The idea of freedom has been the driving force behind this Union for nearly 250 years. Men and women for generations have been fixated on the foundational truth in our Declaration of Independence that freedom is an inherent right for all mankind and that this country serves as a place of refuge for those who’s freedoms have been compromised. In opposition to these people stand those who wish to confine freedom to a portion of mankind, sometimes even declaring that certain human beings – those who are not owners of land, those of African descent, and even those of the female sex – are not members of “mankind” at all. The meaning of freedom has been contended from the very foundation of this Union and that contention continues to this day, some nearly 250 years after declaring ourselves independent from the tyranny of Great Britain.
How are we, as Christians and Americans, to define freedom? Ask yourself the definition of freedom; and once you have asked yourself, ask your neighbor and suddenly realize that you both likely have varying definitions of what has been the uniting idea here for centuries. I believe we would all agree that freedom preserves something, but what is that something? Is freedom the preservation of choice? Is it the preservation of safety? What about health? What does freedom actually preserve? I humbly request you consider my definition as I do my best to rightfully communicate it to you from the position of the author of freedom himself. We will address three main points throughout our journey:
- The complexity of freedom
- The reality of unfreedom
- How Jesus gives us freedom
The Complexity of Freedom
Let’s begin with a contemporary definition of freedom as expressed in a popular song from Disney’s Frozen.
The idea of freedom in the mind of Elsa – the protagonist in Frozen – is that freedom is the absence of all restrictions. She understands freedom to mean that there are no expectations, no restrictions, no rules that she must obey. And that is a definition held by thousands, if not millions, of Americans today, and dare I say many Christians as well.
Some people have offered up the analogy of a helium-filled balloon and a table; the balloon represents mankind and the table represents restrictions. If the balloon were to be placed under the table, the table would restrict the balloon from ascending more than a few feet at most, thereby compromising the balloon’s freedom to ascend as high as it would see fit; the table does not offer a life to the balloon of freedom because there are rights, wrongs, and rules that restrict it in some way(s). Modernity says that we – the balloon – have the right to ascend as high as we want without the oppression of restriction – the table – of our freedom. On paper, this analogy seems legitimate and offers a simple definition that freedom is the absence of restriction and thus grants us the ability to do whatever we want to whatever degree we want. But this analogy is simply unworkable because this is not how the world works at all. By this definition, if the balloon were to be granted absolute freedom – the ability to ascend as high as it wants – then we must then believe that the higher the balloon goes, the more freedom it has expressed, but eventually the balloon’s own existence will be compromised and restricted by the very freedom it claims to seek. If the balloon ascends high enough, the world will destroy it; its own safety and existence will be taken from it by the freedom that it claims is preserving its safety and existence. Beyond a surface level of this analogy, we can see that freedom neither protecting nor liberating the balloon.
Consider this counterexample: a man in his 60s is attending his annual checkup with his primary physician. The man has gone through the medical tests administered by his physician and the results are concerning. The physician explains to the man that if he (the man) were to continue eating the same way he has been eating throughout his life, he will experience heart trouble and a shorter life because of the issues his foods are causing his aging body. Now, what is freedom for this man? Is freedom for him to choose what he desires? If that is the case, he has contradicting desires. Simultaneously, the man desires to eat what he wants but also desires to have a good and healthy life. Likewise, the balloon desires to ascend through the sky but also simultaneously to continue existing (preservation of life), but eventually the balloon cannot have both. If we define freedom as the right to do or have whatever we want, we will see that freedom itself is a contradiction. If the balloon does not restrict itself in one of the two ways, it will be restricted by the other against its own will. If it does not restrict its ascension, its existence will be restricted; if it does not restrict its existence, its ascension will be restricted. If the man does not restrict himself in one of the two ways, he will be restricted by the other against his will. If he does not restrict his diet, he will have a restricted lifetime; if he does not restrict his lifetime, he must restrict his diet.
How, then, do we reconcile this idea? We must first understand that freedom itself is, contrary to modernity and Elsa, more complex than simply being the absence of restrictions; freedom is not the absence of restrictions, but the presence of liberating restrictions. Which desire was more liberating for the man? Eating what he wants or living a longer, healthier life? I would argue that the more liberating desire was a better diet, even though it restricted him. By restricting his diet, the man is liberated and given the chance at a longer, healthier life. This gives evidence that there are varying freedoms offered to us as humans. Real freedom comes from a strategic loss of some freedoms in order to gain other freedoms.
How can we have the freedom of a great job and financial freedom if we do not restrict ourselves to time of study, practice, training, and working? I am a college graduate myself and I chose to restrict myself of pleasures and other activities by attending class, studying late into the night, and enrolling every semester until I had graduated. I chose to surrender or lose some freedoms (social events, personal hobbies, friendships) in order to attain better freedoms (financial security, a home for my family, a chance to better the lives of my students).
Consider a fish. Aquatic by nature, he is restricted to the water and is able to function properly. However, if the fish were to say to himself, “I want to be free to live and do throughout the entire world, including the dry land!”, he would sacrifice his freedom of longevity of life. The absence of the restriction of the water will kill him. The fish is most free when he is restricted in the right way – by restricting his access to the entire world. The physical reality of our universe says that if you wish to live any way you desire, you will die. If you do not conform to your physical design, you will lose freedoms, life included.
While true in the physical reality, as explained in the above scenarios, this idea of freedom being the presence of the right restrictions is also true in the metaphysical reality. The person who says that freedom is only attained through the absence of restrictions will never experience the freedom of a true, loving relationship. In a true, loving relationship – and this is not limited to just romantic relationships – there must always be a surrender of some freedoms to receive the freedom of the relationship. In a romantic relationship, one person cannot just decide to leave town on a whim; the person must check-in with the other party, lest the relationship be strained; he or she has therefore lost his or her complete independence. Some unilateral decisions are no longer acceptable if the preservation of the relationship is a priority. To know the freedom of love, both people must be willing to adjust for the other through sacrifice of freedom(s). If only one person does this, it is not freedom but exploitation. But if both people say that they will sacrifice for the other, both will gain the freedom of a loving relationship. True metaphysical freedom is a relationship between people who are equally sacrificing their own freedoms for each other and the preservation of the union.
I hope that I have accurately explained how we cannot view freedom as simply the absence of all restrictions, even if our culture and Disney musicals claim that to be true. From here, we should then look towards the reality of unfreedom, otherwise known as slavery.
The Reality of Unfreedom (Slavery)
The opposite of freedom is slavery, and I am confident that any sane person would agree regardless of how you define either term. To give a biblical example, Israel was brought out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery into a covenant relationship with God at Mount Sinai, but God did not bring Israel out of slavery and then say that they could live however they wanted. Rather, the condition of his covenant with Israel was expressed through the judicial law given to Moses then transferred down to the people themselves; if you were to be in covenant with God, you must accept the terms of his law. Israel was restricted in Egypt and is now restricted by God, but their lives under Pharoah were less free than they are under God; both had rules, laws, and restrictions, but God’s are more liberating than Pharoah’s.
Fast forward to the first century where Jesus was continually in opposition to the Pharisees – the physical descendants of the people who were first brought into covenant with God at Sinai. Addressing the Pharisees, Jesus had this to say:
Jesus claimed that the Pharisees were slaves and they were confused because they had never been slaves like their ancestors had in Egypt. The catch here is that Jesus was not meaning that they were slaves to a physical power; rather, they were slaves to the ultimate slave-owner: sin. The Pharisees were not operating according to their design; they were practicing sin, and sin is not our intended design operation. Consider this metaphor: on the highway in town there exists a beautiful Chevrolet Camaro but inside the car is a five year old boy behind the wheel. Even though the car is a beautiful and wonderful machine, there will be problems because it was not designed to be operated by a five year old. Our bodies, likewise, are not designed to operate in sin. When God gives divine directives and we choose to disregard them, we are not simply doing the opposite of what he wants; we are actually going against our own nature, just like the man in his 60s who eats the wrong foods or the Camaro being driven by a child. If God exists and created us, we then have a divine design and his directives reflect that divine design. To do something in opposition to those directives is to live in sin.
So what does slavery to sin look like? Jesus told us to forgive those who wrong us (Matthew 6:14) and that we are to not hold grudges (Ephesians 4:32). If we refuse to forgive someone, it will feel good in the moment and nobody can deny that. However, it brings about disintegration as time progresses. If you stay angry at someone, your commitment apparatus becomes compromised; you won’t trust people like that person and you won’t help people like that person because your commitments have been compromised by the hurt you experienced. To disregard the command to forgive others, you are going against the grain of your own design and what follows is distortion, breakdown, and hurt. You are just like a five year old trying to drive a Camaro.
Notice also that Jesus says that those who are a slave to sin are like servants in the house of a master. The popular British show Downton Abbey gives us a great example of this truth. The family all lives in an enormous mansion within the family quarters while the large staff of servants also live in the basement within the servant quarters. Even if the servants have a great relationship with the father – the head of the estate – he still remains their boss. The servants may be valued and honored, but they are only on good terms with the boss if they are doing their duties. If they are not doing their duties, they will be reprimanded or even removed from the house and replaced. This is why Jesus says in verse 35 that the servant has no permanent place in the home but that a son – a family member of the head of the estate – remains forever. As a boss, if your employee does not fulfill his or her duties, you will have him or her replaced; but if a son or daughter does not fulfill his or her duties, you will extend more grace and keep them in your home.
But the greatest revelation here in the words of Jesus is that if you are treating God as your boss, you are a slave and a servant with no permanent place in the home, but that Jesus can make God a father to you rather than a boss. If you live your life saying, “I’m going to read the Bible, keep God’s commandments, and live like Jesus because then God will answer my prayers,” you’re treating God like a boss and are a slave. Encapsulated within a desire to keep God’s commandments can result in you being the furthest thing from a son or daughter and this is why Jesus continually told the Pharisees that they were the dirtiest sinners of all. The Pharisees kept more of God’s commandments than anyone else, and if we define sin as simply disobeying a commandment then they were quite the opposite of that, but that’s not how Jesus saw them. The Pharisees kept all of God’s commandments, but they were keeping them with the idea that God is their boss, not their father. We, likewise, can fall into this trap if we are not careful.
Now that we understand that freedom is more complex than just the absence of restrictions and that slavery is a state of existence wherein the person operates and functions in contract to his or her design, we should then ask ourselves, “How do we get this freedom?”
How Jesus Gives Us Freedom
I have come to believe that there exists a small voice inside each of us that says, “Nobody can tell me what to do.” We, as humans affected by the impact of sin and the fall, want to assert our wills; “my will be done,” says many. When I was a young, stupid teenage boy, my parents forbade me from driving my truck into fields, getting drunk, and partying until the morning dawn. Yet, somehow, I found myself doing exactly that whenever I could get away with it. After one night of having the cops arrive to our field party – the squadron led by my own aunt – and being taken home to face my father at 3:00am, I realized two things. First, I realized that I absolutely hated beer and staying up until 3:00am trying to win over the approval of my peers. Second, I realized that I was doing all of this not out of an enjoyment of doing it, but as a way to say, “I am my own boss. I won’t be told what to do by anyone.” I had become a slave to my own desire to be my own boss because I was treating God as if he was just some big boss sitting on a throne of rules and laws rather than being a loving father to me. What I really needed was to have my heart captured by something that required me losing some of my freedoms.
Jesus gives us that portal to a loving relationship with God – a relationship built upon the foundation not of rules and laws, but of love and the desire for us to be truly free. Remember, a real loving relationship is where both parties give up some of their freedoms for each other, where both pirates say, “I will adjust for you; I will change for you; I will sacrifice for you; I will give up my freedoms for you.” And God did just that. By incarnating into this world and dying on a cross for us, God said, “I will adjust for you; I will change for you; I will sacrifice for you; I will give up my freedoms for you.” Jesus is the only God who has ever said this in the history of all world religions and by sacrificing for him and adjusting to his design for your life, you will finally be set free.
So the next time you engage with others, especially in today’s political environment, remember that freedom is more than just having no restrictions. Consider carefully what is worth sacrificing for the better good of your fellow brothers and sisters. God has done so for us, so let us in response build his kingdom here with that same attitude.