There are of course many wonderful things, which a careful — if not devout — reader of the Holy Scriptures can observe. Yet, the most significant of these do not always gain our attention. Perhaps because God hides the greatest truths more deeply, evidently in order to stimulate the vigilance of our soul. That which is “vital”, therefore, is contained in “secondary” phrases.
Beyond any doubt, the most significant portions of the Bible refer to what is called “will”. More specifically, to “the will of God and the will of man”. When the Will of God is mentioned, then of course our attentiveness is presumably sharpened, to absorb every relevant piece of information (either out of fear and caution, or reverence and piety). Indeed, we could say in general terms that the main theme of the Revelation of God is none other than making the “divine will known to humankind.
In giving the most basic petitions of our prayer to the Most High, Christ Himself summarises them and shows a culmination in the triple supplication: “Hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done”. One does not need to look too carefully in order to understand that this is another, more analytical, formulation of the Thrice Holy Hymn (Is. 6:3), since it involves the glorification of the entire “undivided Trinity in one essence”. Christ not only exhorts us to beseech unceasingly the predominance of the divine will, but also declares that there is no higher or more sacred goal for Himself: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work” (John 4:34).
The Apostle Paul did not neglect to underline the same priority for the faithful, for whom it is not sufficient to simply be “faithful”, while being certain and confessing that “we have found the Messiah”. They must also constantly maintain in parallel the sacred uneasiness and thirst of “those who seek the Lord”. This is why he commands: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. 12:2). Moreover, he touches upon this again by demanding the almost impossible: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16). It would be superfluous to say that the sacred writers of both the Old and New Testament command the same thing according to each occasion.
It is only natural, then, that the faithful would continually care about learning the will of God through every available means, in order to fulfil it to the best of their ability. There is something however which we would not have expected, as it has never grabbed our attention as much as it should, and because it does not appear natural at first glance: the interest that God has in the “human will”.
We could even say at the outset — without being blasphemous — that God was always concerned that His will also be made known purely for the sake of the human person. We shall see in more precise terms below that, whenever God insists to communicate His will to man, He does so not in order to “subdue” or reduce him, but only to “minister” to him directly and gradually “sanctify” the human will. The statement of Christ is therefore verified that 1 have not come to be served but to serve’ (Mat. 20:28), which was not vain humble talk, but rather the most consoling and salvific realism.
We must look carefully at convincing examples from Holy Scripture, and particularly the New Testament, in order to see how paradoxical or literally “unheard of” the mutuality is between God and man, in terms of one’s interest in the “will’ of the other. However, in order to briefly underline these significant points in the Biblical narrative (and evaluate to what extent the verse of Psalms, for example, is true “surely your mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Ps. 23:6), which is perhaps the most fitting confession on the part of man of the ceaseless love of God), we need not resort directly to the creation of the human person “in the image of God”. We shall only refer to this totally charismatic “endowment” given from birth later, and perhaps then appreciate it more correctly.
We can see in the relevant passages of the New Testament that Christ does not simply speak theoretically about the value of the human will. He simultaneously shows in practice His respect for this, by behaving accordingly with the specific person before Him on each occasion. Here we shall see the most significant of these passages. Yet, we will study them separately from each other, and indeed in some hierarchical order of importance. In this way, there will be more scope for a description of each. In addition, the particular significance of each will be underlined in comparison to all the others.
Here then, are the major relevant passages.
The Lord said:
1) “Whoever wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mat.1 6:24)
This is of course the most important passage as it refers to the “founding” relationship — as we would say today of Christ with people whom He came to call to repentance. This invitation was not simply for an isolated banquet or any other ordinary event; it was for those who are invited to become partakers of the heavenly kingdom.
Given that it is an issue of “life or death”, one would reasonably expect Christ to give an explicit command for all to abide by the divine will in order to be saved, and not allow them to sway between the uncertainties of their own human will. Christ would at any rate have been justified in promoting such an expectation, not only because He is “the Son of the living God”, but also because it was He who taught how good and loving God is, Who “wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Tim 2:4). In spite of this, we see that, even at that critical moment, Christ does not impose the will of God from the outset. Rather, He first of all proposes and respects human will. And it is noteworthy that He did not say “whoever is able” or “whoever knows”, but instead “whoever wishes”. Human salvation, which depends on one’s obedience or not to the will of God, is not a matter of “power” or “knowledge”, but primarily of free will.
However, in order that the priority which is given to the human will by God Himself not be misunderstood, with the danger of driving man to arrogance or to eventual rebellion, Christ immediately adds the very significant phrase "let him deny himself”.
This new element requested by Christ of future followers clearly does not annul or overturn the previously given freedom of choice (“whoever wishes”). On the contrary, such freedom is thereby enhanced and glorified further, as it illumines its substantial content and deeper phronema. When choice demands the sacrifice even of our own self, which we have committed forever to a new way of life, only then can it be seen how unreserved, unnegotiable and unconditional, i.e. how absolutely free and brave that choice was.
The direct connection between “whoever wishes” and “let him deny himself” naturally reveals the human will to us in its most superhuman dimensions. Following this, we begin to suspect to what extent the mutuality of honour between the will of God and the will of man is not as unheard of as it may have at first appeared.
2) “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
If the first passage was particularly significant because it presents the presuppositions under which one is called to follow Christ, this second passage is no less important. For, it unreservedly defines the model according to which one must regulate one’s behaviour with fellow human beings.
The gross violation of the divine will by people, not only within the context of natural l aw (original sin), but also within the exceptionally charismatic context of the Divine Revelation of the Old and New Testament, becomes a pretext for a new “kenosis” or self-emptying of the divine will before the human will. For this reason, Christ refers here to the human will and the personal sense of honour of each person: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
At first glance, one could say that, in making people drastically realise their responsibility, Christ was taking a necessary pedagogical measure. In reality, however, this is not a pedagogical step, but another example of how the measureless love and wisdom of God knows how to turn even human faults into advantages. Recognising that the most characteristic and enduring feature of man is love of self, Christ places this, the cursed root of original sin, as a measure of one’s sensitivity to a fellow human being. The unexpected miracle then occurs which makes the “centripetal” force level with the “centrifugal”, therefore securing the “balance” between the mutually conflicting interests.
3) a) “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Mat. 15:28).
b) “‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered Him, ‘Sir I have no one’" (John 5:6).
Both these passages, as we can see, do not contain a general rule which is indefinitely directed to a multitude of anonymous people — as with the two previous ones — but rather refer to an immediate response of Christ to a specific issue of a specific person, and under clearly described conditions. This at any rate is the reason why we are contrasting them here, yet this does not mean that we do not acknowledge the greater significance of the first passage. The importance lies in the fact that, in this passage, Christ not only responds to the anguished request of the Canaanite woman, but also expresses His unreserved admiration for the faith maintained by the woman in light of His pedagogical refusal to consent immediately to her request.
In both cases, it is important for us to note the fact that Christ, while being God omniscient, does not hastily cure human pain, or any other need, on His own accord before being asked to do so, even when this is done persistently. Why would the merciful Lord do that?
The first thing which we must categorically state here is that the apparent “reluctance” of Christ to be “self appointed” in His involvement with human suffering cannot of course signify indifference or neglect of the conditions of this life which, in any case, the Christian considers to be a testing ground on which eternal salvation depends.
We should therefore search for a deeper and more spiritual reason in the interpretation of this curious behaviour. And that deeper reason could of course be none other than the benefit of the human person. Indeed, by waiting for the person to realize by himself how much he needs the assistance of God, and then ask for it, Christ indirectly guides that person through such dependence to feel closer, and therefore more at home, with the invisible and transcendent God. When this closeness is discovered through painful suffering or any other trial, then the human will can follow the will of God more readily and obey more creatively, in which case the human person truly becomes a “co-worker of God”. In this way, therefore, God does not simply test, but also honours and glorifies the human will, thereby giving prominence to the mystery of synergy between God and man.
Following all of the above, we can say by way of conclusion that we now better understand the importance of the steadfast efforts of the Church in combating monothelitism. For, if the Church accepted that, in the person of Christ, who is both God and man, the human will was totally absorbed by His incomparably superior divine will, this would be tantamount to a complete negation, refutation and frustration of the creation of the human person “in the image” of God. And this would not only be a mutilation of human nature; it would be an insult to the all-loving God Himself. For, in respecting the freedom of the human will, God is essentially respecting His own image in each person. It is therefore upon this mystical foundation of being created “in the image of God” that the “unprecedented mutuality” of honour between the will of God and the human will is based. Yet, that which also becomes apparent to the devout observer in all its startling significance is that the unheard of grace of God is transferred already to the charismatic nature of man.
from Voice of Orthodoxy, vol 19/7-8, July and August 1998
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archbiocese of Australia