For 34 years I’ve shared my story, the story about how I became a born-again believer in Jesus. The climactic moment came in the fall of 1979, weeks before my twenty-fourth birthday. Feverishly desiring to create something beautiful with words, I had been working on a novel for two and a half years. The novel was my god, which was why my true God, our true God, the Lord Jesus, came to me and said verbatim: Cliff, you have been playing with Me long enough. If you want Me, burn the novel.
The pivotal word that the Lord spoke to me, the word upon which my eternal destiny hinged, was the simple word “if.” If I wanted truth, if I wanted to know God, I had to burn the novel. No other option existed: it was either I do it or I don’t.
Now, I have for decades read arguments about compatibilism, determinism, hard determinism, indeterminism, and other theories regarding free will. I know Benjamin Libet’s experiments, which suggest that people make unconscious choices to do things even before being aware of the choice. That is, the motor activity in the brain needed to perform an action fires even before people are conscious of choosing the action. And I know about Clarence Darrow’s famous argument that fate, heredity, and environment, not their own free will, caused two young men from wealthy families, Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb, to murder 14-year-old Bobby Franks. And I’ve read about how quantum theory has impacted the free-will debate.
Yet whatever mysteries remain, I believe in free will for two reasons. The first is Scripture, which becomes nonsense without it. Second, whatever else I know about the night I burned my novel, I know that it was my own choice.
And that’s what so scares me. My eternal destiny hung on my own choice? Having already been drifting into the occult, having already experienced “astral travel,” had I not made the free choice to burn the novel, I would have buried myself so deep into that evil I’d have never escaped. Looking back and seeing just how consequential that choice was, I shudder, thinking: Lord, with my eternal destiny at stake—why didn’t You just make me do the right thing?
How could the most important decision in our lives be left up to ourselves, we who in our broken clay and misfiring minds so often make wrong choices? Though in a different context, atheist Jean-Paul Sartre was onto something when he wrote: “Man is condemned to be free.”
Even after 34 years I remember the overpowering realization that during my encounter with the Lord I had free choice to push God away from me and continue on as before. “If you want Me . . .” My destiny hinged on that “if,” the pivot on which a mere different thought, a mere different inclination, could have swung me into oblivion. What a terribly frightening truth.
Yet it is the truth. God’s government is founded on love; and love—to be love—has to be freely given or else it’s not love. That’s why, whether in Eden at “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17), or with me in that room 34 years ago in Gainesville, Florida, free choice remains a fundamental of God’s universe.
Yet this sacred gift, without which we would be shells of ourselves, more like silicon zeros and ones instead of flesh and blood, came with a high cost. Paul wrote about the “grace . . . given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Tim. 1:9),which meant that, even before we were created, the Lord knew that our misuse of freedom would send Jesus to His atoning death on the cross. Yet God still created us, and created us free, despite knowing what our abuse of that freedom would cost the Godhead.
Freedom is a wonderful and terrible truth. Wonderful because only with it can our moral potential be fulfilled; terrible because once abused, it brought a problem so great only the cross could solve it.
Even amid the ravages of sin, free will remains. Each one of us chooses our own eternal destiny. Does that thought terrify you?