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“Ask a Priest: If God Has a Plan, How Do We Have Free Will?”
Q: I don’t understand how people can talk about “God’s plan” for us when we all have free will. God doesn’t control what we do, so how can we maintain his “plan”? When bad things or disappointments happen, people say not to worry because it just must not have been part of God’s plan. We make choices every day that impact the course of our lives — where we go to school, where we live, where we work, activities we participate in, places we go, people we interact with, etc. All of these greatly impact the course of our lives, and all of these are the result of our free will. I can’t find any peace in believing or trusting in God’s plan when I know that each and every day my actions and the actions of others can be destroying what God might have planned. -A.H.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: When we talk about God’s plan for us, we shouldn’t think his plan is like a computer program, spelled out to the last detail. Rather, his plan is more like a game plan. That is, he gives us the rules of the game, the Ten Commandments, for instance.
Let’s use an American football metaphor. We have free will in the sense that we can “call the plays.” But we need to respect the rules of the game. If we run out of bounds or move the ball arbitrarily, we violate the rules and thus are subject to a penalty.
Now, some quarterbacks are more astute than others. They read reality better. They see opportunities open up as the game progresses. This is why quarterbacks lead their teams to higher scores. But like life, a football game is prone to unexpected events: a player gets injured, the weather changes drastically, etc. Life too has its vagaries. But we still need to follow the rules.
Now, God who knows everything past, present, and future knows how the “game” will turn out. Yet his foreknowledge should not be confused with his predestining everything. It is like watching a car in winter sliding down the street after passing over a patch of ice. You know that the car will hit a tree within seconds, yet your ability to foresee the crash doesn’t cause the crash.
As to the mistakes we make, well, we need to remember God’s mercy. He is always willing to forgive our faults, and he has the ability to bring something out of good. Such is the providence of a loving Father in heaven. This providence neither hinders our free will, nor is it restricted unduly by it. (For more reading, see Abandonment to Divine Providence.)