Paradoxes of Freedom (part 1 of 3): True Freedom Is Found in Obedience

As Independence Day approaches, we do well to ponder some of the characteristics of true freedom, which is to be distinguished from the false notion of freedom espoused by many today. Today’s post is the first in a series of three on this topic.

Let’s begin by noting that most people in modern times speak of freedom in a detached sense. To them, freedom  means the ability to do whatever they please with few if any limits. This libertine, often-licentious notion of freedom more often than not leads to addiction and oppression.

For many in the world, then, freedom is always from something, but for a Christian, freedom is always for something.

The Christian, biblical understanding of freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. Pairing freedom and obedience seems paradoxical to many in the world!

Abusing our freedom by focusing it on sin leads to slavery and addiction to sin. Jesus said, Whoever sins is the slave of sin (Jn 8:34). Indeed, among the great struggles of this modern age is addiction. Freely indulging our desires to excess often leads to them becoming necessities that soon come to possess us.

Indulging sinful desires also facilitates a growing attitude that sin is inevitable and that the call to biblical morality is overly idealistic, even impossible. Yes, expecting people to moderate their passions and desires, to live soberly and chastely, and to uphold marriage vows or to live in perpetual continence if not married—all of which were a short time ago considered normal moral imperatives—is now seen as oppressive, triggering, bigoted, hateful, and sometimes even criminal.

This certainly doesn’t sound like freedom to me. Rather, these false notions put forth seem like they are coming from people who are trapped by their sinful drives. The language used bespeaks incapacity, sloth, and a kind of despair that demands that we define sin and deviancy down. In this way Jesus words are proved true: Whoever sins is a slave of sin (Jn 8:34).

St. Paul adds this:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Despairing and having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more. But this is not the way you came to know Christ … Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor (Eph 4:17-19, 25).

This is why the Christian notion of liberty and freedom is so important for us to get right: True freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. In obeying God, we are truly free because each of us becomes the man or woman He created us to be. The very nature He gave us is perfected by the freeing obedience of faith.

What the world calls freedom is actually a licentiousness that approves many sins. It becomes a slavery that says, “I can’t, and I won’t.” It is a false liberty because it implicitly protests its inability to live out even the most ordinary moral norms and truths. It is a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of tolerance, diversity, acceptance, and false compassion. Liberty was not found in the fields of Woodstock or on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. The “Summer of Love” ushered in innumerable crosses: sexually transmitted diseases, single mothers/absent fathers, abortion, the hyper-sexualization of children, and recently the many cries of sexual abuse and harassment from the #MeToo movement. There’s no freedom here, just a lot of out-of-control behavior leading to sorrow, alienation, and even death through the horror of abortion.

Does this sound like freedom? Not to me!

Jesus counsels the remedy:

“If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (Jn 8:31-32, 35).

True freedom is found in the paradox of obedience to the Lord, who is Truth. Beware the false freedom that enslaves. Come to Him; obey Him through grace and find the true and glorious freedom of the children of God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Paradoxes of Freedom (part 1 of 3): True Freedom Is Found in Obedience

A Word of Encouragement for Discouraged Cultural Warriors

It is, on occasion, discouraging to live in times like these. This appears to be the end of an era, at least in the West. Our culture used to be called Christian or Judeo-Christian. It was not sin-free by any means—there was still greed and there were various forms of oppressive justice—but Christ and the Scriptures were the basis for a consensus on fundamental moral norms. It is hard to argue that our sense of justice enshrined in law over the centuries does not have Christianity in large part to thank for this. Further, our vision that God created the world and imbued it with logic and laws that reason could discern opened the way to the natural sciences and elevated philosophy, the arts, and literature. The establishment by the Catholic Church of the great monasteries and universities helped advance and institutionalize all of this.

Ancient Europe was like a young bride with her Husband, Christ. The Modern West is more like an angry divorcée with little memory of what her Groom has done for her and a raw contempt for His vision. Preferring the darkness, many see the light of the true Christ as harsh and intrusive.

Yes, these are difficult days, and true Christians are often discouraged. Just when it seems our culture cannot become more confused and rebellious, we seem to stoop to a new low.

A reminder of the resilience of truth comes to us in the Office of Readings during this 6th Week of Easter. Evil and error have their day, or even their era, but the Word of the Lord remains forever. In Tuesday’s Office we read this passage:

I have seen the wicked triumphant,
towering like a cedar of Lebanon.
I passed by again; he was gone.
I searched; he was nowhere to be found.

See the just man, mark the upright,
for the peaceful man a future lies in store,
but sinners shall all be destroyed.
No future lies in store for the wicked.

Then wait for the Lord; keep to his way.
It is he who will free you from the wicked,
raise you up to possess the land
and see the wicked destroyed
(Psalm 37:35-40).

This truth of the passing of error and the perdurance of truth is verified by history. In the age of the Church, empires and nations, fashions and fads, errors and heresies—all have come and gone—and yet here we are, still, preaching the gospel. The Church has outlasted all her enemies; we have read the funeral rites over many who swore they would destroy us. Psalm 37 says it plainly: “No future lies in store for the wicked.” We are told simply to “wait for the Lord; keep to his way.”

In the Book of Hebrews, we read,

When God subjected all things to Christ, He left nothing outside of his control. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him (Heb 2:8).

Even though we do not see it, the truth is that nothing is outside of the Lord’s control. How could it be? Even the darkest day of Christianity we call Good Friday. Why? Because even on that day of seeming disaster, when the assembled Church shrank to one apostle and four women, Jesus worked His greatest work. He made a way out of no way and in dying destroyed the power of death. He conquered pride by humility and disobedience by obedience. Satan fell right into the Lord’s trap; while he was running victory laps around the cross, Jesus entered his trophy room in Sheol and turned the place out.

Thus, although we do not always see all things subject to Christ, be assured that they are. He is Lord. Satan rages, but mostly because he knows his time is short. He is the “prince of this world,” but this world is passing away.

In the same Office of Readings for Tuesday of this week, we are admonished in this way:

Have no love for the world, nor the things that the world affords. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love has no place in him, for nothing that the world affords comes from the Father. Carnal allurements, enticements for the eye, the life of empty show—all these are from the world. And the world with its seductions is passing away, but the man who does God’s will endures forever (1 John 2:14-17).

That’s right, “trouble don’t last always.” We may not live to see the passing of these current evils, but they will. The truth will out. Neither be fearful of the world nor fawning over its passing powers and glory, for it is passing. Whoever does the will of the Lord endures forever.

The world and those enamored of its evils laugh at and scorn us now, but if they do not repent, they are going to be very surprised. We must pray and work for the conversion of all, including ourselves, but do not be discouraged. God’s Word is clear: evil and error are passing, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Word of Encouragement for Discouraged Cultural Warriors

Our Tendency to Entertain Lies as Seen in A Vintage Commercial

We tend to lie to ourselves about many things; we are even “glad” at times to have others lie to us. This is especially true in matters related to flattery and vanity. Perhaps we can label these “vain lies.”

There are other lies that are far more serious in their impact because they besmirch the truth that is necessary for us to thrive and even to be saved. Let’s call these “damnable lies.” Of these St. Paul warned,

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).

And he warns more darkly,

Evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Tim 3:13).

The commercial below speaks more to a vain lie, but edges toward a damnable lie because it can seriously affect our health. We often like to think that we eat less than we do. We also entertain lies related to our weight: we’re only heavy because we have a big frame or large bones. In the commercial, the woman assures us that drinking a small bottle of soda will actually help us to lose weight—not too likely!

Anyway, enjoy this lie from a pretty lady who probably never went anywhere near the product she was paid to sell.

On Honesty and Sincerity, As Seen in a Commercial

021315The word honesty comes from the Latin honestas meaning an honor received from others, a kind of “standing in honor” before others (honor + stas (to stand)). It’s interesting that most people are willing to be a little phony in order to get vague appreciation or to be thought well of. (The whole cosmetics industry is based on this.) But when one is actually “honored” in a formal way by others, there is an elevated sense that we need to truthfully deserve the honor. And thus honor calls forth honesty.

A similar concept is sincerity. The word sincerity comes from the Latin as well: sine (without) + cera (wax). It seems that sculptors in the ancient world often used a hard, resin-like wax to hide their errors. But every now and then there was the perfect carving, with no wax needed, nothing phony about it, no cover-ups.

I thought about these words as I saw this commercial. In the ad, the “honor” of engagement draws forth honesty and sincerity. The honesty of one person brings forth the honesty of the other and they both end up more relaxed.

Faith Is About Obedience

There is a very important phrase in the beginning of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which we are reading in daily Mass. A common modern conception of what it means to have faith has an egocentric element, for which St. Paul provides a remedy. In describing his authority and mission as an apostle, he says,

Through [Jesus] we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name (Romans 1:3-4).

There it is: the obedience of faith.

He repeats the same phrase at the very end of Romans as well:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ … through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (Romans 16:25-27).

So again we read, “the obedience of faith.” It forms the bookends of the Letter to the Romans. St. Paul both starts and ends the letter declaring his purpose to be bringing about the obedience of faith.

Are we listening? Faith requires obedience from us. There are precepts, knowledge, and commands to which we must be obedient. Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. If we have true faith, we will be obedient and we cannot have a saving obedience apart from faith. If we have faith, we will base our life upon its promises and demands. We will see and judge the world by the standards of faith, even if that challenge us and convicts us of error or wrongdoing. Who has not obedience cannot claim to have faith. You can tell a tree by its fruit. If there is no good fruit (obedience) then there is not a good tree (faith).

This is important because many today have turned faith into a kind of self-help, self-affirming thing. According to this notion, the role of faith and religion is to comfort me, affirm me, and give me meaning that pleases me. Many speak of the “god within,” or the “god of my understanding.” They think that they have a perfect right to craft their own “god” and worship him (or her, it, or them). Inventing your own god and worshipping it used to be called idolatry and was the most egregious sin imaginable. Today, however, many blithely call this being “spiritual but not religious” and self-righteously speak of their spiritual hubris as a kind of tolerance, enlightenment, and openness.

In such a view, “god” becomes a kind of “affirmer-in-chief” or divine butler whose role is to step and fetch, to provide for me and console me. A god who says no or summons us to difficult things is unimaginable to many. The “Jesus I know” or the “god of my understanding” is fine with almost any sin (except intolerance of course), and is, frankly, just a big sweetie-pie. Gone is the cross or any demand to repent or to come to conversion. If there is any demand at all, it is that I learn to love and accept myself just as I am and others just as they are.

Apparently Paul never got that memo. He sees faith as a truth to comprehend and obey. Faith is taught and revealed, not invented and self-proclaimed.

The Greek word translated here as obedience is ὑπακοή (hypakoe), which literally means to be under what is heard: hypo (under) + akouo (hear). Having heard the revealed faith, we are to be under its sway, its demands, and its truth.

The opening words of Jesus’ ministry were “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The word “repent” is a translation of the Greek metanoiete, which literally means “come to a new mind.” In other words, get rid of all that worldly mumbo-jumbo and the self-deception of the “god of your understanding.” Lose the trendy gibberish and double-talk. Come to a new, transformed mind that grasps the revealed truth of the gospel and have a will that is ready to obey.

St. Paul is clear that his work is to bring about the obedience of faith in us. Consolation, welcoming, and affirmation have their place, but obedience is the central goal—even if it means that affirmation, welcoming, and consolation must go. Would that all pastors and their flocks had this key goal in mind. To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (1 Sam 15:22).

Something We Can Learn About Ourselves After the Las Vegas Shootings

The recent shootings in Las Vegas have caused agony to many. May the dead rest in peace, the injured be healed, and families be consoled in their losses! Another lesser, but clearly expressed “agony” is apparent in the questions it raises: Why did he do it? Why did the shooter (I intentionally do not mention his name), who seemed to give no warning, do such a heinous thing? There is almost a desperation to figure out why. So deep is this longing to know that many will latch onto any explanation, no matter how weak, to satisfy this need.

I cannot add to our knowledge of the facts of this shooting or speak more eloquently of the sufferings than others have, so allow me to explore our deep need to know. Yes, there is something to learn about ourselves in this urgent desire to know and to explain.

The most fundamental origin of our yearning to know why the shooting occurred is rooted in a deeper and broader longing for all that this true. There exists, in every human person, a strong inclination toward the truth and a profound desire to know it. Each of us comes hard-wired with a longing that seems almost wholly absent in animals. It is expressed by the insistent questions we have, ones that are not easily satisfied:

  1. Why? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are things the way they are?
  2. What? What is my life ultimately all about? What is the meaning of things and events? What is the purpose of this or that? What is it like on the moon, on Mars, or out in space? What is over the next hill? What will bring me happiness?
  3. How? How does this work? How does this relate to other things? How can I get answers? How is this distinct from that? How can I find happiness and completion?

Yes, we are insatiably hungry for truth, for answers, for meaning, and will not be satisfied with pat answers or subterfuge. Indeed, we often feel indignant or even betrayed if we suspect or discover that someone is withholding the truth from us, “spinning it” somehow, or treating our legitimate quest for real answers as less than deserving of full investigation and solid responses.

So, it is self-evident that we are wired for truth. We seek it even at great personal cost. We want to know, to discover, to uncover what is new or mysterious. We love to explore and delight in learning new things. Throughout history people have embarked on dangerous journeys to far off lands — even into outer space — to seek what is true. Others venture into dangerous settings in order to find and report upon facts. Still others undertake risky experiments or devote their lives to tedious studies so as to discover, explain, and understand. A more unruly aspect of this longing of ours is that we can engage in sinful curiosity, straying into the personal lives of others and insisting on knowing things that we have no right to know.

As human history shows, this longing for true answers is never fully satisfied. We have never reached the point at which we have even considered saying, “Well, that’s all there is to know; no need to look around anymore or ask any more questions. We now know everything.” Indeed, such a scenario is inconceivable. We want to know. Each answer generates more questions and brings a deeper desire for truth, meaning, and more answers. And so we keep looking — deeper, wider, and longer.

The human psyche shouts, “I want to know! I want the complete truth!” While we might placate ourselves for a while with “technical” truths rooted in the physical sciences (e.g., how photosynthesis works), ultimately these will not satisfy us. Physical sciences are reasonably good at explaining how things work, but not why. We want deeper answers and truths that speak to the why of things.

“Why is there something instead of nothing? Why is there anything at all?” While an atheist may not accept that God is the answer, he cannot escape the validity of the questions because he has them as well. Neither can he escape the gnawing realization that the physical sciences cannot answer metaphysical questions or even pose them.

Yes, we are wired for the truth and will not be satisfied until we have found it. Restlessly, we seek it. Even if we want to resist its demands, we cannot resist it.

We may never know why the Las Vegas shooter did what he did and this will frustrate us. We may not learn about him but we can learn about ourselves, about our deep longing to know, explain, and establish the truth. We are so different from the animals in this, even from the highest primates. We were made to know the truth. Ultimately, Jesus alone can fulfill our longing, for He said, “I am the truth.”

Demonstrating Nature in Airport Design

credit: Mike, flickr

In our culture, many battles are fought on the question of nature. The word “nature” comes from the Latin natus, which means “birth.” Thus, nature is what we are intrinsically born with, what we are born to be. Church teaching and traditional philosophy insist that things have a nature. That is, they are endowed with certain fundamental traits that make them what they are.

As such, nature is something to discover and study. We go out to reality, study it, and obey its demands. Things (including people) have a nature, a purpose; we do well to respect that nature or we will suffer the consequences. God may forgive, but nature does not.

Yet in increasing ways, many people today deny that things have a nature. They argue that most of what has traditionally been called the nature of things is simply a human construct. And if we have constructed something, then we can tear it down; we can “deconstruct” it. As we all know, there is a lot of tearing down going on regarding the meaning of sexuality, gender, marriage, family, and so forth.

In terms of our human nature, there are some legitimate questions as to its interaction with roles. Traditionally, men assumed roles that were dangerous or physically strenuous. For example, many considered it unbecoming for a woman to be a firefighter, soldier, or iron worker. More recently, there has been greater acceptance of women undertaking such roles. These are roles, however, not nature per se. Masculinity and femininity provide a natural delineation. While roles can vary, we are not free to wholly cast aside the fact that there are two sexes, male and female. These are not mere constructs, they are inscribed in our nature, in our very bodies.

As most of you know, I like to keep my Saturday posts light, often featuring a video. In that spirit, I do not intend to go into a deep discourse about the deconstructionism of our times. Instead, I will simply offer an interesting video on airport construction! You may wonder what this has to do with nature, human or otherwise. To answer simply, it shows that those who design airports study human nature very carefully.

We humans behave in certain predictable ways because we share a common nature. Airports are designed to bank on our predictable behaviors. This underscores that nature is not a merely human construct that can change on a whim, but a stable and consistent reality that is common even across individual human variations. The fact is, we behave within a predictable range; those who have a financial interest in how we behave study human nature extensively. They cannot “afford” to entertain deconstructionist theories, which hold that our nature is a mere human construct. No indeed. To those involved in the marketplace, reality is very important; the deconstructionist view doesn’t help the bottom line.

Watch the entire video if you have the time. If not, even the first few minutes should get the point across.

Five Hard Truths That Will Set You Free

I have received many requests to republish a post from several years ago. The following five truths from that essay are indeed hard. They rock our world and stab at the heart of some of our most cherished modern notions. If they can be accepted for the truth they convey, however, they bring great peace. These truths are not only good medicine for our collective self-absorption but they also help us to have more realistic expectations as we live out our lives in this imperfect and limited world. Study these truths well. If they irritate you a bit, good; they’re supposed to. They are meant to provoke thought and reassessment.

I did not originate the following five principles, but the commentary is my own. So thank the one to whom the Holy Spirit first spoke them and tolerate my meager commentary.

1.  Life is hard. We live in times of comfort and convenience. Medicine has removed a lot of pain and suffering from our lives. Consumer goods are readily available and we have a wide array of choices. Entertainment comes in many varieties and is often inexpensive. Hard labor is something that few of us are familiar with. Obesity is common due to overconsumption and underactivity.

All of these creature comforts have led us to expect that life should always be just peachy. We become outraged at the slightest suffering, inconvenience, or delay.

Our ancestors lived lives that were far more “brutish and short,” to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes. Life was a “vale of tears.” They understood that suffering was a part of life. When we suffer today, we start thinking about lawsuits and who is to blame. Suffering seems obnoxious to us and hard work unreasonable! We are angered and flung into anxiety at the mere threat of suffering.

This principle reminds us that suffering and difficulty are part of life; they should be expected. Accepting suffering does not mean we have to like it. Acceptance of the fact that life will be hard at times means that we get less angry and anxious when it is; we do not lose serenity. In fact, it brings a strange sort of peace. We are freed from unrealistic expectations that merely breed resentment. We also become more grateful for the joys we do experience.

2.  Your life is not about you. If you want to make God chuckle, tell Him your plans. If you really want to give him a belly laugh, tell Him His plans! We often like to think that we should just be able to do what ever pleases us and maximizes our “self-actualization.” However, we do not decide alone what course our life will take.

In this age of “nobody tells me what to do,” it is important to remember that our true happiness comes from getting not what we want, but what God wants. Our destiny is not to follow our star; it is to follow God. True peace comes from careful discernment of God’s will for us.

It is sad how few people today ever really speak ahead of time with God about important things like careers, entering into a marriage, or pondering a large project. We just go off and do what we please, expecting God to bail us out if it doesn’t go well. You and I do not exist merely for our own whims; we have a place in God’s plan. We have greater serenity when we discern that place and humbly seek God’s will. Accepting the fact that we are not the masters of our own destiny, not the captains of our own ship, gives us greater peace. It also usually saves us a lot of mileage.

Humbly accepting that our life is not simply about us and what we want is a freeing truth. We often don’t get what we want; if we can allow life to just unfold and not demand that everything be simply the way we want it, we can be more serene and free.

3.  You are not in control. Control is something of an illusion. We may have plans for tomorrow but there are many things between now and tomorrow over which we have no control. For example, we cannot even control or guarantee the next beat of our heart. I may think I have tomorrow under control, but tomorrow is not promised; it may never come.

Because we think that we control a few things, we think that we can control many things. Not really. Our attempts to control and manipulate outcomes are comical, sometimes even harmful.

Thinking that we can control things leads us to think that we must control them. This in turn leads to great anxiety and often anger as well.

We usually think that if we are in control we will be less anxious. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the more we think we can control, the more we try to control, which increases our burdens and anxiety. We end up getting angry because we discover that there many things and people we cannot control after all. This causes frustration and fear.

We would be freer and less anxious if we would simply accept the fact that there are many things—most things, in fact—over which we have no control. Our expectation of everything being under control is unrealistic. Life comes at you fast. Brooding over unpredictable and uncontrollable things amounts to bondage. Simply accepting that we are often not in control is freeing.

4.  You are not that important. This one hurts. We often think that the whole world should revolve around us. We think it is only our feelings that matter and our wellbeing that is important. We are loved by God in a very particular way, but that does not change the fact that we must often yield to others who are also loved by God in a very special way.

Sometimes other people are more important than we are. We might even be called upon to give our life so that others may live. We must yield to others whose needs are more crucial than our own. The world doesn’t exist just for us and what we want.

There is great peace and freedom in coming to accept this. We are often made so anxious if we are not recognized while others are, or if our feelings and preferences are not everyone’s priority. Accepting the truth that we are not that important allows us to relax and enjoy caring about other people and celebrating their importance.

5.  You are going to die. We get all worked up about what this world dishes out, but just take a walk in a cemetery. Those folks were all worked up too. Now their struggles are over. If they were faithful, they are with God; they are now experiencing that “trouble don’t last always.”

This truth also helps us to do the most important thing: get ready to meet God. So many people spend their lives clowning around and goofing off, ignoring our most urgent priority. In the end, this is freeing because we are loosed from the many excessive and often conflicting demands of the world; we can concentrate on doing the one thing necessary. Our life simplifies and we don’t take this world too seriously because we understand that it is passing away. There is great peace and freedom in coming to accept this.

So there you have them, five hard truths that will set you free. Think about them. Memorize them. Pull them out when life comes at you fast and hard with its agenda of control, self-importance, and empty promises of perfect comfort here on earth. A simple, sober, humble, and focused life brings great serenity.