free will

Choice, Repentance, and Our Need for Jesus

The year was 1998. The news was all headlines reporting the president’s sexual indiscretion, and how his lie about it could cost him the presidency. The details were messy revealing more information than I cared to know. I was 26, fresh out of college, and in my first real job. A young Christian taking in what was happening. As the information unveiled and I tried to navigate it with new faith, I remember talking with my roommate about the importance of a moment.

20180827_163135.jpg

That moment, for which a president risked going to trial, had a before and after. I imagined time rewound like in a movie where the footage goes back through a myriad of interactions, thoughts, and choices. And pause at a place before those headlines had a reason for existing. A time where instead of an indiscretion covered by the 6 o’clock news, there is only a moment. A set of minutes with a choice to make. A moment that once allowed to happen, once pursued, would culminate in hard and hurtful consequences.

That moment inevitably was followed by many more. The reel continued with many other small choices along the way after that. This shed light for me. Reverse engineering that headline, helped me see beyond the harm of misused responsibility and the weight of the consequences, the monumental importance of what we can do with a small fraction of time.

A sobering realization hit me then and hits me even more so now that I’m older: I am no different than that president. I may not have engaged in inappropriate physical contact with a subordinate, but I too face choices every single day which at the time seem infinitesimal in size, and yet carry great potential for harm. And I don’t always choose wisely, even though I know better. This recalls Paul’s famous words, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15 ESV).

The idea of choice is so central to humanity – free will; which is tightly bound to its limitation – sinful to the core. We are beings with the freedom to will our choices, all the while our choices stem from a sinful heart. Our very disposition is toward sin. So where to from here?

I remember as a young college student what impacted my faith the most was to watch people live regular lives in a radically different way. For example, this story: when my friend and his siblings were small, his father punished the dog for a gate opened in the backyard. The kids were upset too. After learning the dog hadn’t done it, he apologized to the kids and to the dog in front of the kids, explaining he had been unfair to him. Showing no one was too insignificant to apologize to, and no wrong too small that the opportunity to make right should be passed.

It’s a very small example that made a deep dent in terms of how a life in Christ looks different. The father modelled a heart of humility for his small children, and for me, years later through the telling of the story. Which no doubt, was part of years of intentional living on the part of my friend’s parents, to shape their faith.    

Last year, during a sermon, the pastor, who was in the army for several years before attending seminary, explained the term repent. It was a revelation for me who loves words. Repent is used as a military term, he clarified, to signal a troop to turn and walk in a different direction. As he marched across the stage, he illustrated by stopping to shift the direction of his steps. Literally, repent looked like turning away from where he was heading to walk in a different direction. That’s an image worth a thousand headlines.

This paints a picture of immeasurable grace and hope for me. I think back to that situation splattered all over the media back in 1998. I think of my own seemingly “smaller”, certainly more private, and equally harmful sin, which can and will manifest itself throughout the thousands of minutes that comprise a day’s moments. All those tiny choices I make every day. From what I will eat for lunch, to rolling my eyes and be rude to the person on the counter preparing my order. The picture is both confronting and comforting.

The free will I use to roll my eyes also grants me the opportunity to choose to apologize for my rudeness to someone who for minimum wage is helping put together my meal. I can choose to give my husband kindness in the form of a quiet restful evening or tell him I’m sorry for being short with him for needing something that doesn’t suit me. It’s so hard to turn around and will myself to walk in a different direction. Yet I am called to repent.  

I see the next hundreds of minutes ahead of me, filled with moments where I get to use my free will. I imagine some will be non-moral choices like what to shoes to wear. But I also know that all of them are pregnant with potential for sin. I can pick certain shoes merely out of envy, for example.

This is where Paul’s words really resonate. If ever my utter need for Jesus is made clear to me is in this tension. Knowing better yet choosing worse. Knowing what is worse and still walking right to it. Friends, this is what we need that our free will can’t do for us. To be saved from ourselves we need help from outside of ourselves. We need Jesus.

To make wise decisions when we don’t want to. To change the direction where our wrong choices take us. To receive the grace each small set of minutes holds along with our capacity to sin, we need Jesus.