No, not that f-word! The one I’m thinking of is not even a four-letter word. It’s actually a seven-letter word. You might wonder why I would call “freedom” the f-word, but that’s what I mean to reflect upon here.
Freedom is actually a very good word, and in its political and social contexts it’s something we in America ought to be grateful for (at least while we still have it), since it is lacking in many other places in the world. It’s in the spiritual and theological contexts that the term can be downright frustrating, for it sometimes seems to mean something so different that what we ordinarily think it means that I’d like at times just to find a different word for it. But that’s my problem, and I’ll have to wrestle with it on my own.
I did take a stab at this issue a couple years ago, and you can read about it here if you wish, to gain a little more understanding, in case you too have some difficulty with the concept of freedom in the context of a life in which hundreds of things are forbidden by an apparently rather forbidding moral code. Not that I advocate moral anarchy or anything of the sort. It’s just that the “thou shalt not… or else” approach (which is what the idea of eternal consequences for sin seems to boil down to) tends to make one think that one’s choices really are rather severely limited, even if for the very best of reasons.
What freedom doesn’t mean, as I understand it (though this seems to be the obvious meaning to most people), is the simple absence of restraint, the ability and opportunity to do whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want, for the sake of fun or profit, without any unpleasant consequences. That is a sort of freedom, though a kind of fantastic and hence mostly-unrealizable kind, but it has nothing to do with a biblical or theological understanding of the term. I guess this is where some of the confusion or conflicts arise: we think “freedom” means (or should mean) unrestrained self-seeking. So when we are told that in Christ we are made free, and then told all the things we are no longer allowed to do, or say, or think, we suspect a different lexicon has just been published without our knowledge or consent.
I confess I’m rather ill-equipped to write coherently on this topic, but a passage I just read in Scripture made me think about it again (Jn. 8:31-36). I thought I had pretty much given up trying to understand it, but since that hasn’t stopped me from writing in the past, I guess I’ll still say a few words about it.
I’m going to prescind from all the colloquial and political understandings of the term and look at one that is primarily biblical. But first I should say that freedom in this sense is primarily interior and has little to do with the force of law or external constraint upon behavior. The human being comes equipped with free will, so in that sense everyone is free, more or less (but ask any moral theologian about impediments to free will in moral acts). This kind of freedom, or ability to choose freely, is something no one can take from us. Even under the most stifling or oppressive political regime or prison, the faculty of free will remains, and this is sometimes all that one can retain of one’s human dignity when living in such intolerable conditions. But it is part of what constitutes the image of God in us and as such is inviolable.
Let’s get back to the Bible, or I’ll start tripping over myself trying to explain the faculties of the soul, which is not really what this is about anyway. Jesus famously said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” He doesn’t explain precisely how the truth makes us free, but we do get an insight into what freedom here means. Truth, as it turns out, is intimately related to righteousness, so much so that if truth makes you free, a lack of freedom would actually have to come from a lack of righteousness, that is, from sin. Jesus indicates this when He says a couple verses later: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” So we’re getting a hint here about what freedom means in Jesus’ thought. He goes on to say: “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” Here, then, freedom is no more and no less than deliverance from sin and the maintenance of that happy condition.
It seems that Jesus is not too interested in promoting freedom as an absence of restraint, irresponsible self-indulgence, or a do-it-yourself morality, and it also seems that genuine freedom comes only from Him. True freedom is experienced, He said, when the Son makes you free. He kind of gets off the subject in his continued dialogue with his opponents, but a couple points do come out that have a bearing on this topic. (Even though Jesus doesn’t say in this place exactly how the Son makes people free, we know from the rest of Scripture that it has something to do with faith in Him and obedience to God’s will.) Jesus was trying to preach the Good News and all He got in return was a bunch of self-serving arguments. Finally He seems to have become a bit exasperated, and so He let loose on them: “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires… If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:43-47).
Boy, if Jesus had said that to me, I would have withered instantly like that fig tree He once cursed! But perhaps if I don’t “get it” about what freedom really is, or worse, if I rebel against the commandments that are meant to keep me from becoming a slave to sin, it’s because I can’t bear to hear the word of God. I don’t understand because I’m listening to the father of lies—but it is only the truth that will make me free! If you’ve ever heard people who actually are of their “father the devil,” that is, those who practice Satanism, they will usually say that it’s not really about devil worship, but about freedom, about free indulgence in whatever they please, as a kind of rebellion against all traditional moral and religious restraints. But this “freedom” promoted by the father of lies is designed to make them slaves of sin. The Son has to make them free by speaking the truth to them and liberating them from the ever-tightening bonds that they unwittingly accepted when they threw off all restraints!
So the first thing we have to do if we want to be free is to ask Jesus to speak the truth to us. If He doesn’t just appear to you and do so (which is unlikely), then He will probably do so through the Scriptures, or perhaps through a trusted friend or spiritual advisor who knows you well. We have to get out from under the influence of the father of lies whose idea of freedom is mere licentiousness—but who has had much success in selling his ideas to the world. The freedom Jesus promises is a freedom from the bondage to sin, a bondage which will remain even after death and bind us more tightly for all eternity if we are not liberated in this life by God’s grace and truth.
St Paul makes the ironic comment which I’ll paraphrase thus: “Yeah, when you gave yourself over to sin you were exercising your freedom, alright—freedom from righteousness! So what did your ‘freedom’ get you? Only things you end up being ashamed of, which land you in the place of eternal death. Why don’t you get free of sin instead and attach yourself to God? Freedom from sin will get you sanctification and eternal life. So what will it be? Payback for sin or a free gift of everlasting happiness?” (see Rom. 6:20-23).
Well, there’s at least a little something to chew on, even if it’s only part of the picture. I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully resolve this complex issue in my own thought or experience. But if we get something solid to hang on to, even if it doesn’t answer all questions, at least we have some access to the saving grace we seek. We know that Jesus is the Answer, even if we don’t quite know how to frame the questions, and so continuing in his word as his disciples, we will know more and more of the truth, and thus we will become more and more free—as God defines freedom, which ultimately is the only definition that matters or even works. Maybe, then, I won’t have to call “freedom” the “f-word” after all.