“Ask a Priest: If God Has a Plan, How Do We Have Free Will?”

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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.)

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  1. Sir, according to your answer, we can do anything because of free will, and yet end up in God’s plan? According to your analogies, foreseeing is an ability of God yet he doesn’t stop people getting murdered, robbed,etc. If you say it’s like knowing that the car might crash, won’t you do anything about it? Moving back: we can do anything because of free will, and yet end up in God’s plan. In what universe is that free will?

    1. Dear Alex,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I don’t think I said that we can do anything because of free will. There are natural limits to our abilities. A man couldn’t, for instance, decide to jump over a 20-story building. It is beyond his capability. Yet he still has free will within a wide range of activities.

      As for “God’s plan”: Theologians have distinguished between God’s perfect will (for instance, he doesn’t want anyone to sin) and his permissive will (for instance, he allows people to sin, though he also offers them a chance at repentance).

      His offering mercy in the face of human sins is part of his plan in the chance that he can bring something good out of something bad — the bad in this case being people who misuse their free will and sin.

      Perhaps another way of approaching your question is this: Our free will isn’t unlimited, yet we do have a lot of leeway in day-to-day life. This is why two babies — one Adolf Hitler, the other Mother Teresa of Calcutta — can end up leading very different lives. They use their free will in very different ways.

      God, of course, has foreseen the coming of Hitler and Mother Teresa from all eternity. Mysteriously, he allowed the atrocities of Hitler to happen. While he didn’t will those atrocities, he did use them to bring out some good.

      This might not be a very satisfying answer, I know. The problem of evil is one of the hardest to figure out.

      Suffice it to say, though, that we still have free will. We aren’t predestined to do this or that in the sense that we are robots.

      Certainly God’s grace works in us to bring out good. Why some people seem to get more grace than other people, is part of the way God distributes his gifts. Again, there is a bit of a mystery to this. Still, there is a hierarchy built into the world; likewise there is a hierarchy in the way God distributes his gifts.

      I hope some of this helps.

      God bless,

      Father Edward McIlmail, LC
      Ask A Priest


  2. If God is omnipotent(of a deity) having unlimited power; able to do anything.) he can see into our future from the moment we’re born to the moment we die. Doesn’t that mean our future is predetermined and whatever we do God already saw? That means our free will is only an illusion and we are just playing out what God already saw (Gods plan). Or do we have a choice to make our own future and whatever the outcome may be God will change his mind and say “that’s what i meant.”
    My second question is if God is omnipotent can see his own future? In that case wouldn’t he know his own future and his own actions and there for he doesn’t have free will? If so what drives God to be God. He can have everything but then again wanting is a human quality God doesn’t poses.

    1. Dear Joshua,

      Thanks for your note. My analogy about “Star Wars” was strictly about your foreknowledge of the ending; the movie will end the same way each time you see, but not because of your foreknowledge.

      But let’s shift to the Almighty.

      Let’s just say that God, who sees everything, has already decided ahead of time the kinds of graces he will give us.

      Some people will freely choose to reject those graces. God foresees that, but that doesn’t mean people are forced to reject him. That wouldn’t make sense, since that would imply God’s foreknowledge is forcing people to sin. If they had no free will, they couldn’t sin.

      But we do know that hell is a possibility, which implies free will, since only people who freely reject God end up there.

      Again, remember God is outside of time. He sees everything at once. But seeing everything doesn’t take away the free will that he has given us.

      For more reading, see the Catholic Answers piece at https://www.catholic.com/index.php/qa/why-gods-foreknowledge-doesnt-negate-free-will.

      God bless,

      Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

  3. Can God take away our free will if he ask him?because jesus once said whatever we ask in his father will grant it!sometimes i endup doing something i dont want to do and i know its sinful!our free will might always lead us to sin !2 years ago i almost died but God saved me ever since i have been trying to follow the part of our lord jesus because hell is horrible but nomatter what i do eventually i comit sin then i feel burden in my heart and after i confess my sins i feel this peace in my heart!i love God and i dont want to disobey him,that was reason i askedif he could take away this free will and take control of my life so i make the right decisions!any advice will help.

  4. The car sliding on ice doesn’t help your claim. It actually is a detriment. You see, the car isn’t necessarily going to hit the tree. You don’t actually have foreknowledge of the event. You are making a prediction. God, however, is not making predictions. He knows everything that will happen. He makes everything happen, whether in the moment changes or whether he started it all in the beginning. Therefore there cannot be free will as God himself has set us down a deterministic path that our free will and predictions cannot stop or change.

  5. Everything is set in stone . If we had free will to choose, wouldn’t we all choose to be good, healthy, rich and successful? Do people choose to lose their house,kids, family and job?

  6. Everything happens for a reason?
    In that aspect of house, job, people can put themselves in that shape in life from decisions. In their mind they have psychological chosen to end up like that mentally.

    In the aspect on loosing kids, and family. Well just like the football metaphor. Life will have its own vagaries.

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