Some time ago I encountered a humorous scene on the factory floor. The reflections it stirred are, I suppose, as good a place as any to begin these posts. I walked into the wire-coiling department to find that a man I work with had brought in his 5-year-old son Jimmy for the day, who was busy cruising around some stacks of scrap metal and machinery in one of those Fisher Price Power-Wheels. In speaking with the father I learned that it was his son’s birthday, and he wanted to let Jimmy try out his new present in an environment that was not only full of obstacles and opportunities, but also where he could watch him, protect him, and share his joy. Of course, such a great privilege came with a specific set of strict rules, which I could see Jimmy was well aware of.
At first I was amazed at how obedient and cautious he was. Mild mannered and well behaved, he never drove more than a few yards before calling back to his father to see if what he was doing was OK. He made no turn nor change of pace without first clearing it with dad, such that his constant requests and double-checks started to blend with the rest of the mechanical background noise of the factory. But there was a distinct fear beneath Jimmy’s carefulness, this clearly being the wildest and most dangerous toy he’d ever played with. And then I noticed something in his father: a growing weariness as he continuously looked up from his work to say, “Yeah, you’re fine,” or “Go ahead son,” or “Just go on, that’s all right.” And as I watched I realized that this was not a weariness born of annoyance, but of disappointment.
Right from the beginning Jimmy’s father had been perfectly aware of the viable dangers of both the toy and the environment. He had fully assessed the potentials, weighed the risks, and still chose to grant his son this incredible gift with all its freedoms and possibilities, judging its joys and benefits to far outweigh the hazards. But despite Jimmy’s impeccable behavior, the would-be delights and thrills of sharing the toy’s excitements with his father were being eclipsed by a fear of his own power and an exacting overtreatment of “should I…” But his father didn’t get him this gift so that he himself could steer it – he had his own car for that. His hope was to watch Jimmy thrive in adventurous excitement, making quick decisions and reveling in the high-speed vitality of childhood. He simply wanted to watch what the little guy would do, wanted to see what he would create, wanted to share the joy of his freedom.
I suddenly found myself wondering just how often our Heavenly Father might feel a similar exasperation.
Why were we given free will? Any Christian should be able to respond with the classic “so we can love” answer. And it’s true, no love is possible without the possibility of not loving, and the Lord gave us a choice in the hopes that we would choose Him, and so come to the fullness of life in Him. But I’ve encountered a disturbing trend among many Christians who, though striving in earnest after “God’s Will,” sometimes do so at the expense of the very life He’s given, as they stray into misconceptions about the nature of freedom and discernment.
The only place God’s will can be accomplished is in the present, but we often get so caught up in “not messing up THE PLAN” that we trade the grace of the present moment for a fear-riddled fixation on the past or the future, and faulty ideas of discernment. The Latin root discernere literally means to separate, divide, distinguish, to set things in their proper place. The act of discernment is reactionary, not causative nor creative. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit to help test our decisions according to their motivations (divine inspiration, internal aspiration, concupiscence, demonic temptation, etc.), but we often miss the point and instead look to it as some kind of magic eight ball that can make our life decisions for us. If I can just be certain that what I’m doing is GOD’S WILL, I can be free of any subsequent responsibilities or fears of failure, right? And so the idea of “God’s will” is often used to medicate our regrets about the past or our anxieties about the future rather than being sought for God’s own sake. But His will is love itself, and perfect love casts out fear! God’s will for our lives – which is to say for our present moment – is the EXCERCISE of our freedom to His glory.
And of course we must form our consciences properly to recognize the good and reject the evil, we must respect the rules that come with the Power Wheel; but there are a whole host of goods out there, and St. Augustine’s words to “love and do what you will” are often obscured by the idea of a single, stagnant PLAN which we must discover, memorize, and only then embark on – a plan which we’ll certainly miss if we’re not discerning hard enough. HA! As if we could “mess up” God’s plan for our lives by choosing the “wrong” good!
He draws us by our very selves, grace building on nature, and to those who find themselves unsure of whether a particular good is or is not GOD’S WILL for your life, you might start by deeply and honestly examining your own heart – who do you think put all those yearnings, delights, aptitudes, talents, and aspirations there in the first place? And for what purpose, except that you might choose to use and pursue them freely? True, we can look back on life and see that God indeed had one specific path in mind for us – but only because it’s what we will have chosen in our own freedom!
God does not build like a time-bound architect nor write like a chronological author – His plan is alive, dancing in eternal motion and weaving the free choices of His children into the tapestry of history. He reverences and exalts our free will while simultaneously guiding and directing our steps into His own. How on earth does that work? An excellent question, but one which from its very wording betrays its deficiency: no earthly answer will suffice to fit eternal realities into temporal minds.
But this is not an occasion for confusion, but joy. We are reminded again and again that love is the key, and so long as we are investing the talents we’ve been given to His glory, we experience firsthand the words of St. Irenaeus: the glory of God is man fully alive! How often do we pray, “If you just tell me where you want me to go Lord, I’d go…”, but how often is this really true? Would an exact answer to this prayer truly satisfy our hearts (or His), which are designed not for programing but for cooperation? And how often is He already telling us (if we only had ears to hear), not in divine locution or celestial instruction, but in invitation? Docility to His will is of course essential, but we’ll never discover “The Plan” through thorough research and withdrawn ponderings, but only through walking the road. God’s will is not deduced, it’s encountered! We needn’t pray for an increase in understanding, but courage! St. Thérèse of Lisieux rejoiced to find that her vocation is love, as it is for us all. And though our first reaction to this may be a grand dissatisfaction at the lack of specificity, that’s exactly the point.
The Power Wheel of Christian Freedom is a gift that comes with brief instructions for its operation, but not for its use. We’re given the license, but no map. We rarely get explicit directives for God’s plan, but as much as we mistakenly like to convince ourselves that we can’t live without them, we must realize that what we actually have been given is better still: permission. We have to stop treating our natural fear of the unknown like it’s the risk of cosmic disobedience, and calm our desperation to insert mediators between ourselves and the terrible prospect of loving – there’s no manual or 12-step program that can shield us from our own mysterious freedom. There’s no “how to” in loving, there’s just loving! That’s why no two saints look alike even though they were all living the same vocation of love; human freedom takes countless shapes in living out God’s plan because the possibilities of love are as creative and inexhaustible as those of a kid with a Power Wheel.
Eventually Jimmy’s father stopped answering him, and not hearing his father’s voice he quickly grew distressed. But once he met his father’s gaze, a few smirks and winks told him that this was not the silence of disregard, but of a challenge, of approval, of the broad and wild freedom of permission. A smile spread on both faces as Jimmy sped off giggling.
So yes, discern the origins and identities of interior aspirations, and form your conscience to rejoice always in the Truth and to recognize good roads from bad, but NEVER at the expense of the journeying! Put the petal to the plastic in your Power Wheel of free will, and never stop driving for lack of explicit instructions – you’ll find them in your heart. Your Father holds your past and future secure, but the rest He’s given to you; it’s for freedom’s own sake that Christ has set us free, so rejoice in the operation of your own freedom and travel happily even in the dark. Trust in the Captain who continues navigating even through the storms of confusion you may encounter, for the very wind and waves obey Him, and His apparent silence to your “discernment” is not the silence of neglect but of anticipation – like a father watching his son on his birthday, delighting in his freedom, joying in his joy, and eager to see how he will use his present.