So, why are you who you are?
How did you become the person that you have become?
When choices did you make, what decisions affected the course of your life and brought you to this very moment?
Or is what has made you into the person that you are a result of forces and factors that have had little or no connection with your own choices and decisions?
One of the most complex and enduring questions in the realms of philosophy, psychology, sociology and religion – and one that has not only endured across the ages, but continues to be at the heart of contemporary artistic and ethical discussions – concerns the issue of how we, as human beings, understand the role of choice in the journeys of our lives.
In various realms of philosophy and theology, such questions are sometimes wrestled with in relation to the concept of free will, or determinism. Are we truly free to make decisions, as an act of our own will, or are the choices that we make simply the result of determinants that are beyond our control, and sometimes even beyond our awareness?
In the realms of spirituality and theology, such questions lead into complex conundrums about the role of divine sovereignty in relation to human freedom. Can we simultaneously hold to a belief in a God who is sovereign and omnipotent, and to the belief that humans have free choice?
Our own Presbyterian heritage, for many years, was jokingly caricatured as a tradition which elevated the idea of predestination into a central tenet, with all of the strange and confusing issues that such a belief engenders. That is, if some are predestined to glory and salvation in life, through no choice or actions of their own, while others are predestined to suffering and destruction, through no choice or actions of their own – well, then there is no point in suggesting that any of us have much choice over anything, and some suggest that trying to act ethically is not all that important since it makes little difference anyways.
But these complex questions about free will, human choice and determinism are not just philosophical and theological dilemmas. In the modern world, the so-called “nature vs. nurture” discussion essentially seeks to determine what role external forces have played upon our lives, and on the choices that we think that we have made about our lives.
That is, although we might think that we are making independent and autonomous choices, it is suggested that we sometimes minimize or overlook the role that invisible factors such as the environment in which we grew up, or the influences of our parents and caregivers, or the cultural and socio-economic circumstances of our early lives have played on these supposedly free choices – in other words, how has the way that we have been nurtured affect us? In a similar manner, some suggest that many of our choices are shaped by unconscious and inherited genetic or biological factors – that our nature influences us more than we realize. And sometimes, it is in the most extreme situations that these issues take on a practical dimension. If a person, for example, acts in a particularly anti-social or even sociopathic manner, is their behaviour attributable to nature – that is, to the internal, even genetic factors that have shaped them; or to nurture, that being the circumstances and experiences to which they have been exposed? And if their behaviour can be shown to be due to factors over which they had no control should they be held entirely responsible for their choices and actions?
Such questions are even commonly explored in the modern entertainment industry. A host of recent television shows and movies have wrestled with these enduring paradoxes about the role that choice and free will play in human life. Science fiction movies love to imagine different time lines, and even multiple universes, that emerge from different decisions that a character makes at key moments in their lives. We have all seen those movies in which a character makes a choice, and their subsequent history is played out in light of that decision; or stories in which a character is given the opportunity to travel back into the past to undo or change a specific decision that they had made that had consequences on their lives. But in that moment, how would their choice affect their life, and sometimes alter all of the lives of those around them? What role and what consequences would a different choice make?
So whether it is the nature vs. nurture debate, or philosophical discussions about free will or determinism; or theological conundrums created by the doctrines of divine sovereignty and predestination; or the sci-fi imaginings of multiple universes or time travel; what rests at the heart of all such discussions is the simple question of what potential role, if any, do our own choices have on the course of our lives.
And these are not new questions. In fact, they are as old as recorded history – wrestled with in stories past through oral cultures, and even in the pages of Scripture.
It is this question that lies at the heart of the passage that is suggested, for this particular Sunday, from Deuteronomy.
The passage is set close to the end of Deuteronomy, which is the fifth book in the Bible, and the concluding book in the Jewish Torah, or Pentateuch. The scene, in the narrative, is set in the final moments of Moses’ life, shortly before his death and just as the people are about to enter the Promised Land after their long journey in the wilderness.
But even though these words are set in that time before their settling in the land, they also advised the people about what they should do if they found themselves exiled and dispersed from the land. What steps could they take to successfully establish themselves in the land, and what steps should they take to restore their life if they wandered from the blessings that God had prepared for them – blessings that they were about to enjoy?
And what they were being invited, called, even commanded to do was simple.
Make an intentional decision. Make a choice. In this story, it is clearly suggested that humans have agency, they have the ability to make choices about the way that life will unfold.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…”
They were being called upon to make the decision, to consciously and intentionally make a choice for life and love – a love that would be demonstrated in faithfulness, in obedience, in good relation with God and would, by consequence, allow them to experience the fullness of God’s blessing on their lives.
But they would not be forced to make such a choice. God would not force the decision upon them. The dire consequences of making the opposite decision – what the Deuteronomist summed up as making the choice for death and adversity – was also theirs to make.
This passage offers an intriguing opportunity to reflect upon the biblical understanding of the relationship between choice and obedience.. That is, we often view adherence to the teachings of the Bible – the Ten Commandments, for example, or the teachings of Christ – as dutiful obligations that place limitations on our freedom and on our enjoyment of life, as humans.
But today’s passage makes the opposite case. Namely, the passage suggests that the choice to live faithfully, the decision to seek to live with obedience and faithfulness in our relationship with God, is not a choice that leads to a joyless and controlled existence, but rather it is a choice that leads towards life, love, freedom, enjoyment, blessing, security, and a fulfilled and fulfilling life.
And, just as this passage not only anticipated how the people should live when they entered the land, but also advised them how to find the pathway to restoration if they found themselves in exile, dispersed, dislocated and wandering, so too we are wise to remember that the passage does not assume that the choice is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Which is good for us to remember, since we all have such moments – times when we feel frustrated, confused, dislocated, cut off from the security and stability that God promises. Sometimes, such times are a consequence of decisions that we have made, sometimes such times are due to decisions that have been made by others that have had consequences in our lives. Life can be difficult, but there is peace that can be found even in great difficulty. And in the hard moments, we do well to recall this passage, to remember its challenging yet inspiring invitation, and to respond.
And to remember that the God who offered this invitation, the God who called and commanded us to live in love, in obedience and in faithfulness, did not do so out of a desire to limit our lives or to make us mindless automatons, but rather because God loves us and longs for us to know the fullness and joy of this life that we have been given.
And even when we make mistakes, even when we make bad choices, there is hope. Because the good news that draws us together, as followers of Christ, is that the difficult consequences of our lives – whether as a result of our own choices or the decisions of others – do not have the final claim upon us. There is always grace, forgiveness, new life, new birth, new hope.
And so, I would invite all of us to hear these ancient words, yet again –not simply as old words on a page in an old book – but rather as a call to us, an invitation to us, to make the choice for life and for love.
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…”
Which simply means that each and every one of us has a choice to make about how we will live this beautiful, sacred gift called life.
For the love of God, let’s choose well.