The concepts behind What Is Free Will? may seem abstruse, and it’s easy to question the value of plumbing to such depths. But the framework also has intensely practical benefits. Here I chronicle the effects that these ideas have had in my own life.
In 1 Kings 3, God appears to the new king Solomon in a dream, and tells him to ask whatever he wants. Knowing that he was quite unprepared for the throne he has just assumed, Solomon asks for wisdom to carry out his duties. As the story goes, God was pleased with his request, and gave him not only wisdom, but all kinds of earthly riches as well.
Since I first heard the story as a child, one question I’ve repeatedly asked myself is, what would I have asked for in Solomon’s situation? If I didn’t already know the “right answer” from the story, would I still ask for wisdom, or would I ask for a sweet car and a million bucks?
Growing up and getting better at looking at my own motives, I slowly came to the conclusion that whatever I asked for ought to be intrinsic and not external – which is to say, something with permanent benefits, and not simply a one-time boon. So I became reasonably confident that I wouldn’t simply ask for riches or the like. But would I have asked for abilities or powers with which to achieve those things anyway?
Later still – around the same time that I was thinking about self-interest frameworks of free will – I came to the conclusion that of all intrinsic abilities, knowledge – particularly omniscience – was the best of the lot. Had I infinite knowledge (and the capacity to make sense of it, of course), indecision would be eliminated and my will would be completely free to act in my own long-term best interests – that is, to set the highest good (God) as my goal and strive for that in the best manner possible without becoming encumbered by distractions (since I would know enough to make value judgements on what is and is not important towards that goal). I decided that, both knowing the story and imagining I did not, I would now ask for knowledge and the capacity to make sense of it.
More recently, reading through things like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and thinking further into the issue of free will as the expression of one’s beliefs, values, and knowledge, I came to realize that the man with infinite heavenly and earthly knowledge would conclude that most of that knowledge was irrelevant. The previous idea of infinite knowledge freeing one from distractions contains the seeds of this revelation. Thus, all the knowledge necessary for a truly free will consists of: 1) the meta-knowledge of what is important (good) and what is not, and 2) factual knowledge of these important things. This knowledge is God. Thus, given these conclusions, I’ve come to the conclusion that my answer would honestly be “I want to know You, Lord”.
Reaching these conclusions through the self-interest framework of free will is the first time I can honestly say that I have been, as Tozer puts it, desperate for the highest will of God. The percolation from knowledge to belief that God is the ultimate good and that most everything I would otherwise strive for is a distraction from that highest good started out in me (and continued for quite a while) as a meta-desire – that is, the desire to desire God – the state of knowing and believing you should desire to know God and it is in your best interests to do so, but not yet having that earnest desire. Though this is perhaps easier to have and is insufficient in itself, I’ve learned it was an important first step, as God is faithful and will not ignore the plea of His children (Matt. 7:7-11). Over time and since that conclusion, this has translated into an honest desire to know God, the better to live my life for His glory and my own final good.