A couple weeks ago I posted my thoughts about the question of whether or not living a life of holiness was necessarily opposed to living a life of pleasure. I argued that contrary to common thought, the life of holiness will yield the life of greatest pleasure. A closely related issue is the question of freedom. What does it mean to be free? Does living for God mean giving up your freedom? These are important questions and I’d like to share what I’ve been mulling over lately.
First, we must examine what we think freedom is. Then, we must determine if our view of freedom coheres with the reality of human nature and also whether, such freedom is possible or even desirable.
Freedom According to the World
America is by far the most individualistic society in the world. We prize autonomy above all else. The human right to liberty is the primary ideal on which the country was founded. The founding fathers believed that humans had an inherent dignity which gave them certain rights and freedom which should never be violated.
However, I would say that freedom has come to mean something more today than it did then. Personal liberty was never meant to be absolute. The right notion of human dignity and liberty has been twisted into something it did not used to be, a bloated and irrational conception of freedom.
Today, our understanding of freedom has become the idea that we, as self-governing, rational individuals should have the right to do whatever we please, with whomever we please without any regard for consequences or accountability to an authority imposed on us against our will. This kind of thinking has infiltrated our music, our media, basically ever aspect of our society. The individual has been exalted to god-like status. This is nothing new. It is merely selfish arrogance masked as something noble, the age-old rebellion of man against God masquerading as “enlightenment” and “progress.”
Besides the fact that it is very hard to see how a society who has discarded the Creator who endowed them with such inalienable rights, can still maintain that they have such rights, there are other problems with this view. It is not really possible nor, if we think about it for any length, is it really even desirable.
It would be very hard to maintain a society where people were actually free to do whatever they wanted. There could be no laws. There could be no protests against the behavior of others. Chaos would reign.
Even if it was possible, would such a world even be one we would want to live in? Of course not. Our beliefs are inconsistent. None of us really want a world of complete freedom. We want the bad guys in prison. We want those who have wronged us punished. Our tolerance and subjectivity shatter in the face of evil. Deep down, we do not want a world where there is absolute freedom and no final justice because we know that such a world would render our lives meaningless and neutralize our sufferings. The real and ugly truth is that we do not want everyone to escape the consequences of their actions. Just ourselves.
Moreover, I would argue doing as we please does not really bring freedom at all. Those who seem the least concerned with following God’s law or any sense of moral obligation other than their own desires and whims usually end up in the greatest bondage to addictions and destructive lifestyles.
Freedom According to the Bible
So if doing as we please without regard for consequences is not true freedom, then what is? The Bible takes a very different stance. Its notion of human freedom is both less and more than ours for it exalts God rather than man. Man is not his own absolute authority. His actions do have consequences and he will be held accountable, not to the moral code he creates for himself, but to the laws of an eternal, holy, just God. None of us are free from God, but if we submit ourselves to God, we can be free from the destruction of own foolish ways.
Yes, we all have free will in the sense that we make our own choices and these choices come from our own hearts. Each human life is sacred and therefore should always be treated as an end and never merely as a means. However, our human dignity does not mean we are our own masters, exempt from God’s law and immune to His judgments. We were simply not designed to be our own master and therefore any attempt to be will end in disaster and frustration. It goes against our nature. The truth is that we are all slaves to something. We were created to worship and whatever we worship, we serve. Whatever bewitches our hearts will own our souls. We are in bondage to whatever we love most.
This is startling and offensive to our American sensibilities, but if we survey even a little of human history or look into our own hearts, we cannot deny it. Yes, we are free to make our own choices in this life, but the sum of our choices is merely the choice of what we will be slaves to, what master we will serve. In fact, the Bible only gives us two options. We can either be slaves to sin or we can be slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18-23).
To be a slave to sin is to live without reference to God. It is to “exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worship and serve created things, rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). The problem with this kind of slavery is that it is in direct opposition with reality and in total opposition to our built-in purpose to be God-worshipers and God-reflectors. In essence, to reject God’s law in order to live a life of licentious freedom is to live a lie. Absolute freedom without the guide of absolute truth is a dangerous thing. To freely follow our own passions and desires is not freedom from God but voluntary bondage to the objects of our own misplaced love and worship. Many who live for such “freedom” ultimately find it to be a cruel master.
If being a slave to sin is to live a lie, then being a slave to righteousness is to live in the light of the truth of God. It is to make our choices in accordance with the reality of God’s existence, the truth about who He is as the Creator, and the subsequent truth about who we are as the created. As Tim Keller put it, freedom “is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.” -Tim Keller, The Reason for God
Freedom then, on the Biblical account, is nothing more than choosing the right kind of slavery. Now to us, slavery has major negative connotations which we need to check at the door. Choosing the right kind of slavery merely means to serve the God we were made to serve and worship the God we were created to worship. It means exalting God rather than ourselves. In so doing, we find that, paradoxically, such slavery leads to freedom because it releases us to fulfill the purpose for which we were designed and thus, to attain the abundant life which God always intended for us.
No, we are not “free” to do whatever we like. We are still bound to the authority of God, but we are no longer bound to sin and therefore, death (Romans 6:21). We are now bound to Christ and therefore, life (Romans 6:22). We are bound to a God of infinite love and wisdom “who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:31) and “who works all things for good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28). What better Master to serve? Who could be more worthy of our utmost love and devotion?
Jesus said, “if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). The precondition for freedom is truth and the precondition for truth is holding to His teaching and thus, being His disciples. The life of true freedom then is not the life of freedom from the authority of God, but the life submitted to the authority of God. Christ is the only One we were meant to worship and the only Master who will free us from death unto life eternal.