The Paradoxes of True Freedom

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 .
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. I am free to spend money today only because I previously constrained myself to earn it and save it.
  3. 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:

  1. John 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
  2. John 8:32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

10 Replies to “The Paradoxes of True Freedom”

  1. I like the 3rd. But in my opinion, even if we choose not to be God’s slaves, we are still becoming someone else’s slaves i.e. ourselves. So, I’ll pick God’s yoke anytime because, it is light and sweet.

    My favorite paradox seems to be missing from the list i.e. freedom is not free. For the children of God, it was bought at such a great price with the blood of the Lamb. As Americans, it is preserved by vigilance and the blood of patriots.

    1. Yes, thanks for the link. I did read the article on rupture and discontinuity and recommend it to others. Surely this is emblematic of or our times that are so disconnected from the wisdom and teaching of the past. In the Church we have to recover continuity with Tradition. I expereinced this as I began to celebrate the Latin Mass 21 years ago. Not only did I feel linked to the traditions but I also glimpsed a bit of what true reform sought to accomplish. There wer some things in the Old Mass that needed attention however not in the radical and rupturing sense that was applied. We need to go back and find the commections that were lost. Your article is a good help in that endevour

  2. Yesterday (July 4th) my family attended Mass at St Vincent de Paul in Berkeley Springs, WV. The priest, Fr Leonard Smith, spoke about patriotism. He closed his homily by reading the following proclamation from President Lincoln. I found these words to be very powerful, and perhaps even more relevant today than nearly 150 years ago:

    WHEREAS, The Senate of the United States; devoutly recognizing the Supreme authority and just government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation.

    And Whereas, it is the duty of nations, as well as of men, to owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.

    And, insomuch as we know that, by His Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People. We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown.

    But we have forgotten God.

    We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!

    It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

    Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

    All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope, authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

    In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

    Done at the City of Washington, this thirtieth day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty seventh.

    Abraham Lincoln,

    William H Seward,
    Secretary of State

  3. Regarding your fourth paradox, it’s striking how the Apostles rejoiced in claiming to be servants or slaves of Jesus Christ – the letters of Paul (to the Romans, Philippians and Titus), of James, Peter (2), and Jude, and the Book of Revelation all open with this boast which, in a society that accepted human slavery, must have sounded shocking to outsiders.

    Of course, the claim to be servants/slaves is just another way of affirming that Jesus is their Lord and Master – Kyrios and Dominus are the standard Greek and Latin words (respectively, and leaving aside other meanings) for the owner of a slave.

  4. Thank you. This is a very appropriate and solid message for all. Bishop Sheen’s lectures are also ageless.

  5. Living in sin leaves an emptiness in the heart that ways down a person as if they were tied down by a chain to a boulder that does not allow them any freedom. your britney spears and your michael Jacksons of the world have the money and fame but with no constraints seem to be the most miserable. On the other hand, when a person feels as if they were in love, they become tied to the one that they are in love with and are constraint by the need to take care of the one that they love yet all the while they never see it as a burden, but some thing that they want to do even to the point of laying down one’s life. this is hardly slavery. I love my wife and children and would readily die for them, and it would not make me feel like a slave. in all actuality it would make me feel more alive even in death. This can hardly be slavery. you can not enslave the willing.

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