Do What You Will


For I know that there dwelleth not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will, is present with me; but to accomplish that which is good, I find not. For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. (Romans 7:18-19 DRA)

As St. Paul’s all too famailiar-in-experience soliloquy here illustrates, we humans often have great difficulty when it comes to our wills. We even frequently have the best of intentions, but then invariably find ourselves wandering from both what we know we should do and- perhaps- even what we really want to do. The lust of the eyes and the desires of the flesh, as St. John terms it, too often pull us from the good we desire.

In this moment it can appear that we have deliberately chosen evil over good, but the truth is probably a little more sinister than that. Instead, what actually happens is that we choose a lesser good over a greater one, and it is in this disparity that our will can both desire something greater yet settle for something lesser.

This dynamic is common to both the faithful and the faithless, and seems an inexorable part of our nature, which seems constantly torn between the reason and the passions. We can apprehend the good and desire it, but then the lower part of our nature can override that, sometimes even in an instant and seemingly without protest from our higher self.

It is thus with a certain amount of irony that we speak of our rational nature as possessing free will, since many times our wills seem anything but free.

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For a long time I have been somewhat perplexed by the relation of free-will to the life of the blessed in possession of the Beatific Vision. For in viewing the freedom of the will in this relation, I have tended to transpose on to it the experience of free will that is our existential reality now. This of course leads to theological nonsense, since the blessed would be as broken in their wills as we are now, which is hardly the promised redemption. And so we tend to modify the conditions of the will to a more “primitive state,” such as was possessed by Adam and Eve in the creation narrative. In this case the wills of the blessed are not bound by sin or bent by the passions.

But in what may be considered humanity’s natural “best-case-scenario,” there is still the uncomfortable reality that, even in this situation, our first parents still turned their wills from God, turning them inward toward themselves. And this leads to the even more uncomfortable conclusion- if it could happen to them, then why not everyone else? Or, more pointedly- why not me?

And so when faced with this sort of theological conundrum such a view of free will either has to hold out the possibility that the lapse of the blessed is an actual (if unlikely) possibility, or that we kind-of-sort-of have free will, but God won’t let us actually choose to not choose him, which we will still call free will (wink, wink), even though it doesn’t conform to the transposition we have previously performed.

Now, the former version of this can be fairly sophisticated and have much going for it. One standard approach- which I have used myself and which I still think contains a large element of truth- is to note that the nature of our wills is that they tend to be habituated to what they choose, and actually become the choice they have made. We notice this in both good choices (say the choice to love) and in bad (say, destructive addictions), for we find our wills molded to certain inclinations and choices the more we consistently choose them.

The logic of this argument is that in eternity our wills will have been habituated to love God, so that the choice of that love is something that we have become, making any other choice practically impossible (or at least unpredictable!). From the other side, the wills of the damned become conformed and hardened in their choice to reject God, and they further become that choice the more they choose it, thus rendering any other choice repugnant and (practically) impossible.

One major difficulty with this approach is that it a priori transposes the “primitive” state of free will onto the blessed, and even though it practically eliminates that act of willing of anything but the good, it must still theoretically leave open that possibility. But a perhaps even larger difficulty is that it tends to deprive a theological anthropology of one of its most important aspects: The Incarnation.

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It is a theological dogma that it was not possible for Jesus to sin. The hypostatic union necessitates that the human will of Jesus’ human nature and the divine will of the Son were united in one subject, the person of the Son. Thus, the human will was subordinate and united with the divine will which could not logically sin, since sin is privation of being and the Son is being itself, and thus not logically subject to privation. Yet this subordination of the human will did not entail a destruction or curtailing of that will, as the Third Council of Constantinople explains:

And we proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in him and two natural principles of action which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. For the will of the flesh had to be moved, and yet to be subjected to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. For just as his flesh is said to be and is flesh of the Word of God, so too the natural will of his flesh is said to and does belong to the Word of God, just as he says himself: I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me, calling his own will that of his flesh, since his flesh too became his own. For in the same way that his all holy and blameless animate flesh was not destroyed in being made divine but remained in its own limit and category, so his human will as well was not destroyed by being made divine, but rather was preserved, according to the theologian Gregory, who says: “For his willing, when he is considered as saviour, is not in opposition to God, being made divine in its entirety. (Exposition of Faith, Third Council of Constantinople)

The upshot of the Incarnation is that the primitive freedom of the will in humanity as instantiated in Adam and Eve is not actually the best-case-scenario of humankind’s will. After all, Jesus is the ‘Second Adam,” As St. Paul calls him, and is thus the progenitor of a new humanity, so to speak. His will- which was fully in union with God- becomes the template for what our wills are meant to be.

It might be tempting to perceive Jesus’ inability to choose evil as a sort of limitation on the will, but in reality the converse is the case; the potentiality to choose something other than the good is the limitation.

Stated another way, the “lack” of evil (or a lesser good, as is more precise) as a will-able option is only a “lack” in a purely semantic sense; from a more robust ontological perspective, this un-will-ability is in reality not because of a “lack” but rather due precisely to a fullness. Jesus could not have sinned not because he lacked a free will, but rather because he possessed a freedom of the will in its fullness.

This dynamic is more easily understood when the nature of the will is more closely examined. In humans- which are contingent creatures- the will is meant to be informed by reason (which also is meant to guide and constrain the passions to their proper ordering) so as to determine and choose the good. Our reason must not only perceive the good, but do so by means of comparison. Accordingly, the human will in its natural state is not determinate but can follow different courses. St. Thomas explains that

…man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. For reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectic syllogisms and rhetorical arguments. Now particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one. And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will. (Summa Theologica, PP, Q 83, A1)

However, the nature of the will is such that- even in contingent beings- its object is always the good. It may seem on the surface that we very frequently choose that which is not the good, but rather the case is that we really end up choosing a lesser good. The Incarnation offers a prime example in that Jesus’ human will desired a good: self-preservation in the face of death. However, he subordinated his will to a greater good: the will of the Father.

And since the object of the will is the good, then the attainment of the true good- which is God himself- is the end of man and the end of the will, since it is the good to which the will is meant to turn, and which indeed is the only thing that can satisfy the will. St. Thomas again explains:

But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires. (Summa Theologica, PSP, Q 5, A 8)

Thus, the reason our will chooses anything is that it is- for lack of a better term- longing for happiness, seeking to find that for which it exists. God’s will- since it is identical with his being and thus with happiness- already always attains (so to speak) that which it desires. And as there is no privation in God, but rather that God is himself the fullness of being and being itself, so in the Incarnation the human will of Jesus is always subordinate to the will of the Son, which is eternally identical with the will of the Father. As such, in Jesus in his humanity is the paragon of what the freedom of a human will can entail.

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This rather roundabout way of coming back to the point is important, because we must recalibrate our understanding of the will so that it is understood not within the framework of the Old Adam, but rather the New. It can be tempting for those who uphold the freedom of the will to imagine that redemption merely restores what was lost, returning us to the primeval sense of the will. The difficulty however, as already noted, is that this was a will lacking in a specific grace, namely the participation in the righteousness of Christ. But since humanity is a contingent creature, it is apparent from our very constitution that the contingent will in and of itself is not sufficient. As our very being is an act of grace, so the true freedom of the will derives from the same source. St. Augustine noted this dynamic:

He, therefore, who wishes to do God’s commandment, but is unable, already possesses a good will, but as yet a small and weak one; he will, however, become able when he shall have acquired a great and robust will. When the martyrs did the great commandments which they obeyed, they acted by a great will,— that is, with great love…He operates, therefore, without us, in order that we may will; but when we will, and so will that we may act, He co-operates with us. We can, however, ourselves do nothing to effect good works of piety without Him either working that we may will, or co-working when we will. (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 33)

Our wills must finally be suffused with grace through union with Christ in order for them to truly be free. Much as the will of Jesus in his humanity was enlightened by the will of the Son and the perpetual union of the Beatific Vision vis-a-vis the hypostatic union, so our wills in union with God attain a similar likeness to their prototype.

There is truth to the notion that love becomes a habit and that we become what we will. Our wills might be bent now but they must be straightened out, free from the entanglements of sin. St. Thomas elaborates:

Rectitude of will is necessary for Happiness both antecedently and concomitantly. Antecedently, because rectitude of the will consists in being duly ordered to the last end. Now the end in comparison to what is ordained to the end is as form compared to matter. Wherefore, just as matter cannot receive a form, unless it be duly disposed thereto, so nothing gains an end, except it be duly ordained thereto. And therefore none can obtain Happiness, without rectitude of the will. Concomitantly, because as stated above (Question 3, Article 8), final Happiness consists in the vision of the Divine Essence, Which is the very essence of goodness. So that the will of him who sees the Essence of God, of necessity, loves, whatever he loves, in subordination to God; just as the will of him who sees not God’s Essence, of necessity, loves whatever he loves, under the common notion of good which he knows. And this is precisely what makes the will right. Wherefore it is evident that Happiness cannot be without a right will. (Summa Theologica, PSP, Q 4, A 4)

This is an important passage, in that St. Thomas describes how the will of the blessed in possession of the Beatify Vision can have concomitant rectitude of the will, but yet must have antecedent rectitude of the will antecedently. After all, if our will is made for happiness, and that happiness is union with God, then anything less than perfect and complete union of the will would dissolve that union, and thus we would be back to the original dilemma posed by the freedom of the will.

Yet if our wills are too often two-faced and prone to the dominion of the passions, it would seem that this union is impossible. Thus, something must occur that transforms our wills and frees them from the “lack” which allows us (actually enslaves us) to not choose the good.

St. Thomas sees this as the vision of the Divine Essence itself. For since the will is a function of the intellect, we have to intellectually “see” God in his essence. For in God is the fullness of being; nothing exists outside of him. The intellect seeks to know the objects it apprehends, and as it discovers the essence there is a certain “rest” in that contemplation. Yet everything that isn’t God is a lesser good, and thus cannot satisfy the intellect nor the will, for it is not the fullness of being.

Far too often our wills are content to love the lesser good when faced with it, and the evil arises in presuming Happiness consists in it.

In our natural state we are unable to “see” God in his essence, and our sin further blinds us from the radiance of his being. We do not on our own have the capacity to love God or to will as he does in union with him, and thus we would seem to be forever locked out the vision of the Divine Essence of which St. Thomas speaks.

This is where the rectitude of the will comes in. As we grow deeper in our union with Christ, we more fully partake of his will. And since in him the human will always-already is in union with God’s will and contemplates the Divine Essence, as we are in union with him we begin to- as St. Peter says- partake of the divine nature.

The more we align our wills with God’s, the more we subordinate our desires and our loves to Christ, the greater the rectitude of the will enabled by grace proceeds to effectively straighten our bent wills out and allow them to be free to choose the Good which is the Happiness the will seeks and was created to attain. The purgation of our will which still rests in lesser goods is not an affront to grace but is rather its culmination, antecedently preparing our wills to love God as they were meant to and opening up the intellect so as to have the capacity to “see” the Beatific Vision.

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It is here that we finally arrive at the concomitant rectitude of the will which begins to shine a light on the original dilemma. The blessed in union with God in the Beatific Vision have already had their wills attuned to rest in the Happiness which comes from attaining the Good itself. And since the will always seeks the good, now that it possesses the Good itself there is nothing else for it to seek. There is no “lack” of free will but rather free will in all of its fullness, for the human will is finally enabled to attain what it has always sought and was created to attain.

When the will is understood in this manner, the notion that the blessed could ever choose anything but God is non-sensical. St. Thomas again explains:

Now just as the actually colored is the object of sight, so is good the object of the will. Wherefore if the will be offered an object which is good universally and from every point of view, the will tends to it of necessity, if it wills anything at all; since it cannot will the opposite. If, on the other hand, the will is offered an object that is not good from every point of view, it will not tend to it of necessity. And since lack of any good whatever, is a non-good, consequently, that good alone which is perfect and lacking in nothing, is such a good that the will cannot not-will it: and this is Happiness. (Summa Theologica, PSP, Q 10, A2)

God lacks no good, as he is the Good itself. And since the blessed will have attained God and perceive him in his essence, there is literally no thing that could be sought outside of God or apart from him. It is because of this that St. Thomas declares that it is impossible for the will to not-will this Good.

Seen in this light, the difference between the will of the son of Adam and the son of God could not be more distinct. In the former the grace of the vision of the divine essence has not yet been attained, and thus the reason must adjudicate between goods in its love of the good, and thus is not determinate. But in the latter the Good has been obtained in its fullness, and cannot but help to always choose that good, because it possesses everything it seeks and was created to attain.

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In the union of the Beatific Vision we will finally be free to will as we want, to seek the good we desire and to do it. No longer will we be bound by the contingencies of the comparison of various goods, for Goodness itself will be what our vision takes in, and what our love pours itself out for.

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