Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace is a great and epic novel that ends up as a bad philosophy essay, with about a hundred pages about the question of free will and determinism that greatly mistakes the point. Tolstoy argues for the reality of determinism because the free will of Peter the Great was not able to overcome the supposed determinism of many millions of traditionalist-minded Russians who opposed his efforts at thoroughgoing Westernization. Yet this analysis does not recognize that the millions of Russians had their own free will, and with that free will they opposed, in the sullen fashion they could, what they viewed as hostile and unwelcome changes. It was not that the Russian peasants were on the side of predetermination and Peter the Tsar was on the side of free will. Rather, both were on the side of free will and their wills opposed, and the free wills of the Russian people resistant to change overcame the free will of the powerful czar wishing for change. We cannot forget in our use of free will that other people have a free will of their own that must be taken into account and respected if we wish for our own freedom to be respected.
Recognizing the tension between free will and divine authority forces upon us complicated questions of divine providence . While Einstein famously did not believe that God played dice, in fact the Bible speaks highly of the ability of the lot to settle disputes by apparent randomness. One sees the logic of the coin flip, furthermore, in the Umim and Thummim that answered questions in a binary yes/no fashion. It is not only in the quantum realm where there are questions of probability and odds; we all live our lives without total certainty, in a world where initial conditions matter a great deal but where there is chance and risk regardless of what course we take. We have to live with the responsibility that no matter how bad things look that they could go well, and no matter how swimmingly things are going that they could go very wrong, but that probability will tend to have a certain weight based on various factors, and that riverboat gamblers will lose their share of the time as well, sometimes disastrously, even as apparent flukes will happen as well.
Even when we examine our own freedom, we are often hopelessly confused because of the difference between two conceptions of freedom. On the one hand, we have the freedom to do certain things, which recognizes our God-given agency as human beings possessed of free will. Our freedoms, moreover, place demands on other people. Our freedom to speak demands that others listen. Our freedom of conscience demands that others respect our conscience, even where they do not agree with it. Yet all too often, it is not the freedom to act that we most desire, but rather the freedom from certain undesirable states. We want freedom from fear, but we cannot control the behaviors of others that may make us afraid, especially where others do not want to make us afraid but do so accidentally. We may desire freedom from want, but that gives us an entitlement on resources that may not exist to make us safe from want. We desire freedom from loneliness, but not have others who want to or are able to be with us. If we focus on our own freedom, and do not recognize the freedom of others, we become demanding tyrants forcing others to put up with our wants, and not recognizing their own free will and agency.
For these reasons, and others, freedom is never as enjoyable as we would want it to be. Our freedom is constrained by a wide variety of matters, including the freedom of others to assent or reject our wishes and will, the difficulties we have in acquiring the resources to put our will and wishes into place, and the thorny problem of building consensus as well as mastering difficult logistical realities. We find that we want freedom to do things that would reject or negate the freedom of others, or that we want to be free from things that would require others to provide for us what they do not have or do not wish to give. Yet we are free, because we are responsible. Where we are not responsible, we are not free, and where we are free, we are responsible. Where we have a choice in the matter, our choices matter and we will bear the blame or receive the credit for the wisdom of those choices. Where something is an inescapable aspect of reality, it is our response that matters, for the condition was not of our making. In life we face many inescapable realities, and also many areas of freedom, so let us choose wisely, since it was not by our will that we were made or made free, and so therefore our freedom is a gift that we are accountable for. Hopefully the thought does not make it harder for anyone to sleep at night.
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