This being the week of the 4th of July, many people’s thoughts are turned toward freedom.
Actually, I imagine most people’s thoughts are turned towards ribs and the charcoal grill in the back yard. But somewhere in the mix of the celebration of our nation’s founding is a thought about freedom. This is what those early patriots staked the lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to: freedom.
Yet, what exactly is freedom? Our Lord was not silent on this subject. One of His most famous statements, found in John 8:32, is “and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
According to Jesus, truth and freedom are inexorably linked. Knowing truth leads to freedom. To be free means to know truth.
What truth? Isn’t truth whatever we decide that it is? What is true for me is not necessarily true for you. Truth is relative, at least according to popular culture. Morality has been reduced to personal preferences. How does this set you free, and if it does, what kind of freedom is this?
Sir Isaiah Berlin, a 20th century Oxford political philosopher, said that the modern concept of freedom is “absolute negative freedom.” That is, the freedom from something. Thus, the work toward freedom is the work of removing limits, all restraints on choices. Anything that restrains, limits freedom.
Limits must be removed, whether they are restraints of tradition, of religion, moral restraints, familial restraints, legal restraints, or even biological restraints – freedom is the removal of these. To be free means to be able to choose whatever you feel is right for you, with nothing to hold you back.
I contend that this is too simplistic, and that it does not work.
The Biblical concept of freedom is much more complex, more nuanced, but it works. Freedom is not the removal of all restraints. It is the choice among life’s restraints of those that give you the most liberty.
Jesus’ famous statement about truth and freedom is preceded by a specific admonition. If a person will abide in, remain in – in other words, submit to – the restraints of His teachings then you will know truth, and this truth will set you free.
Modern culture says there is no truth other than what you think is true. Removing all limits means freedom. Christianity says that freedom is found in abiding in and submitting to the teachings of the resurrected Christ, which leads to objective truth, which in turn leads to freedom. I am free to choose among the restraints in life. Choosing the restraints of the Gospel will lead to freedom.
Let me illustrate it this way. I enjoy hearing my wife play the piano. I marvel watching her fingers dance across the keys. She has the freedom to make such beautiful music. I wish I could do that, but I can’t.
The reason I cannot do this and she can, is because when she was a child she submitted to the restraints of lessons and practice. I did not. I quit piano lessons and went outside to play ball. As a result of our choices, she has the freedom today to create beautiful music on the piano, while I do not.
Freedom is not just doing what you want. It is doing what makes you better. It is not the removal of all restraints, but the choice of the restraints that lead to a more abundant life.
My wife and I really enjoyed the British dramatic series Downton Abby. It is a fictitious look at British nobility and their relationships with the servants in a large house that has been in the noble family for generations. It is a kind of upstairs, downstairs dichotomy, with the Crowley family the upstairs nobility, and the servants all working out of the basement, downstairs.
When a servant breaks the rules, the servant is removed from service in the house. They are gone. In the course of the series many servants are dismissed from service. When a child, in the case of this series a daughter, breaks the rules, there are consequences, but she remains in the house.
Jesus is the Son in God’s house. He gave up all the freedom of heaven to become one of us, to die on the cross for you and for me. God raised Him from the dead resurrection morning and He ascended into heaven 40 days later. Even today, He Lives!
I gladly give in to the restraints of faith in Christ, because as the Son in God’s house He adopts me and makes me a son in God’s house. He will also adopt you. These are the restraints that bring the greatest liberty.
As a son in God’s house I am no longer a slave. I am His child. I get to stay.
The words to an old hymn by William Cowper express it well.
To see the law by Christ fulfilled
And hear his pardoning voice;
Transforms a slave into a child,
And duty into choice.