Thursday, July 4, 2013

thoughts on freedom

Since I’m married to a Canadian and since I have spent the better part of my adult years befriending internationals, Independence Day in the United States is a strange holiday for me. I realize I may have just alienated all my patriotic friends with that first sentence, but bear with me.

Because of my background, I now tend to think of the Fourth of July as a chance to reflect more broadly on the nature and value of freedom.  It may surprise you to hear me say this but as a pastor I found I did not discover freedom (and truly appreciate it) until I was well into my thirties. For that reason, I do believe I still have much to learn about it.

Around 2002 I saw my wife living in a new, deep and rich freedom. She is the one who began teaching me about freedom by the way she lived. Seeing her this way, I discovered in myself various aspects of unfreedom.  I’ll be honest: her example scared me. I recall saying to her on more than one occasion: “You’re so free, it’s scary!” I said this jokingly, but I must confess there was more than a little honesty in the statement.

Around this time, a psychologist who worked for our mission commented on how few Christians really live freely. Most of them are bound, somehow. So, I began to notice the artificial restraints we fashion—the games we play to limit ourselves and others.

Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” I have always been astounded by this truth. It seems to be a “Well, duh” kind of statement. But then I consider why such a statement needs to be made: Christ grants us freedom, but we are uncomfortable with this. It just seems too…free. All kinds of hypothetical scenarios begin to pop up in my head in response to this kind of wild freedom. I call them “what if…” scenarios.

“Yes, but what if…” The objection is designed to demonstrate the limits of absolute freedom. If we can find a likely “what if” scenario we will feel justified in our propensity to impose restriction. Finding a reason to restrict proves comforting because expansive freedom wrenches control from us. There is quite possibly nothing more unsettling to us as the experience of being out of control.

Unfreedom is all about control. Freedom lets go.

For this reason, freedom is more an attitude than a specific behavior. Letting go of the need to control is heart work. It involves real trust and relationship. Because of this, it may very well be that growing in freedom is the most difficult kind of heart work we can possibly do.

Living freely is the art of walking gracefully among the limitless ambiguities of life.

Genuine freedom takes into account that life cannot be controlled—and genuine freedom trains us to make our peace with the wildness of it all. The second we insist on control is a moment in which we diminish the artfulness of existence.

If “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free”, then the Christian life is one in which we play with the implications of this kind of freedom in every sphere of our lives. What does it mean for the Christian to play out freedom in marriage? What does it mean to worship freely, to work freely? What does it look like to extend the same freedom we enjoy to others, even others with whom we may disagree? Can freedom be for The Other?

It must be for The Other, because The Other comes in the form of every person we meet whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Jew. Do I try to control The Other? If I do, I deny the freedom Christ grants to all.

This is our basic problem. We are uncomfortable with the freedom of trust and grace. So, we try to protect this kind of freedom by legislation (in our churches, homes, friendships, places of work, and governance) but we fail to take into account that the act of legislating freedom may destroy it if it stems from an innate need to be in control.

I cannot control another, but I find myself trying all the time. If we are honest, pastors must confess the bait and switch games we play with our parishioners. In exchange for keeping in step with the lines we would dictate, we give them “freedom” in the form of approval. But the attempt to make others “keep in step” stems from a heart of unfreedom.

We simply cannot discover joy without trusting the grace of freedom. Because trust involves risk, freedom is risk. Because it all boils down to risk, whom we trust first makes all the difference.

If we trust in God, we find that he is able to set us free. Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” This is because there is no freedom greater than God’s freedom. He is the only King who sets us free; when he created us he gave us freedom—freedom to choose love or not.  If he didn’t want us to be free, he wouldn’t have made us in freedom. Since he made us free, he defines freedom. Since he defines it, all true freedom finds its basis in him.

So, how did we become slaves? Control. And why do we control? Because of the potential to be hurt by the abuse of freedom. And what causes this abuse? A darkened, untrusting heart that results in sin, which results in hurt, which results in more untrust, which leads to less free living. And on and on it goes, in a seemingly endless cycle.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story.

So, what is the cure? For a start, forgiveness. When we receive forgiveness we are free. When we extend it, we free others—and the bitterness that potentially controls us.

But God’s freedom does not stop with forgiveness, thankfully. We are not merely forgiven. To continue living in freedom is nothing less than to live life as a trusting child. This is a moment-by-moment, day-by-day kind of life. There is no shortcut. It involves risk which opens you up to hurting and being hurt—which opens us up to the basis of forgiveness, again and again and again.

Since the Son provided limitless forgiveness by his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, we can be truly free. That is why Jesus said if he sets you free, you are free indeed.

But, is it possible for us to live in freedom without having to return to the starting point of forgiveness over and over again? In one sense, no; in another sense, I hope so!

This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. The process of learning to live in God’s freedom is what the Christian calls “sanctification.” To be made holy is to grow in freedom. (An astounding thought, isn’t it? A radical thought!)

It boils down to a question: Is the Spirit able to guide us, shape and mold our hearts such that we will possess the wisdom to know when freedom is honored or abused? Yes, if we let him guide us and listen to his guiding voice—and stay close to his loving heart.  

You may wonder why these reflections on freedom took a distinctly “Christian” turn. Well, one reason is that I happen to be a Christian minister. That said, I choose to be a Christian because I like to think that Christianity is big enough to extend this freedom to all, irrespective of any particular religion or worldview. This is so because I happen to believe that, essentially, the freedom of forgiveness and trust is something I can grant to anyone, whether Christian or not. And that is something others grant to me—because, let’s face it, I’m not perfect.

We have the ability to grant this freedom to others because we have received it from God. To use a Scriptural phrase: “We love because he first loved us.”

As a Christian, I happen to believe that the practice of forgiveness and trust will enable all humans to flourish. The Christian should extend this grace to all and encourage others to extend this grace as well. As we do so, everyone will grow in freedom. This is what God wants. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

May we understand freedom. May we live in such a way as to honor it. May we extend it to others. May we relinquish our need to control.

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