One of the fundamental principles of Biblical faith is that God has granted free will to human beings. Without free will, all our actions are meaningless. There is no basis for reward or punishment. In the absence of free will, there is neither piety nor wickedness. The belief that human beings are responsible for their choices lies at the center of our relationship with God. Without free will, our faith and our service of God are pointless and empty. God empowered us with free will so that we are able to choose Him and to choose good.
At the same time as we steadfastly believe in the doctrine of free will, we also believe in divine providence over earthly affairs. God has a plan. He has a plan for the world, and He has a plan for each and every one of us as individuals. The fact that God has a predetermined plan for us raises an important theological issue regarding the doctrine of free will.
The simplest way to understand this problem is to consider Biblical prophecy. The Bible speaks at great length about God’s plan for the future of humanity. As people of Biblical faith, we have no doubt that the Kingdom of God will eventually be established. For anyone who takes the Bible seriously as the inerrant word of God, the future ingathering of Israel to the promised land and the subsequent redemption of humanity are certainties. These are not mere hopes or predictions.
But what about human free will? For example, what if every member of the nation of Israel was to decide to leave the land of Israel permanently? What if the Jews used their free will to undo the ingathering of the exiles, never to return? Is this possible? There are certainly many individual Israeli-born Jews who have already made such a choice and now live outside the Holy Land. What if all Jewish citizens of Israel were to make the same free-willed choice? Simply put, do human beings have the ability to undo God’s plan through the power of their God-given free will?
The same question can be asked about the effect of one person’s decisions on the life of another person. Can my free will choices change the course of someone else’s life regardless of what God has planned for them? If the answer is “no”, does this mean that my free will is limited? If the answer is “yes,” what does that say about God’s providential control over the lives of people?
It is this theological quandary that the three verses in Proverbs 16:1-3 come to address.
To a person belongs the heart’s arrangements, but from the Lord is the tongue’s reply.
The first verse describes the relationship between our own free will and the results of that free will on the outside world. It is true that God has granted us freedom to think and choose whatever we decide. As we explained, without this freedom, our righteousness or lack thereof would be rendered meaningless. At the same time, the results of our free will are in God’s hands. In other words, whether or not our free will succeeds in a given situation is out of our hands. But our free will choices, “the heart’s arrangements,” are our own and we are responsible for them. And lest we think that the results of our choices are limited to actions, our verse reminds us that the utterances of our mouths constitute tangible and measurable results as well. Words have an impact just as actions do.
We are judged by our choices, not by their results.
All the ways of man are pure in his own eyes, and the Lord is the measurer of spirits.
The second verse warns us of the danger that comes with the freedom to make our own choices and judgments. Human beings have a great capacity for self-justification. We rationalize our opinions and choices so that we are comfortable. This, too, is a product of our free will. God granted us the freedom to come to our own conclusions, however twisted or corrupt they may be. We have the freedom to convince ourselves that we are always in the right. But the verse goes on to say that at a deeper level, we know when we are arrogantly declaring ourselves justified even as we are twisting morality and truth. God sees through our self-deception. When we arrogantly use our God-given free will to justify our corruption, God sees the truth that lies beneath the surface of our conscious rationalizations. He is “the measurer of spirits.”
So, what is the solution? How do we protect ourselves from the self-deception that comes with human freedom of thought and choice? How do we assure ourselves that we are being honest and true to what is right and not merely justifying our self-serving interpretations of reality? To this problem, the third verse in the passage provides the solution.
Turn your actions over to the Lord and your thoughts will be set right.
God did more than just grant us free will. He also gave us instructions. Moreover, He commanded us to serve Him. By serving Him, we liberate ourselves from servitude to ourselves. When I serve myself, I am easily blinded by self-interest. When I serve God, I am forced to constantly ask myself, “Is this what God wants from me?” By turning outward, I disconnect from my own arrogance and selfishness, and I can see truth with Godly eyes.
Jewish tradition teaches that we are called upon to “Make His will, your will.” (Chapters of the Fathers). Paradoxically, it is when I use my God-given free will to freely choose to surrender my will to God, that I am truly His servant and am truly free from self-deception. This is the higher freedom of service of God.
This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s book, Verses for Zion. Verses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.
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