The Paradoxes of True Freedom

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.

Five Hard Truths That Will Set You Free

Some years ago I read an essay by  the Franciscan Theologian Richard Rohr. I will say that I do not share a lot of agreement with Richard Rohr (no need to detail that here) but I found this particular essay compelling. I do not recall the exact title of that essay but in my mind the title “Five Hard Truths that Will Set You Free” seems the best title.  The following  five truths from that essay are indeed hard truths. They tend to rock our world and stab at the heart of some of our most cherished modern notions. But if they can be accepted for the truth they convey they bring great peace. We live is a rather self-absorbed, self-pre-occupied time and these five truths are not only good medicine for that but they also help us to have more realistic expectations as we live in an 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. The principles are Richard Rohr’s the comments are mine.

  1. Life is hard –We live in rather comfortable times. These are times of convenience and central air conditioning. Medicine has removed a lot of pain and suffering and consumer goods are in abundance and variety. Entertainment comes in many varieties and is often inexpensive. Hard labor is something few of us know, obesity is common due to over abundance. Because of all these creature comforts we have tended to expect that life should always be peachy. We are rather outraged at suffering, inconvenience and delay. Our ancestors lived lives that were far more brutal and short and they often spoke of life as a “vale of tears” and understood that suffering was just a part of life. But when we suffer we start to think in terms of lawsuits. Suffering seems obnoxious to us, hard work, unreasonable! We are often easily angered and flung into anxiety at the mere threat of suffering. This principle reminds us that suffering and difficulty are part of life, something that should be expected. Accepting suffering does not mean we have to like it. But acceptance of the fact that life can be hard at times means we get less angry and anxious when it does come. We do not lose serenity. Accepting that suffering is inevitable brings a strange sort of peace. We are freed from unrealistic expectations that merely breed resentments. We also become more grateful for the joys we do experience. Accepting that life can be hard is a truth that sets us free.
  2. Your life is not about you– If you want to make God laugh tell Him your 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 be reminded that our true happiness comes not from getting what we want but what God wants. Our destiny isn’t to follow our star but 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 with God about important things like careers, entering into a marriage, pondering a large project. We just go off and do what we please and expect 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. Our serenity is greater when we prayerfully discern that place and humbly seek God’s will. Accepting the fact that we are not merely masters of our own destiny and captains of our own ship gives us greater peace and usually saves us a lot of mileage. Humbly accepting the truth that my life is not simply about me and what I want is a truth that sets me free. This is true because we often don’t get what we want. If we can allow life to unfold more and not demand that everything be simply what I want I am  more serene and free.
  3. You are not in control– Control is something of an illusion. You and I may have plans for tomorrow but there are many things between now and tomorrow over which I have no control. For example, I cannot even control or guarantee the next beat of my heart. Hence I may think I have tomorrow under control but tomorrow is not promised and may never come. Because we think we control a few things we think we can control many things. Not really. Our attempts to control and manipulate outcomes are comical if not hurtful. Thinking that we can control many things leads us to think that we must control them. This in turn leads to great anxiety and often anger. We usually think that if we are in control we will be less anxious. This is not true, we are more anxious. The more we think we can control the more we try to control and thus the greater our burdens and anxiety. In the end we get 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, over which I have no control. Our expectation of everything being under control is unrealistic. Life comes at you fast and brooding over unpredictable things and uncontrollable matters is bondage. Simply accepting that I am often not in control is freeing.
  4. You are not that important– Uh Oh! Now this one hurts. I thought the whole world should revolve around me. I thought it was only my feelings that mattered and my well- being that was important. Truth be told, we are loved by God in a very particular way but that does not over rule the fact that I must often yield to others who are also loved by God in a very special way. The truth is sometimes that other people are more important than me. I might even be called on to give my life so that others may live. I must often yield to others whose needs are more crucial than mine. The world doesn’t exist just for me and what I want. There is great peace and freedom in coming to accept this. We are often made so anxious if we are not recognized and others are or if our feelings and preferences are not everyone’s priority. Accepting the truth that I am not that important allows us to relax and enjoy caring about other people and celebrating their importance too.
  5. You are going to die. – Oh man, that’s cold. Yes, it is a hard truth but it is very freeing. We get all worked up about what this world dishes out. But talk a walk in a cemetery. Those folks were all worked up too. Now their struggles are over and, if they were faithful they are with God. 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. Yet our most urgent priority is to prepare to meet God. In the end, this is freeing because we are loosed from the many, excessive and contrary demands of the world and we concentrate on doing the one thing necessary. Our life simplifies and we don’t take this world too seriously, it is passing away. There is 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 too and pull them out when life comes at you fast and hard with it’s agenda of control, self importance and empty promises of perfect comfort here on earth. A simple, sober, humble and focused life brings great serenity.

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.