Most of us have in mind an absence of restrictions when we think of freedom. We are free when we are able to do what we like, choose what we want, and decide for ourselves. But this definition of freedom is dangerously deceptive in its simplicity. Fighting for this kind of freedom can help to keep us out from under the thumb of tyrants (in all their various manifestations). But at its core, this understanding of freedom turns out to be a slavery whose end is death.
Tim Keller puts it this way in his book The Reason for God:
A fish, because it absorbs oxygen from water rather than air, is only free if it is restricted and limited to water. If we put it out on the grass, its freedom to move and even live is not enhanced, but destroyed. The fish dies if we do not honor the reality of its nature.
Freedom—instead of being the lack of limits and the absence of constraints—is submitting ourselves to the limits of our nature.
Like the fish in Tim Keller’s example, our natures have some obvious physical limits. The fish needs water to breathe; we need air. But at a more foundational level, our nature can best be defined by one simple and confounding fact: We are caused by something outside ourselves.
Enslaved to Freedom
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
God is. Or more fully, God is not so much the highest being, God is being itself. And God, who has not been made, is the source of all that is (Colossians 1:15-17). Everything that is (including us), is brought into being through the God who is Love. Our most defining and enduring and inescapable quality, then, is that we are brought into being by the one who is (aka God).
What are the ramifications? First, it is Jesus who sets us free, and no one else. Jesus—the incarnated, crucified and resurrected God—is the way the truth and the life. No one comes to God the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6).
Since it is only Jesus who sets us free, refusing this freedom is slavery. See Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” In other words, since freedom is found within the confines of our nature, refusing those confines is slavery. The slavery spoken of here is bondage to sin. And sin pays out in death (Romans 6:23).
When Adam and Eve first sinned by eating from the tree that gives knowledge of good and evil, their sin was not that they wanted to know good and evil, but that they wanted to be like God apart from God. They were acting in denial of their nature as inescapably made and sustained by the one who is being itself. Like we’ve seen with the illustration of the fish, we can’t escape the confines of our nature and hope to live.
Dying to Live
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” John 10:10. But there’s another factor in having this full life, which Jesus reveals in Matthew 16. Jesus is explaining to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and then raised to life on the third day. When Peter hears this, he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, saying, “Never! This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turns and says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then to all the disciples Jesus says,
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
Losing your life for Jesus leads to finding it. Or as Jesus says in John 12, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
It seems the only way for death to not be the end, is to embrace it as the means to life.
Sacrifice and Mission
Too often, I fall into the trap of thinking if something is costly, then it must be from God. Certainly following God is costly. After all, it’s a cross that Jesus tells us to pick up, not a cold drink with a little umbrella in it. Denying oneself is often immensely painful. But denying oneself is never the point; it is a path which leads to some other destination.
Denying oneself is often immensely painful. But denying oneself is never the point; it is a path which leads to some other destination.
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7 is perhaps the best summary of all Jesus’ teaching. Robert Barron points out that the first word in that great summation is blessed.
The Greek term in Matthew’s Gospel is makarios, which is probably best rendered with the simple word “happy.” The law that the new Moses [Jesus] offers is a pattern of life that promises, quite simply, to make us happy. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples on the eve of his death, as a sort of summation of his preaching, “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete” (John 15:11). And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks winsomely of his “yoke” which is, in point of fact, light and easy to bear, precisely because it brings us fullness of life.
Losing your life for Jesus is a happy thing. Sacrifice and praise, as Thomas Howard has written, “are not two separate activities, as though sacrifice were the grim part and praise the happy part. No. All true praise arises from sacrifice of some sort—from the ‘offering up’ of what I have…”
But if he [God] has made me in his own image, crowned me with a dignity belonging alone to the race of man, and put into my hands the awful mystery of free will, then the offering I bring is a unique one. But what is this offering to be? The words of my mouth, to be sure. The works of my hands, to be sure. But all of that must be caught up and ratified in the offering—the “sacrifice”—of myself. Self-offering. Self-donation. There is where the mystery of true praise lies.
And Pope Francis carries on the sentiment:
We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?
Freedom is found within the confines of our nature. Our most basic nature is simply that we proceed from the overflow of God’s love. When we surrender to God, he brings us through death and into Life and Love. And this Love, when we’ve experienced it, compels us to share this good news with others.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Be free, then, not by throwing off all bounds, but by embracing the confines that give Life. And as you find that Life, allow it to compel you out of yourself—toward others—as you join in God’s global mission.
Photo taken by Benson Kua at https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensonkua/3161323177
Howard, On Being Catholic
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)