Author’s note: I originally published this article back in Nov. 2009. On today’s Independence Day national holiday here in the United States, our 234 Birthday, we celebrate rightfully our great Land and the rich blessings of freedom. Freedom however needs to be understood in relationship with other gifts of God and that is the purpose of this article. I think it might provide fruitful reflection given the Independence Day and the national holiday observance of Monday. Here then is the article:
In our age freedom is a distorted and detached concept, a kind of abstraction. There is little connection of freedom to responsibility , to the common good or to truth. To the modern world freedom is essentially understood as “the ability to do whatever I please.” Now the absurdity of such a definition is usually evident in our time as my radical freedom bumps up against your radical freedom and suddenly we’re demanding laws!
For a Christian however freedom is the capacity or ability to obey God. Now this is paradoxical to be sure, especially for the modern world where obedience and freedom aren’t usually linked. But for the Christian, sin is slavery and the truth which God reveals sets us free. Consider these quotes from the catechism:
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1733)…By deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth (1740)
Consider too the words of the Lord who said, Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. …[But] if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-35)
The first paradox of freedom is that true freedom is experienced only in relation to what is good and true.
- It does not take us long to see how enslaving sin can be. There are bad habits, addictions, compulsions and tendencies that set in as we dabble in sin and these can be very hard to break. We may march under the banner of doing what we please but before long we have to do what our unruly passions demand and it becomes hard to break sin’s hold.
- True freedom is the capacity to obey God, to do what is right, to be free to speak the truth courageously, to have the capacity to be chaste, self-controlled, to have authority over our anger and other passions, to have the power to forgive, this is what it really means to be free.
The second paradox of freedom is that, since we are contingent and limited beings, we can only experience freedom within parameters and by limiting our freedom to a certain extent:
- For example suppose I were to demand freedom from laws of gravity. Suppose I simply wished to reject the limits that gravity imposed on me and in an act of revolutionary freedom and defiance stepped off a tall building. It would surely be the last act of freedom I ever exercised. Only by accepting the parameters of gravity can I really be free. To deny the truth of gravity and act as though it were irrelevant not only enslaves, it kills.
- Take another example. I am free to speak and communicate with you, but only if I stay within the limits of grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and so forth. In general with Americans I must limit myself to English properly spoken. Can you read this sentence: open to went found they they it the when was tomb? Of course you cannot make sense of this “sentence” since the word order is so garbled. So, to be free to communicate with you I have to accept some of the rules of word order. Now at least these were all intelligible words but what if I were to demand the ability to use whatever words and letters I wanted, whatever punctuation and so forth. Can you read this sentence: bey 887q99y0 eh ‘[;0! you to dsfhi piyt! ?? Of course you cannot read it. It may mean something to me, but I cannot really be free to communicate with you unless I accept some limits that language imposes and operate within them .
- Yet another example is driving. I am only free to drive if I operate within basic traffic laws and so do others. Unless we all agree to limit our freedom to drive anywhere at any speed in any direction, we really are not free to drive, there is simply too much chaos to get anywhere. Freedom is exercised only within limits.
The Third paradox of freedom is that my freedom today often exists due to prior constraint:
- I am free to play the piano today only because I constrained myself to years of practice. I limited my freedom to go out and play and disciplined myself to practice.
- I am free to spend money today only because I previously constrained myself to earn it and save it.
- I am healthy and in good shape today only because I limited my food intake and exercised regularly.
The Fourth and religious paradox of freedom is that we are only free by becoming slaves and servants of God:
- John 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
- John 8:32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
- Rom 6:17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness….20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
- 1 Peter 2:16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.
Conclusion: the absolute and detached freedom imagined by the world does not exist. Insisting on freedom without any connection to what is good and true does not free, it enslaves. True freedom exists within boundaries and guard rails. Some things must be held constant and unyielding if there is to be freedom. There must be some rules or freedom breaks down and is crushed by anarchy, chaos and power struggle. In the end, what makes us truly free is to obey the Father. This frees us from the slavery of sin and gives the capacity to obey God. Anything less is the slavery of sin.