Power restrained is a demonstration of love. I’m thinking about free will. Not all Christians or even humans believe in the concept (whether intentionally or subconsciously) so it’s worth exploring why it’s an important concept in Adventist theology. The nature of man (7), the great controversy (8), the millennium (27), Christ’s ministry (24) and possibly others, are all doctrines that rely on the acceptance of free will as part of our beliefs. In some ways it is the best explanation of the character of God being love that we have.
My toddler has will and independence in abundance. She’ll look you dead in the eye as you tell her not to do (or plead with her to do) something and appear to be listening and understanding. She’ll nod. And then she will do the exact opposite of what you want. It’s frustrating. Hypothetically, if I chose to, I could force her to do it. She has no power against my strength, size and speed. At this point in her life she is almost powerless—except as she exercises her new-found power of choice. And so I’m faced with a struggle of my own. Wanting to be punctual, knowing what comes next, sometimes better than the thing she refuses to let go of. Do I force her to do it for the sake of expediency? Can I find a way to bring her around? To use force would result in the desired outcome for me in the short term. But how would she feel about me if I repeatedly take her agency away and hurt or berate her into compliance? She may become outwardly compliant, but it may also break her spirit or damage our relationship.
She’s a child, she doesn’t know what’s good for her. Right? Maybe not. My love restrains me. I think of forming her future in a way that will have longer term benefits than short-term expediency. Of course, I fall short. My own stress or impatience cloud my vision and I act in ways I’m not proud of later. This is the eternal struggle of parenthood.
Yet this tension, this dilemma I face, is an imperfect window into the mind of God. As a parent loves and wants to protect and guide their children, without squashing their spirit or making them slaves or robots, so even God’s limitless power is restrained by His limitless love. I say restrained because it is a choice God makes, to restrain His power. What is sometimes seen as silence, or a lack of intervention, is a restraining of power. It is God allowing human choices and agency to play out. But isn’t it unloving to allow something bad to happen to someone when you have the power to change the outcome? There is certainly some truth to that statement. And yet the unknowns mount up quickly. Where does my force, exercised to protect, ever stop? Indeed, if my force slights or hurts another, they carry that hurt with them—to retaliate or they pass it on to others—and continues the cycle of violence and brokenness.
Two things must be true for free will to be a valid philosophical stance: 1) God is active and involved (not the distant deity of the Deist) yet 2) He respects our agency and limits His involvement to honour our free will.
On the surface these things seem opposed to one another but as I navigate the waters of parenting it makes some sense. Infinite love that desires autonomy and agency, growth and independence, restrains from using force, coercion and manipulation to control. True love allows the possibility of rejection.
Authority using manipulation, coercive “love” is anti-Christ. God is love. And the ultimate expression of His love is free will. He has the power to destroy sin, but is “not willing that any should perish”. Jesus is mocked on the cross for not getting down and . . . the reality is He could have. He had the power, there was nothing stopping Him except the exercising of His choice, to put love for humankind first. He did not consider equality with God something to “be grasped or asserted” (Philippians 2:6, AMP).
This has ramifications for how we work, parent, teach, chair meetings, contribute in Sabbath school, associate with others—every sphere of life. If we are to be disciples of Jesus who disciple others, we must demonstrate His love, which is to restrain our power and honour others, not strive for our own benefit or glory and not manipulate, control or coerce. Indeed we must make ourselves nothing, “taking on the very nature of a servant” (v7).