Monday, February 04, 2008

(Sort of) free will

I don't think that most people in our culture (or our churches) really believe in true free will. I realized this morning that often I really don't either.

Right now I'm reading Teenage Guys by Steve Gerali, and currently I'm in the section on agression and violence in young guys. (By the way so far it's an excellent book.) He was using the story about Cain and Abel as a case study, and he described the way that God (sort of as the first youth worker) tried to encourage Cain to deal with his feelings of rejection a different way. Of course, Cain didn't listen, and went on to commit the first homicide. As I was reading Gerali's paraphrase, I found myself thinking something along the lines of "Wow - God didn't handle that one very well." A few moments later I realized that I was assuming that God - as the youth worker - could have talked Cain out of it by doing or saying the right things.

I realized that I usually operate under the subconscious assumption that I can fix things if i can just figure out the right actions to take, and I think our churches and our culture reinforce it often. When we hear about school shootings, we think long and hard about what could have been done to prevent that young person from choosing that action. We form plans and strategies and encourage teens and adults to look out for hurting young people, and we tell ourselves that we can make a difference if we're willing to get involved. And all of this is true and our efforts are good, but i wonder if I'm the only one who hears the unspoken message that if we can just figure out how to do it right, we could prevent all violence and eventually cure all teen isolation and depression.

Even churches that claim to believe in true human free will often express the same mindset. We preach that no one is too far gone for God to reach. We tell people to pray expecting that God will get through to the person we're concerned about. We hear about "irresistible grace" and the "hounds of heaven" that make redemption all but unavoidable for those God and the church choose to pursue. And while I technically agree with all of these things, it is extremely easy to start believing - even without realizing it - that by our prayers and our actions we are truly in control of what happens, and that if we just figured out how to do it right, we could fix all the ills in the world.

I'm not so much trying to argue that people have free will, because that's a theological debate that's not worth the effort to address well here. I really value my brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me on this one, and I'm not trying to pick a fight. But what's interesting to me is how easy it is for those of us who think we believe in free will to subconsciously begin to believe that we really can fix everything if we could just figure out the right actions to take. Even Reformed theology puts full control in God's hands, not ours. As much as I believe we should do everything we can, as youth workers we need to check ourselves on this one. We can't allow ourselves to believe that we can be successful with every teen and prevent every tragedy, or else we're going to spend our lives discouraged and confused when it doesn't work.

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