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Does God interfere with our free will?

March 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Free Will

Dear Father John, when we pray for a good and holy intention for a soul, for example: for someone’s return to the Roman Catholic Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_1667-1670_MurilloFaith and their Holy Death or that someone will resist committing a serious sin, am I correct in my understanding that Our Dear Lord will stand beside this Soul and bestow upon them the necessary Graces they will need to make the right and wise decision of returning back to their Holy Faith in the Catholic Church, as I mentioned above or resist committing a serious sin, but that it is ultimately up to the individual’s Free Will to accept or refuse these Heavenly Graces from God? I understand that Our Dear Lord will never interfere with our Free Will.

You are correct, but it is well worth reflecting on the mysterious tension that your questions identifies and highlights.

God Wants Friends, not Robots

The tension comes from two truths that seem to contradict each other.  On the one hand we know that God will never force us to love him or to do what is right. If he did force us, he would violate our freedom – we would become like robots, or zombies, or squirrels. God doesn’t want that. He created us in his image, with the capacity to love, to give ourselves freely, to choose to become (or not to become) what he created us to be: saints. He wants our friendship, and friendship can never be forced. The Catechism points this out in a couple of places.

–       In #311, the Church reminds us that God “respects the freedom of his creatures” and therefore even allows them to go astray, to commit evil: “Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned.”

–       In #1884, the Catechism puts it like this: “God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature.”

So this is the first truth that we need to accept and understand: God will never force us to be what he calls us to be; he respects our freedom, because he loves us and thirsts for us to love him in return.

God Is not Indifferent to Our Prayers

The second truth, the one that creates the tension, has to do with God’s promise to hear and honor our prayers: “And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Jesus wants us to pray prayers of petition, to ask him to intervene in our lives and the lives of our loved ones. He urges us to invoke his omnipotence, wisdom, and love to change the course of human events. This is the lesson of his famous parable about the importunate widow, which St. Luke prefaces like this: “Then he told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). The same lesson comes up throughout the Gospels and the entire New Testament. As Jesus puts it in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).

Our prayers matter. God is not indifferent to them. Pope Benedict XVI put this beautifully in one of his Wednesday Catecheses:

… all our prayers – with every possible limitation, effort, poverty, dryness and imperfection they may have – are so to speak purified and reach God’s heart. In other words we can be sure that there is no such thing as superfluous or useless prayers; no prayer is wasted. And prayers are answered, even if the answer is sometimes mysterious, for God is Love and infinite Mercy. (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, September 12, 2012)

The Paradox

These two truths pose an apparent contradiction. God tells us that he will answer our prayers. But he also tells us that he will not violate anyone’s freedom. Now, when we pray for someone to do the right thing, or to make an act of faith, we are obeying the Lord’s encouragement to bring our petitions to him. But at the same time, we seem to be asking the Lord to violate someone’s freedom, to change someone’s mind, to use his omnipotence to force someone into following him. Paradox!

Human Freedom Is not Absolute

Two ideas help us escape from this conundrum. First, we have to remember that human freedom is not absolute. Our freedom is what the philosophers and theologians call participated freedom. This means that it is limited. We participate in a reality that is bigger than ourselves, that gives parameters to our freedom. Our freedom has a purpose: We were “created to live in communion with God, in whom we find happiness (CCC #45).” In a sense, then, the default position of our human nature is set to correspond to, to resonate with, all that is true, good, and beautiful. Because of original sin, this default setting was disrupted, and now our wires are crossed, so to speak. But the desire for happiness that we all harbor deep within our souls can still only be fulfilled insofar as we participate more and more fully in God, the source and fullness of all that is true and good and beautiful.

Human Freedom Can Be Influenced

Okay, that’s quite philosophical. Now we can get practical again. And here is the second idea that can help us solve the paradox: Since our freedom isn’t absolute, it can be influenced. Someone can tempt me to sin, can influence me to make a self-centered choice by convincing me that it is somehow true, good, or beautiful (even partially).

We have all experienced this. Just look at a billboard or two, or watch a commercial or two. More often than not, advertising tries to influence our decisions by stimulated our baser instincts. They present certain images, promises, or ideas to our imagination in order to convince us to make a particular choice, to exercise our freedom in a particular direction. Friends and colleagues can do the same thing. Someone at the office can promise me a bonus if I cook the books a little bit. Or they can threaten to get me fired if I don’t cook the books. Either way, they are trying to influence my freedom. And they can do that because of the very nature of our human freedom – it is not absolute; it can be influenced.

For the same reason, someone can influence me for good. Someone can encourage me to do what is right, by giving me good reasons, or by showing me the beauty of the choice in question, or by demonstrating that, in the end, doing what’s wrong will have painful consequences. When we love someone, we want the best for them. We want them to make choices that will allow them to flourish. And so, we try to encourage them to make those choices.  We help them. We influence them.

God’s Influence: Powerful and Respectful

When we pray that God helps someone to do what’s right, we are asking God to do the same thing. We are asking him to help the person in question see and follow what is true, good, and beautiful.  And God, who is all-powerful and all-wise, is able to do so without violating the person’s freedom. He can turn the attention of their hearts to things that they may not have noticed before. He can create circumstances in which they can feel in a fresh way the natural and healthy tug of the truth. He can do many, many things to influence the person to do what is right, without forcing them.

Does God Really Need My Prayers?

But, you may ask, won’t he do that anyway, without my prayers? After all, God loves each person much more than I do. So why would he wait for my prayers before trying to influence them to do what is right? It’s a fair question. But the answer has already been given. God has given us the gift of freedom. We can change the world with this gift. We are free to sprinkle salt on our French Fries or not to sprinkle salt on our French Fries. Just so, we are free to write an encouraging email to a friend or not to write it. We are free to tell lies about someone or not to tell lies. Every choice we make influences the course of history and the lives of other people, in some way or another. Our choice to ask God, through prayer, to help those in need, can do the same – and God himself promises that it will make a difference.   In this life, we may never see exactly how our prayers influence the course of events, but in the end, we will.

As the great spiritual writer Jordan Aumann puts it, following St. Thomas Aquinas, there are three possibilities when it comes to prayers of petition. Some things, God will do whether or not we ask him. Other things, he will NOT do, even if we ask him (he will give us something better). And some things he will ONLY do if we ask him, because he honors the gift he has given us of being free collaborators in his great plan of creation and redemption. So let’s keep on asking, and leave the details up to him.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • rjk123

    Thank you, Father. This was very helpful to me, answering some questions I’ve had for a long time. It also helps me understand my own situation where it appears my prayers for someone I love aren’t achieving the result I am praying for–his conversion to the Catholic Church. Although, I can really see how magnificently God is working in his life. Thank you! I wish I were in Rome right now, too! It must be very exciting for you! Rachel

    • LizEst

      Rachel – Now, you are understanding how difficult it is to move someone’s heart. In fact, on our own, we can’t do it. It is God who sees and knows the human heart. Remember when Jesus said something along the lines of, “What is easier – to say pick up your mat and walk, or to say your sins are forgiven?” It is much easier to heal someone physically than to heal the human heart. But, don’t let this discourage you. Always remember St. Monica’s great example of prayer for her son St. Augustine. Her many prayers and tears reaped a great harvest not only for her and for her son, but for the Church as well.

      • rjk123

        Thank you, LizEst. I’m grateful for my husband. He is God’s greatest gift to me–and proof that God loves me! Rachel

  • What a super great insight into this question that has plagued me for a very long time as, it would appear that a request I have been praying for – for many many years has still not been answered.  Thank you Father.  

  • $30899374

    This explanation is wonderfully clear and insightful. Working in prolife, I have been struggling a lot with the reasoning behind this great gift of free will. Often, I am deeply perplexed that God created us for love and to live life to the full (as only one who knows Our Lord can do) desiring our salvation yet he left it to us to decide for it, knowing that we’re hopelessly human, weak and sinful. Thankfully, my Guardian Angel and the Holy Spirit helps me see that this contradiction is wrapped in a mystery. It is fine to think about and question such a mystery but not to become fooled by Satan who would like for me to consider my good God perverted making life harder to understand. God bless you Father!

  • kmelz

    A huge resounding Wow!  Thank you Fr. Bartunek for sharing your God-given keen insight and understanding!  God Bless You!

  • Prayer is powerful and I have seen physical and spiritual hearings through prayer of others. Thank you Father for explaining how when we pray to help a person to do good we are not being selfish asking our will to be done in the person and taking the persons freedom of choice away. I always wondered about this. I have a habit of saying if it is your will O Lord let this person choose the right and good thing and do it… You know something like that. As asking the the will of God in everything I feel you can’t go wrong. sometimes I have prayers Lord take away this suffering from this person and not included if it be your will and Offten I wondered if it was selfish prayer because I could not bear someone suffering. What are your thoughts on this?

  • Thank you, Father, for a very insightful Post.  My simple response to the question whether or not God hears and answers all our Prayers is really elementary………”God has no waste basket for Prayers”……all our Prayers are answered but in His Own Divine, sometimes Mysterius Ways……so let us pray without ceasing, particularly the Intercessory Prayers for ourselves, our families, our friends, our Holy Mother the Church, our countries, the world, and especially for Sinners, our separated Brethrens and the Holy Souls in Purgatory!!!!!!

  • In response to the Title, my comment is brief…….God co-operates with our free will to lead us to Him and with His Graces, helps us to stay there until one closes this world’s eyes to open the spiritual eyes before the Seat of His Majesty

  • Grtgrandpa-Tom

    2 days ago I posted some thoughts from St. Thomas Aquanis on this subject. I don’t know why my comments were not posted. The subject matter is too long to retype. oh well……. so much for this old man’s input. bye now.  

    • We are glad to have you comment and you are right about the length. Check out the FAQ’s for more info on this.

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