Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
What Early Friends shared with their Puritan antagonists was a theology in which natural human will was an evil to be overcome. Our own will was innately in rebellion against God -- was capricious, heedless, insatiable -- downright wilful -- and the bulk of George Fox's contemporaries agreed that it could only lead to trouble.
In Puritan systems, not even Jesus could make that will good, but merely achieve posthumous forgiveness for the inevitable lapses.
Quakers objected that this belief encouraged sin ("You know you're going to; just remember to be sorry and afraid of retribution; then keep on praying to Jesus.") If Christ couldn't enable a person to stop sinning altogether, what good was that?
To the Puritans, the belief that anyone might have been cured of sinfulness was a dangerous doctrine they should suppress by any means the law provided.
But not even their Quaker rivals would argue that people were naturally good. The only way to immunize a person against sin -- was to kill their natural will so that Christ's will could replace it.
In parent/child interactions, there's a phenomenon called 'counterwill', in which a child (or adult) notices that someone is trying to push them around, instinctively resents it -- and resists. The term evidently goes back to Otto Rank, but is most used by people concerned with loving attachment -- or lack of it -- between parents and children. The lack itself is nothing new -- but seems most prevalent where parents have been separated from a child at an early age, either physically, or emotionally absent due to sheer situational stress. And that seems a common feature of life these days...
And as we know, it is also a condition that afflicts adults. The protagonist of _Notes From Underground_ called it 'spite', but clearly he was talking about the human determination to resist perfectability, simply because one wishes to -- to refuse to let oneself be pushed around by Reason. We call that 'Freedom', and consider it a good thing -- but how many times has this unseen force suddenly popped up right in the midst of our latest plan for finally Changing Our Ways, Doing Things Right, Getting our life Back On Course, Accomplishing Something... and confronted us once again with the fact that we'd really rather not?
In our childhood it protected us from being crushed by parental concerns and ambitions -- but when we imagine ourselves quite grown up, there it is protecting us from ourselves. St Paul knew it well, and considered it a sad reminder of our sinful state.
There's a pretty old metaphor linking Divine/human interactions to parent/child relations. I'm not even the first to use the term 'counterwill' to describe the attitude we take towards God.
What's new is that modern pyschologists, considering only human parents and children, now see a positive side to this condition, reasoning that such a persistent widespread trait must have a purpose or it would have long ago been bred out of us.
They've thought of two purposes. First, it inclines children to resist orders from unfamiliar adults. Obedience had better apply only to people one knows and trusts.
Secondly, a modern adult has to be able to separate himself from his parents and their tradition. This must have been an advantage for thousands of years now, as so many loyalties and ways of life have suddenly appeared, loomed large before us, disappeared behind in our ongoing rush.
Suppose it also serves a purpose between God and human beings. Suppose that "The Good I intend" really isn't "The Good God has in mind for me"; and the counterwill that persistently sabotages my efforts is merely trying to tell me something.
It may not be saying anything all that discouraging; it is also possible that God, as rabbinical tradition has it, sometimes puts obstacles in people's way just to deepen their determination and their appreciation when they finally do achieve some cherished purpose. We don't know; we can't know except by prayer and a long, open-minded look at how we feel about that purpose.
And during that long, open-minded look... Can't God help you see, a little better, what you want and why you want it -- and whether it should, or does, matter to God in quite the same way?
To deal with counterwill, what's needed is not some kind of iron counter-countering will. The resistance comes because a person feels coerced from outside, bullied by some implacable, alien tyrant who only cares about maintaining his power. The child psychologists say a parent needs to remind a child, and himself, that there is a bond of love between them. That anything he's asking is less important than maintaining that bond of love. There may still be plenty of difficulties and inconveniences involved... but when everyone remembers the love between them, people are willing to do a great deal.
Between God and human beings? The fact that we have this resistance at all says a lot. Yes, we are generally estranged from God, distrustful of God, afraid God may demand too much. But we're able to resist because God does love us, does value our integrity, wants us to truly be the person we are. Maybe that's easier than trying to be somebody else.