Freedom and Fences
(Originally published 7/10/15)
Recently, two friends of mine, who have been Christians all their lives, walked away from their faith. They feel relieved to be no longer constricted by the religious system they once followed, and by Jesus himself. Both friends have expressed a new found joy and
freedom, finally able to “be themselves”, unhindered by the confines of the spoken and unspoken code which bound them. Where once they felt trapped, they now feel liberated. Where once they felt like frauds, they are now fully authentic. Whereas the circumstances surrounding their jailbreak are different, they share a common weightlessness that accompanies their escape.
I’m sure you’ve known stories like these. You may have actually felt first-hand this emancipation of the soul. It is jarring to a committed Christian like myself to hear of people breaking free from a faith that I find so liberating. Can these people really be free? What was so constricting about their faith in Jesus that they felt the need to bolt? Surely this weightless feeling won’t last, right? Won’t they eventually feel trapped by their addictions, their anxieties, their pursuit of meaning? In this blog post, I will attempt to sort out true vs. false freedom, to validate the human necessities of autonomy and constraint, and to envision an intoxicating freedom within faith in Jesus.
What is so restricting about Christianity?
Both of my friends left Christianity because they found it too encumbering. People often leave the faith (or never believe at all) because they think it squashes their freedoms. To be honest, the Bible does have a lot to say about how we live our lives, and part of that is laying down limitations. Don’t have sex outside marriage, love your enemies, don’t love money, don’t lie to make yourself look better, live a temperate self-controlled life, and many more boundaries. It is not easy to fight against our natural inclinations in order to obey Jesus. I can understand someone feeling like they can’t live up to God’s standards, so they just quit trying. Or someone who has been disobeying for a long time, but wants to shed the guilt that comes with faith in Jesus. But does this really bring freedom?
Is real freedom even possible?
One of the most deadly lies that we fall prey to is that the human will can be absolutely free. It is powerful bait, to be sure, but it leads all of us at one time or another into the pit. The only humans who have ever truly had a free will were Adam, Eve and Jesus. Think about it. Even though Adam & Eve had the restriction of the forbidden tree, they had the perfect choice to sin or not to sin. They were untainted by sinful desires. After they ate the fruit, humankind has been under a curse, and therefore unable, apart from faith in Jesus, to choose not to sin. This is the condition we were all born into. We are bent towards selfish desires – not that we will necessarily go to the deepest depravity of our hearts, but that we could. Even our goodness is tainted by pride (“I choose to do good so that I feel superior to those who don’t”) and fear (“I choose to do good so that I don’t suffer the repercussions of bad choices”). Placing our faith in Jesus (Who, as Second Adam chose not to sin) doesn’t bring us to the pre-fall state of man – we still battle our innate selfish nature – but it does give us the power to choose not to sin.
This is the tug of war that Paul describes in Romans 7. “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” In heaven, we will finally be free of the struggle, but even then not perfectly free, like Adam & Eve, because we will only have the ability to choose good.
So, when the Tempter whispers freedom in your ear, don’t believe it for a second. Jesus never claimed that following Him would bring freedom, only rest. He promised that His burden would be light, and His yoke easy. This implies that there is a burden that is heavy and a yoke that is hard. What seems at first like freedom from Jesus’s yoke will eventually be heavy bondage to something else.
What in the world binds us?
When we unhook from Jesus, and run off into the wide open spaces of life apart from Him, we will most certainly become slaves to something else – something that brings temporary and diminishing satisfaction. Take a few minutes and think about a recurring fantasy. If you are a Christian, do you ever think about what you could do with your life without the restrictions of trying to obey Christ? What non-Christian do you envy and why? Imagine yourself walking away from the responsibilities of the life you live now. Imagine being free of Jesus’ command to love God and love others, or any other command for that matter. Let yourself go all the way down that trail in your mind. Where does it end? Living one hundred percent for yourself, inventing your own morality, doing only what makes you “happy” will not lead to freedom, I guarantee it. The things that give you happiness now, you will need more and more of, and eventually they will stop providing solace. This is not speculation. I have seen too many people follow a path of initial euphoric freedom that only ends in destruction.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov. 16:25)
What in the church binds us?
I have to deal with the church, now, because there are plenty of added (albeit sometimes well-intentioned) burdens placed on Christians by their leaders. More often than not, the people who discard their faith in God in order to pursue freedom have come from strict religious backgrounds where they have stumbled under the weight of man-made restrictions. Humans have a hard enough time following the clear commands of Scripture. We don’t need our leaders to pile on a bunch of other rules that make it nearly impossible to please God. (As if us following the rules is really what God is after. I’ll get to that in a minute.) Jesus reserved his harshest words for the religious rulers who did this.
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
I’m not suggesting that all the blame be placed on leaders for Christians leaving their churches, but I am saying that it is natural for people to tie the harsh legalism of a church to Jesus and discard them both.
A proper view of the rules.
Christ promised that obeying him would bring rest. How can this be? My friends who left the faith would beg to differ. They are finding more “peace” now that they are free of Christ’s restrictions than before when they were duty-bound. Could it be that they never viewed the rules the right way? How should we think about the rules?
The rules are a means to an end, not the end itself. What is the goal? God’s goal for us is to glorify Him by living exactly how He created us to live. He holds the blueprint to our souls since he created us, so he knows the potential dangers of us pursuing our own path. The rules are not meant to keep us from happiness, they are meant to save us from ourselves
The rules mean less to God than you’d think. If we understand that the rules are for our protection, then when we mess up, or have a hard time keeping them, we are only hurting ourselves, but not necessarily pissing God off. This is where religion has screwed things up. God does care that we live within his boundaries, but it is less for His sake than for ours. He is eager to forgive us when we mess up and wants us to get up and try again
The Gospel is key. The Gospel is the story of God coming to earth and keeping all the rules, then dying as our substitute so that when we break the rules (which we will, continually), God the Father only sees in us the righteousness of His Son. This gives us great hope. God isn’t mad at you. He loves you. He wants the best for you.
Now, I know that a proper view of the rules isn’t going to magically make everyone want to obey, but hopefully it helps us at the very least not to resent the rule-giver. I also don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of staying within God’s boundaries. I know people who go through years of their lives in white-knuckle obedience when there is absolutely no payout. For whatever reason, God sometimes withholds from us the understanding of why we must obey. This is part of living by faith, and I do believe God is pleased when we obey without sight. We will see someday.
Jesus offers both freedom and safety.
Your life is a playground. If you’re a Christian, yours has a fence around it. Your playground may be more expansive and more fun than you think. But it still has a fence. Sometimes you are perfectly happy to explore the vast playground of your life without thought of the fence. Then there are the times when the grass looks mighty green on the other side of the fence, and it takes a tremendous amount of faith for you not to climb over it, but to trust that it is there for your protection. Sometimes you climb over and stick your toe in the grass, and sometimes you bulldoze the fence down, but when that happens, if you are God’s child, He will pursue you until you are safely within the fence again.
I’ve been listening a lot to Gungor’s album, Mountains. I like these lyrics to the song Wandering.
“I’ve been wandering through this world, looking for an anchor to hold me. I’ve been stumbling through this world, searching for the thread that might free me. I am looking to you. I am holding on to you.”
Jesus is both the thread that frees me, and the anchor that holds me. If I am tethered to him, I have both freedom and safety.