Free choice. This is the centermost reality of our human lives. As Sirach writes: “When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice” (Sirach 15:14). It is this truth that makes us human in the fullest sense. When God made us, he gave us both intellect and free will. He made us both body and soul. We are both temporal and mortal as well as spiritual and eternal beings. This reality makes our free choices in this life infinitely important.
Life is difficult. It is difficult because we are presented with choices, small and large, on a regular basis. And reality dictates that our every choice has its corresponding consequences. It is the burden of a mature person to make choices and, at the same time, to be willing to bear the consequences of those choices, both the good and the bad. Because we are not divine and cannot know all things, we often have to make choices with incomplete knowledge and too little experience. Sometimes we even make choices based on our own ignorances. And on many occasions we make choices in the heat of emotion. It makes no difference what our intentions might have been, the consequences for those decisions are inevitable. More importantly, they belong to us for having made that choice.
Sirach deepens our reflection on the idea of our free will by telling us: “If you choose you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will (Verse 15). This is a very clear and practical admonition for us. In order to use our free will more in line with God’s will, we must study, know, and practice obeying his commandments. The more we know them and understand them, the more possible it will be for us to make right choices, choices that are in accord with the life-giving will of God in matters both small and large. Sirach gives us an example of the power of our free choice in the largest matter we will ever encounter when he says, “Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses will be given to him.” Life and Death! There are no larger choices a person can make. God has given us this power of free choice. He has also given us the law in order to know what the right choice is, but he does not force a choice on us, either right or wrong. Our choices are completely the product of our own wills, our own power. Their consequences, be they good, bad, or ugly, no matter our intentions, belong to us alone, no one else. They are ours.
Cain comes face to face with this reality in the book of Genesis. When his offering of leftover crops was not favored by God, be became resentful and jealous. God asked him why he was feeling that way, then told him: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. It’s desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (verse 7). “But you must rule over it. That is what we must learn to do by studying and knowing the commandments, and remaining faithful to the will of God. Ultimately, then, the best use of our free will is to freely choose to obey God. ”Cain makes the wrong choice. He kills his brother, Abel, and then chooses to try to deny it. So he is punished. That is the economy of free choice in a nutshell. He is made a fugitive, a wanderer. Like the rest of us, he realizes the horror of this consequence and cries out that punishment is too hard to bear, and worries that he will be killed. He still has not accepted his responsibility for his own choices and asked for forgiveness. God marks him so that no one would kill him. But his punishment was to be cast out, away from the presence of God, sentenced to utter loneliness. This is the burden of free will. Choices have consequences.
As Christians, we know that this is true, but we also know God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness. We are sinners. We make bad choices. But we also have the power to make the choice to recognize our guilt, to repent of our failings, to turn away from them, to accept the just punishments for them. When we choose this we are returned to life. We are forgiven and given the graces we need to develop the habits necessary to more effectively recognize temptation and to choose “life” with God, rather than “death” without him.
Lord, give us the wisdom to see clearly the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, in accord with your commandments, and the courage to choose life rather than death in all that we think, say, and do. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!
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