the love God has for us, that therapists can reflect to their clients.
And it is ultimately in the love of God that the courage to face the anxiety is rooted. We are not alone. God will not control us, compel us, or coerce us, God may not even give us a definitive answer about which direction to take. But God will always be with us, and the love of God is unconditional. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, and his mercies never come to an end.” Regardless of the consequences of our decisions, God’s love for us will not change. In the midst of so much that is uncertain and unknown, God’s faithfulness remains. No matter what existential dread comes our way, we can count on God’s faithful presence in the midst of anxiety.
Noel Cooper is a professor, therapist, and clinical supervisor in Riverside, CA. She earned her Psy.D. in clinical psychology and her M.A. in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Noel is passionate about helping clients understand themselves better. She is married with three children.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love