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Crucial Words in the Christian vocabulary: Freedom

 

John 8:36     Ezekiel 34:11-16     Galatians 5:1

 

Everyone craves freedom. The small child asks, “Do I have to go to bed now?” The adolescent can’t wait to get clear of his uncomprehending parents. Developing nations want to shake off the economic control of the colonizer. In all of this it’s assumed that the everyday, popular notion of “freedom” is identical with that freedom of which the gospel speaks and which the gospel bestows. In fact the two notions of freedom are poles apart. The popular notion of freedom is simply the complete absence of restraint. The complete absence of restraint means the opportunity of doing anything at all, behaving in any way whatsoever. Freedom is then being able to do whatever we fancy. When people speak of the popular notion of freedom they like to think of the birds. Birds are thought to be the freest of the creatures just because the birds can go anywhere (it seems), do anything, without restraint.

A pastor sees many people who think that freedom is doing anything they fancy, the removal of every restraint. These people quickly find themselves jaded and bored. Frequently they fall prey to self-destructive habits as well. What these people label “freedom” is actually licence. Licence isn’t the same as freedom. Licence – the absence of restraint – isn’t freedom at all but is rather arbitrariness or indeterminism. Those who confuse licence and freedom find that it’s all left a bad taste in their mouth and they can’t figure out why. Still, the confusion persists. Our society as a whole thinks that freedom means doing whatever we have a yen to do. Thoughtful individuals within a society sooner or later recognize that what most others call freedom is in fact a form of enslavement, a form of bondage.

Then what about the freedom that the gospel bestows? The freedom that the Christian knows and enjoys is a reflection of God’s freedom. God is free not in the sense that he can do anything at all (such a God could never be trusted;) God is free, rather, in that nothing prevents God from acting in accord with his true nature. Nothing within God; nothing outside God; nothing inner or outer impedes God from acting in accord with his true nature.

The difference between a proper understanding of freedom and the popular confusion of freedom with licence is illustrated by everyday objects, like swimming pool filters. A swimming pool filter is designed to filter water and thereby promote safe, enjoyable swimming. Purifying water is the nature of the filter. Now imagine that the filter has become clogged, for any reason at all. We say that the filter doesn’t work. Do we mean it doesn’t hum quietly? We mean it doesn’t do what a filter is meant to do. Someone unclogs the filter. We say that the filter has been freed. If a bystander says, “Freed, did you say? Is it truly freed? Is it free to make peanut butter?” The proper response is that a filter which is perfectly free will never make peanut butter just because it isn’t a filter’s nature to make peanut butter. It’s a filter’s nature to filter water. Freedom doesn’t mean doing anything at all; freedom means acting in accord with one’s true nature. God isn’t free because there’s nothing he can’t do; God is free because he can do what it’s his nature to do.

Those who heard and heeded our Lord’s preaching; those who heard and heeded the apostle’s word; those who hear and heed the gospel in any era know and experience and enjoy a freedom they haven’t known before. “If I make you free,” Jesus promises, “then you are free indeed.” He is saying, “Genuine freedom, ultimately profound freedom, is the freedom I bestow. Such freedom can’t be found anywhere else, anyhow else.”(John 8:36) In this vein Paul writes to the congregation in Galatia , “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm in this freedom, and never go back on it.”(Galatians 5:1)

By now everyone here understands that when a swimming pool filter is freed it is freed from something and freed for something. It is freed from whatever clogs it, impairs it, impedes its proper functioning. It is now free for filtering water, the purpose for which it has been made. The freedom that Christ bestows is both a freedom from and a freedom for.

 

I: — What is the clog-up we are freed from? What debris, clutter, even unsightly “grunge” has to be removed if we are to function in accord with our true nature? According to scripture the clog-up is massive, and it has three faces: sin, law, and death.

[a] Two weeks ago we saw that Sin is defiance of God; a defiance, a disobedience, an ignoring of him that amounts to disdain. Scripture gathers up defiance, disobedience and disdain into one word: unbelief. Sin as unbelief (in the scriptural sense of “unbelief” of the heart) is the root human problem. It is a root-level disorientation and disease. It has to be dealt with. To come to faith in Jesus Christ (he is the presence and power of God) is to be freed from this root malaise, root disorientation.

I am not pretending that the Christian no longer commits sins (little “s”, plural.) Sins are the outcropping of our fallen humanness whose hangover, whose corpse, is still with us. Nevertheless, to be bound to Christ in faith, to aspire henceforth to obey him, is to acknowledge his Lordship everywhere in our lives. To say that he is Lord is to say that Sin no longer “lords it over” us. Sin (capital “s”, singular) has been dealt with. Root unbelief has given way to reconciliation. Root indifference has given way to commitment. Root fragmentation has given way to a life now integrated just because Jesus Christ is human existence restored, human existence integrated, and by faith we are bound so intimately to him that we are now identified with him. His wholeness guarantees mine, even if the “hangover” of my pre-Christ being hangs over for a while.

[b] Another manifestation of the clog-up we are freed from is “the law.” The gospel was heard, and is heard, as good news in that the gospel announces unambiguously that in Jesus Christ, righteousness or right standing with God, right relatedness to God; this is gift, affirmed and owned in faith to be sure, but always and everywhere gift nonetheless. The good news of the gospel relieved people, released people, who had slogged laboriously for years, thinking that right standing with God had to be earned. They had thought his favour had to be curried. They had thought his kindness had to be won. Now they had profoundest assurance that right-relatedness to God isn’t the prize awarded those who pass a religious test; it isn’t the prize given those whose moral achievement is exemplary; it isn’t the profit margin given those who make the best deals with God. It is simply gift. Those whose root situation before God has been altered are those who receive in faith the free gift of right standing with God and thereafter know themselves rightly related to him.

In a word, to be freed from the law is to be freed from having to win something from God, having to outperform in any sense, having to gain promotion or pass a test or merit recognition. To be freed from the law is to be freed from anxiety concerning our relationship with our Father.

People are anxious. People are anxious concerning much. Who needs religious anxiety piled on top? Who needs religious anxiety particularly when religious anxiety seems to compound and intensify all other anxieties? The gospel was heard as good news because it freed people from a preoccupation with gaining right standing with God and left them gratefully rejoicing in a gift.

[c] The final manifestation of the clog-up we are freed from is death; not death in the sense of biological cessation; death in a different sense. For the Hebrew mind death means not praising God; not being able to praise him, not wanting to. To be alive, according to the Hebrew mind, is to praise God. To be freed from the clog-up whose manifestation is death is to be released from every impediment to praising God. What are the impediments to praising God? Not knowing him, not loving him, not delighting in him. Those who know him and love him and delight in him invariably praise him. To be freed from death, then, is to be released from every impediment to knowing, loving, enjoying and praising God. To be freed from death is to be able to praise God, to want to praise God, to find reason without end to praise God. To be freed from death is simply to live to praise God.

Do you know that the most frequently repeated command in scripture is the command to praise God? The psalms are full of the command to praise God. “Praise God morning, noon and night. Praise God with every instrument you can rattle. Praise God at all time and in all circumstances.” On the basis of what we’ve learned this morning we now know that when God commands us to praise him he is urging us to live ourselves. His command that we praise him; his gift of life to us in Christ Jesus: these are one and the same.

To be freed from death, then, is to find that we have been brought to life in Jesus Christ; we want to praise God for our resurrection; we can’t help praising him for all his goodness to us.

Jesus says, “If the Son makes you free, you are really free.” We are free indeed: from sin, from the law, from death.

 

II: — But of course we are freed “from” in order to be freed “for.” We are freed for acting, doing, being in accord with our true nature as sons and daughters of God.

[a] Specifically we are freed in the first instance for being ourselves, freed to become our “self.” We are freed to become and remain proper “selves” under God.

Many people who disdain the gospel and the community of the gospel assume that faith stifles self-expression and self-development. They tell us they want room to “be themselves.” They don’t want to be forced into a religious mould or stamped by a religious cookie-cutter. We hear all the time from people, or hear about people, who insist their marriage is stifling them; it’s cramping, confining, suffocating, and if they are going to “breathe free” then they have to get out of the marriage. It’s similarly assumed that living in the company of Jesus Christ is like “doing time” in a stifling marriage. In other words, faith stifles self-development, self-expression. Faith simply suffocates one’s self.

Jean Paul Sartre, a leader in the post-World War II philosophy known as existentialism, maintained that as terrible as it is to have another human being stifle one’s own “self” to the point of suffocation, how much worse it is to have a towering God do it too. In fact, said Sartre, the mere existence of this deity whose loftiness, density, immensity towers over us and presses down upon us; the mere existence of this deity compresses us, shrivels us, shrink-wraps us. How can a God of such vastness do anything except render me the merest pipsqueak? When the “almighty” looms over me what can his almightiness do except crush me? Sartre says that if “God” were truly God (Sartre denies that God is) then it would be impossible for any human to thrive. Isn’t this exactly what our non-Christian neighbours say about the Christian faith? Religion ruins the “self” just because religion leaves no room for the self to be itself. Sartre maintains that if the human self is to thrive then God has to be slain. We must be atheists if we are to become and remain our most authentic selves.

Sartre, however, is wrong several times over. In the first place the God who is infinitely above is isn’t merely above us. In his Son incarnate he comes among us. In the cross of his Son incarnate he renders himself wholly vulnerable for our sakes. The God who renders himself wholly vulnerable for our sakes isn’t a God who is going to stifle us. The God who renders himself wholly vulnerable isn’t on a power trip that reduces us to pipsqueaks. The God who renders himself wholly vulnerable will crush himself before he ever crushes us. Sartre, a philosopher thoroughly ignorant of Christian truth, has everything wrong at this point.

In the second place Sartre fails to understand that if in fact we are made by God for God, then so far from shrivelling up under God we shall thrive only as we turn to him and find in him our ultimate good. Sartre says that God is overwhelmingly vast. True. The ocean is overwhelmingly vast compared to the smallest fish (or even compared to the biggest fish.) Still, the smallest fish isn’t more truly “fish” for being taken out of the ocean. The smallest fish can thrive as fish only in the ocean, however vast. The ocean’s vastness doesn’t imperil the fish, but the ocean’s disappearance would. This being the case, God’s presence and purpose, God’s density and immensity; so far from rendering the self impossible, God’s presence, purpose, density and immensity – sheer vastness – will ever be the condition of our most authentic selfhood. So far from stifling me, God’s gracious, vulnerable coming to me alone will allow me to thrive as me. If humans are made for God, then Sartre’s campaign to slay God would finally profit us as much as draining the ocean would profit the fish.

We are made by God for God. Then only as we live in God are we most authentically ourselves. Since the Master frees us from every hindrance to living in God; since he thereby frees us for living in God, to be freed by the Master is to be freed to become our authentic “self.”

Popular psychology is unquestionably popular but it’s not very profound. Popular psychology urges us to be “freed up,” to cast off restraint, to get rid of our baggage, to gain perspective on our “issues,” and so on. Popular psychology, however, doesn’t understand that our most burdensome baggage isn’t our defective toilet training; it’s our sinnership. It doesn’t understand that our most haunting issue isn’t unresolved teenage conflict with our parents; it’s our unbelief. Popular psychology urges us to rid ourselves of numerous restraints, but it doesn’t understand that freedom isn’t the absence of restraint; freedom, rather, is being bound to Jesus Christ and finding in him what we are meant to be and do ourselves.

Christians know that when our Lord frees us for himself he simultaneously frees to be our “self.”

[b] We are not only freed for ourselves, however, we are also freed for our neighbour as well. Specifically we are freed for the service of our suffering neighbour. Jesus said that he came not to be served but to serve. He came not to be indulged or pampered or flattered or coddled; he came to give himself to others in their need and pain and loneliness and bewilderment.

Why is it, how is it, that we need our Lord to free us for the service of our neighbour? Since “selfism” is the curse of the Fall, and since “selfism” measures everything in the universe by what it does for me, how it affects me, how it amplifies my sense of self-importance, how it caters to my being recognized and congratulated; since this is endemic in us we need to be freed from it in order to be freed for self-forgetful service of someone whose suffering our newly-granted freedom allows us to see and our newly-granted freedom moves us to address.

The truth is, it’s relatively easy to serve the neighbour, especially the suffering neighbour (we feel good about helping those in need) until this suffering neighbour doesn’t thank us; until this suffering neighbour one day says to us, “How come it took you so long to notice me?”; until this suffering neighbour doesn’t seem to do as much to help herself as we think she should. At this point we are about to say, “She doesn’t appreciate what I’m doing for her; she has never thanked me for it; she is even taking me for granted. Forget her.” We have to be freed from all such selfist considerations if we are going to persist in assisting the fellow-sufferer God has brought before us. And we are freed from this inasmuch as Jesus Christ makes us who we are, tells us who we are, and thereafter we don’t need to be needed in order to know who we are.

 

“If the Son makes you free you are free indeed,” says Jesus. Only the Son of God can make us free. Anything else that claims to free us won’t free us, because only the Son of God restores us to our true nature as sons and daughters of God and thereby delivers us from every impediment to acting in accord with our true nature.

The distinction between freedom and license is a distinction the world-at-large can’t make. The church must always be sure that it can.

 

                                                                                             Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                 

February 2004