Though many speak of the “free will” of human beings, this is largely a misnomer, or misapplication of the phrase. The choosing that we experience is not the same thing as the will. It is the product of a fracturing of the will and a manifestation of a fundamental loss of our integrity. The will, in its proper sense, is a function of our nature, the inner core of any human being. This will, the natural will, is not fallen (nor is our nature itself). Our nature infallibly wills what is proper to itself. Our nature is directed towards communion with God, the purpose for which it was created.
At a very deep level in our experience there is a rupture. We experience, in our choosing, a separation between the natural will, and the choosing will. Our inner integrity as human beings has been disrupted by sin and corruption. We do not see, or know the natural will (or our nature itself) in a proper manner. It seems opaque. And so we deliberate with a kind of ignorance, doing the best we can (sometimes) to find what is good, often finding that we were completely mistaken.
The free will that our culture celebrates, is primarily the simple freedom to choose – including the freedom to make the wrong choice. And, of course, in a consumer culture, the freedom to choose mostly means the freedom to shop. It is this consumer freedom that is most carefully guarded – for fear that our economic house of cards might otherwise collapse.
But this freedom is a hollow mockery of the true freedom of our natural will.
Imagine a situation in which you are a slave. You live on a very large plantation that has many and varied tasks. Your owner tells you that you may choose any job on the plantation that you desire. And, he therefore tells you that you are free. But the one thing you cannot do, is follow the true freedom of your nature, for you cannot leave the plantation. Worse still, the fact that there is a world outside of the plantation has been hidden from you.
This is an image of our own situation. We may choose countless numbers of ways to remain in bondage. But unless and until we can see the proper goal of our life and existence, we cannot freely choose it. We live our lives in an illusion created by free-choice, but always with a vague, haunting sense that something is missing – this is the echo of the natural will.
“Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” (St. Augustine)
Our culture has given us the mistaken notion that our Christian life, rightly lived, consists in a series of right choices. And thus we agonize with each major decision, or lament terribly over possible wrong decisions in our past. We must understand, however, that we will not arrive at the Kingdom of God through a series of right decisions. Something more fundamental is necessary.
That fundamental requirement is found in the depths of our being, within our very nature itself. It is acting in union with the will of our nature that is, in the end, the true expression of freedom and the entrance into the Kingdom of God.
A very simple action on our part (though difficult) constitutes just such a proper expression of freedom. It is the giving of thanks to God always and for all things. Giving thanks is not an obligation we have to God, but something that is freely given. Giving thanks is what a right relationship with God sounds like.
It is important to understand that giving thanks to God is not something that can be done under obligation. What we have received from God, is itself a free gift. If the gift is free, there can be no obligation. The free offering of thanks to God resembles God’s action in its free and voluntary character. I do not put God under obligation by giving Him thanks.
In practice, this is quite difficult. The chances and circumstances of our daily lives drive us down into despair and anger and we wonder, “Who could give thanks for this and why?” But the giving of thanks is not driven by what we owe. Were that the case, we would need only give thanks for the things we like. But true gratitude is the voice of our nature and our nature’s will. It sings the praise of its Creator and sees behind and beyond every circumstance. The giving of thanks, Eucharist in the Greek, is the proper mode of our existence.
And that song is returned as God Himself “rejoices” over us “with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). The blending of our voices, Divine and human are met with the voice of all creation in the Great Song.
We fail to understand this most fundamental aspect of our existence for we think that our feeble choices, fumbling in the dark after the next path of consumption are the stuff of our decisions and our freedom. We certainly should choose the good and refuse the evil – but apart from and above all things we should give thanks (with our whole heart). It is the cry of the very depths of our being. Every other sound is a discordant note that is bound to drift into the void. But the eucharistic song of the grateful heart slowly begins to heal everything. It heals the soul and quiets our bodies. It drives away demons and pacifies storms. It gathers all things into itself and unites them to God. This is the essential priestly act of humanity. I will give thanks.