I have a friend who is a biologist and she is also an atheist. She’s an atheist because she’s convinced there is no such thing as “free will.” And she believes this because of her science. To her, every choice we think we make is actually just certain chemical reactions to different stimuli. I know, sad, isn’t it. And yet, I know some theologians who would agree with her about “free will.”
And yet, we humans have clear examples of choices that get us in trouble and choices that get us out of trouble. So, maybe it isn’t our chemicals that are messed up but our ability to choose well.
Look at our lesson in Genesis 7:6-9:
Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah.
Once again, we are hearing about St. Noah and his singular obedience to God. We know the story well of Noah and the Flood, but sometimes I think we think we are so familiar with the story we miss some very important insights. Maybe that’s why the wisdom of the Church calls us to read these passages during these days. Now remember, Noah is BEFORE Moses and the giving of the Law, but, already, God is talking about “clean” and “unclean” animals to His creation. Of course, this started back in the Garden as the Creator sets His Humanity in a perfect setting to LEARN how to grow in intimacy with Him and each other, and one of those elements necessary for Adam and Eve to learn and mature into this relationship was choice. God knew it was dangerous, but He was determined to make us like Himself and He is FREE! And being able to choose well leads to true freedom!
So, God commands Noah to take onto the Ark clean and unclean beasts. The “clean” animals are good for food and sacrifice. The “unclean” animals have their own purposes. But the main purpose here is to, once again, give Humanity the invitation to mature by exercising their spiritual “muscles,” their weakened wills, to choose rightly; to choose obedience over expediency or immediate gratification. This remedy to our weaknesses, our untamed passions, is meant for our salvation and maturity.
And this remedy is the strengthening of our will to keep turned towards God. For the Orthodox, it isn’t our common human “nature” that is wounded as much as it is our common human “will” that has been handicapped by a world where it is easy to sin and hard to choose right. Our weakened will is constantly hampering us in the primary work of we persons created in God’s Image to be made into His likeness. And this enfeebled will, what my grandmother called her broken “want to,” is at the heart of our constant struggles to even want to become like God. It is my will, my “want to” that has to have the spiritual “medical care” of the disciplines of the Faith to clean off the piles of bad choices I make and exercise the “muscle” of my will to long for God alone.
Today, don’t you see the power and the wisdom of the disciplined Orthodox life? It isn’t God trying to “ruin your fun” or God arbitrarily making “rules” you can’t keep. All of that nonsense can be traced back to the first lie in the Garden where the serpent only needed to create doubt in the mind of Humanity about God’s intentions and purpose to get Humanity to “jump the gun” before they were ready. No, the Father is good and He loves you. All these disciplines, though they appear hard and they can be difficult, especially in a world that calls you a fool for doing all this religious labor, are all meant to exercise and strengthen your will to want God above all other wants. Practice this Faith and allow God to strengthen your “want to” and you’ll be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Our Lenten Retreat theme “Taming the Passions” at the Annunciation Cathedral in Baltimore this weekend is going to focus on how the disciplines of the Church strengthen our will to choose well. You’re invited to join us! March 10th at 9 AM! Go to www.goannun.org for more information.