Ah, freedom… that oft-invoked yet little-understood word. Clear enough to elicit our affirmation, yet cliche enough to make us skeptical. What does it mean for the human will to be free?

Some fairly simplistic thinkers suggest that freedom means being able to choose any action at any moment. That definition will suffice for many who simply want to justify their choices. But for those who are more philosophically rigorous in their thinking, there is more to freedom than meets the eye.

For what is it that actually moves us to act – to exercise our wills in a certain direction? It is our desires. And so, in a very real sense, we are free to do only what we want to do. If we have no desire to do something, we are in some sense not “free” to do it.

St. Augustine (354-430) put it this way: “I am free with respect to any action… to the extent that my wanting and choosing to perform that action are sufficient for my performing it.” In other words, desire is really the essence of freedom. Desire moves the will. In order to choose something, we must first want to choose it.

This has obvious implications for the movement of our souls toward God. God must first create in us the desire to believe in Him before we can choose to do so. In Augustine’s words, “there is no ability whatever in free will to believe, unless there be persuasion or summons towards some one in whom to believe.” Free will is neutral. It does not move in a direction unless desire spurs it to.

An even more important implication confronts those of us who would seek to follow the way of Jesus: changing what we do isn’t nearly as important as changing what we want. The goal of apprenticeship to Jesus is the transformation of our very desires. And that is no small task.

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