God as Author

  What Fiction Tells Us About Free Will

By Stephanie Ismer

I believe that all the things we experience in life tell us something about God. One of the most profoundly clear examples of this that I have yet seen has come through my attempt, over the past few years, to write a science fantasy novel. I still remember the day it started: while writing a scene involving my protagonist, he seemed to suddenly come alive. I tried to make him take a certain action, and it was as if he looked up from the page and said "Come on. I wouldn't do that!"

Now if that sounds crazy, I apologize, but I think other authors will understand. Once you give a character life, they seem to have been given free will. They won't do just anything I ask them to. But how can a figment of my imagination have free will? How can they defy my instructions?

Ultimately, as the author, I am in control of each character's destiny. They will wind up exactly where I want them to wind up, and they will have the experiences I plan for them. But along the way, it feels as if they somehow contribute to the development of their own character. How can this be? I have created them; they are a figment of my imagination. So why does it feel like they act independently? After all, I am their author and I make the rules. But I think the fact that I have made rules is the key. I have created the characters, not with free will, but with a nature that they must follow — even if they must disobey me or harm themselves in the process.

I believe there is a solidity to my created beings that does not allow me to bend them into any shape I wish. The very act of creation brings with it certain rules. For example, if my protagonist has been created to be an introverted type of person, I cannot suddenly make him the life of the party. If my protagonist is a farm boy and he meets a city girl, I cannot make them automatically understand one another. There is going to be a certain amount of conflict and misunderstanding because they are different people with differing viewpoints. In order for the characters I've created to be real people, they must act according to their created nature. No influence of mine or of other characters will make them behave in a way that is contrary to their nature.

Thus, they seem to have a free will. But in reality they are simply behaving as they were created to behave, regardless of outside pressures to do the opposite. So, as the author, what are my choices for guiding their behavior?

Persuasion. I can attempt to introduce factors into the story that will tempt my characters to do what is contrary to their nature. The threat of some disaster, perhaps, or maybe the promise of pleasure. If the reward / fear is great enough, there is a chance that they will behave in ways they wouldn't normally behave to get the reward or to avoid pain. The problem here becomes one of authenticity: has the character truly changed? Or have I only succeeded in changing his behavior? Once the pressure is gone, will he revert back to his nature?

Control. I can exert a pressure on my characters that is too strong to resist. I could torture them, give them mind-altering drugs, or brain-wash them to get them to do something contrary to their nature. But again, the problem of authenticity remains. Plus, the reader will feel even more convinced of the character's true nature and will root for them to find a way back to being themselves. Control is useless when it comes to developing character. All it will do is create a villain and strengthen the character's resolve.

Regeneration. I can create a new nature inside my character and then make that new nature emerge, as a butterfly from a cocoon, therefore changing his behavior. But I must change his nature entirely first if I want him to behave differently. This can be done positively or negatively. For example, if my character is a selfish man, I must create a) circumstances that will help him see his selfishness and b) a new nature that despises his selfishness. If he is a coward, I must a) take away the persuasion or control that contributes to his cowardice and b) help him to discover the heroic nature that I have created beneath.

It should be obvious what kind of analogy I am drawing here. God is the author and we his characters. And when it comes to our relationship with God, we are born with a sinful nature that does not desire Him. But in order to effect salvation, He must get us to act in a way that is contrary to that sin nature — to repent of sin and believe in Jesus. How does He accomplish this?

First off, persuasion does not work. A person cannot be talked into loving God. The person may feign love for God because of fear of hell or the promise of a better life on earth. But if his true nature is unloving toward God, those pressures will change his behavior only. Control will not work either. God is not evil, nor is He interested in automatons. He wants people who truly love Him, not those who are mindlessly controlled.

God wants His people to love Him with warm hearts. But we often take this argument too far. When we equate authentic love necessarily with free will, we miss the truth. When God regenerates us and puts a spirit in us that loves Him, it is a far cry from robotics. God is not "programming" us to act in a fashion that is contrary to our behavior. He is changing what we are — making us entirely new creatures with a new nature that desires Him (2 Corinthians 5:17).

If we accept the idea that we have no choice regarding our creation, our birth or our death, we should be able to accept the idea that rebirth is a creative act. But we fear it. When I say that God has created love for Him in human hearts, there a tendency for us to think of that love as somehow inauthentic. God created us. He created love itself. He is Love (1 John 4:7-8). So what makes us think that any faith or love that does not originate within man's unchanged nature is somehow false? Love for God must originate with God because all things originate with Him.

God does not force, coerce or persuade us to do what is contrary to our nature. He changes our nature. Then, He creates circumstances that develop the newly-created heroic nature lying beneath the surface. This is called sanctification (Hebrews 10:10,14). He gently removes the blinders of our old nature so that we can see the truth about sin, about the world, and about ourselves. And then He guides us through our story to a happy ending (Phil. 1:6).

Image Credit: Rubin Starset; "Writing"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Got-Questions?

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Published 3-6-12; Revised on 4-6-15