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Apr 01, 2017 1294 Rosanne Pappas, USA
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Why Would God Give Free Will to Teenagers?

At the age of three my first child was diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune disease. My husband and I were told he would not survive. Everything that mattered to us before that moment disappeared and we clung to God with every ounce of our being. Miraculously, my child survived. The unimaginable suffering that came with having a seriously ill child taught me that the greatest gift I could give my children was my Catholic faith. I immersed them in it with daily rosaries, monthly confessions and a family life centered on the Church. Unfortunately, out of fear and without awareness, I also became a controlling and smothering mom.

At the age of sixteen this same son began to change, throwing zingers at me about my beliefs and faith. Frightened, I limited his freedom even further. Our relationship deteriorated. One afternoon he told me he loved the writings of an atheistic philosopher and no longer believed in God or the Catholic faith. In a rage I said, “The demons are rejoicing!” He replied, “How do you know what God thinks and when did God put you in charge of my salvation?” I said, “The day I became your mother!” He stormed out of the room and slammed the door. I was left sobbing. All I could think was, “Why would God give free will to teenagers?” I got on my knees and begged for God’s intervention.

God had saved my son from a horrible deadly disease and now he was turning his back on the very God who saved him. We were growing distant. I was afraid of losing him and afraid of him losing his soul. I cried, prayed and sought counseling.

My counselor told me that my son was not the problem but that I was. Shocked and reeling from his words, I asked, “How is that possible? I’ve done everything right.” He told me that I had taken God out of the center and put myself in the center. Although I had taught my children the faith I made no room for their humanity.

I knew my counselor was right. I wanted my children to be perfect and untarnished by the world. Fear of their mistakes led me to control and control was destroying our relationships. Without realizing it, I was sending a message to my son that I did not believe in his ability to learn from his mistakes. In other words, I did not trust my son to be responsible for his own life and soul.

How did this happen? I went to Scripture and stumbled upon Genesis 3:1-7 in the Navarre Bible Pentateuch and, more specifically, the commentary. It blew me away!

“Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in His goodness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 397. “[…] Seduced by this temptation, the human mind appoints itself the centre of the universe, being thrilled with the prospect that ‘you shall be like gods’ (Genesis 3:15). So filled with love for itself, it turns its back on the love of God” (Blessed Josemaria Escrivá, Christ Is Passing By, 6).”

Let his trust in his creator die….all subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in His goodness and the human mind appoints itself the center of the universe. I was reading about myself! Adam and Eve’s sin was now my sin. Behind my seemingly good intentions was an ugly truth. In my pride I had put myself in the place of God, making it easy to judge and shame others, especially those in my own home. I did not believe in God’s goodness to take care of them or me and so fear moved me to take control. My method of control was shame. When it came to my son, my agenda intensified. I believed he was a reflection of me, making his mistakes personal—in other words, about me. I know why God made you, I know how your life should look, I must shame you for your own good because I am righteous and you are not. You need to believe the way I believe and think like I think. You need me to help you and save you and fix you. You need to be like me and do what I think you should do so you will make me look good!

I knew his mistakes and suffering would be painful to witness and I did not want to be exposed to any more pain. But his life and journey, though intertwined with mine, are not about me. They are between him and God. Yes, God has chosen me to be part of my son’s life and that means sharing in his joys and sorrows, loving him unconditionally and influencing him positively to the best of my ability. But God did not call me to fashion my son in my own image or promise there would be no pain.

God was calling me to see the depth of my pride in my unwillingness to accept the world God created. Although my thought, that I do not like free will for teenagers, seemed innocent enough, it revealed my rebellion. I had created my own little hell where I could reign. It left me isolated, full of fear and at war with the plan of God. I had become a Pharisee, pretending I was better and less sinful, all the while judging and accusing everyone around me.

So for all my good intentions of wanting my son to know and love God and be immersed in the faith, all I did was make him feel he was not worthy of belonging. My illusion was born out of the lie of my own righteousness. No one is righteous and, yet, all of us are worthy of belonging to God’s Holy Church—not because we are good, but because God is good and loves us unconditionally. The awareness of my wretchedness and desperation for God’s mercy moved me to repent. God’s unconditional love and belief in my goodness opened my heart. I knew I could not transform myself, but I also knew that with repentance and grace, God could.

Aware of my sinfulness and in need of a Savior, I lost my compunction to judge others. Resolute in my desire to trust in God’s goodness rather than my own, my fear dissipated. I could see the beauty in my son. He saw the good in everyone, no matter his or her beliefs. Although he did not preach belief in Jesus, he lived the Gospel in ways I never had. Saint Teresa of Calcutta was right, “If you judge people you have no time to love them.”

One day while we were driving in the car my son said, “You must be disappointed in me and worried about the fact that I don’t believe Jesus is God anymore, especially after the way you raised me.” I easily replied, “When I look at you I see a young man with an unbelievably good heart. You have taught me so much about love and goodness just by the way you live and treat others. What you believe is between you and God. He saves, I don’t. What I know for certain is that you are a precious gift in my life.” As I looked in his eyes I saw that he was deeply moved by my words and my belief in his goodness. Incredulously, he replied, “Really, you mean that?” I said, “Absolutely. With all my heart!”

My words were not scripted because I no longer had an agenda to save him or change him. I was at peace with God—both Creator and Savior—and confident in His mercy and unconditional love. The shift from judgment to recognition of my son’s goodness opened an avenue for connection in our relationship. I was learning that God teaches us through our humanity rather than through the denial of it. Above all, I was grateful for a renewed relationship with my son and the opportunity to share in his life as he discovered himself and his place in the world.

Several months later, my son had a personal experience that touched him deeply. The little boy who had been born with so much zeal and love for God returned to his belief in Jesus. It was a pure response to God’s personal invitation to reside in his heart. The joy and wonder I felt was indescribable. By the grace of God I let go and moved out of God’s way and He met my son right where he was.

All my worry about the negative influences, atheistic philosophers or anti-Christian writers was for naught. My son was made for God’s purpose and error can never stand against God’s truth and win. I began to wonder how God might use my son’s search for knowledge and truth for His glory. Marveling at the sudden and unexpected turn of events, I was reminded that although freedom feels scary because anything can happen, it is freedom that allows boundless opportunities for the mystery of God to be revealed. Yes, with freedom and trust in God anything can happen!

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Rosanne Pappas

Rosanne Pappas is an artist, author, and speaker. Pappas inspires others as she shares personal stories of God’s grace in her life. Married for over 35 years, she and her husband live in Florida, and they have four children.

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