Mythical Freedom and Real Freedom

What_does_freedom_really_mean.jpgYesterday we celebrated freedom here in America.

But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free?  The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies.  So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ.  They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.

He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

A freedom tied to obedience

These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute.  As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.”  Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”.  The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom.  There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.

What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong.  If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?

Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love.  We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny.  This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.

I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers.  They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.

A freedom tied to external revelation 

One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed.  “If you want to own a gun, own a gun.  If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion.  If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.”  What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone.  Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being.  What if you want my wife?  Or my children?  Or my stuff?

So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”

Ah, but there’s the problem.  One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone.  Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine  rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server.  But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.

The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage.  Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul.  “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you”  Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom.  Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.

Simple right? We’re all free.  Yes, free.  And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom.  How’s this working for us?  Not so well, I’d argue.

What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke.  Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing.  My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps.  Freedom?  Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway.  That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.

Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable.  Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.

In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more.  But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.

The Illusion of Freedom 

When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children.  We have never been anyone’s slaves…”  In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?”  I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome.  Before that it was Greece.  Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire.  Before that it was Babylon.  Before that it was Assyria.  Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.

We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.

But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need.  This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”.  And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough.  Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority.  That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.

“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”

 

“Not Burdensome”…. musings on the ease of obedience and self-denial

 

Is self denial a burden?

In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah.  It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching.  Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked.  I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of  it all… cheers!

Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause.  In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away.  I, the Lord, affirm it!  I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”

God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden.   This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome.   Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money.  Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help.   Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another.   In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.

Not burdensome?  Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:

What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?

What God’s thinking about is the big picture.   When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself.   Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths

There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment.  This is one of the most important truths in the universe.  You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart.  You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.

Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 

The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day.  The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts.  The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation.  The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.

You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden.  But in the end?  The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy.  They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.

God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers.  They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest.   In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden.  To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway.  Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy.  Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.

Christ’s motivator was joy!

He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice.  In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed.  And yet he said his commands were not burdensome!  Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?

Not at all.  We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him.  Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”.  We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden.  I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory.  One taste though, and we’re hooked.  When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.

A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.

And we think God’s commands are burdensome?  Maybe we should reconsider.   After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”

To suffering.  To self-denial.  To service.  To life!

I welcome your thoughts….

 

 

Sexual Ethics – time for healthy conversations

We Christians, especially in America, are terrible at having healthy conversations about sexuality and sexual ethics.  The landscape of these conversations are ripe with charges, counter-charges, fear, and sweeping judgements, so much so that when I write about sexuality, I need to read all the comments carefully so as to remove the hateful words that inevitably show up, offered in the name of “staying true to the faith” or “holiness” or some other such nonsense, in much the same way that the Pharisees had their rocks in hand, ready to kill, but only after they’d used the woman caught in adultery to catch Jesus in a theological conundrum so that they could condemn him too.  He’d have none of it, though, for either the woman or himself.  That’s because the gospel is, after all, good news – for the woman caught in adultery, and for literally every other person on the planet, if we’ll but let it be what it actually is.

No other arena of Christian ethics kills the hope of the gospel more than the slaughtering we’ve done of sexual ethics.  We invoke church discipline in this arena inconsistently and harshly, in ways that elevate some sins above others.  We act as if Christian sexual ethics are easy and absolute, the same everywhere for all time, when the reality is that our ethic is fluid, as seen in dress codes, french kissing, oral sex, the distinction between longing and lust, and o so much more.  We sometimes act is if heterosexual sin is less offensive to God than homosexual sin.  And worst of all, actions become labels:  She’s not a teenager sold into sexual slavery who performs sex acts as a means of providing food for her family; she’s a prostitute.  He’s not a man who occasionally fantasizes about sexual experiences with other men –  he’s a homosexual.  She’s not a woman who loves her husband fiercely, but in one night of drunken weak will, gave up her fidelity at a high school reunion and woke up with regret.  She’s an adulterer.

These labels we give each other take all the nuances that are our sexuality and turn them into a label we’re then told to wear, as if this action, or that longing is who we are.  This is what flames shame, and hence non-confession, and hence hypocrisy.  This makes honest and nuanced conversation about Christian sexuality difficult, even impossible in some circles.  As a result, the whole topic’s driven underground.  As Jenell Williams Paris writes in her marvelous book, “Reticence to engage the issues in a sustained and civil manner has led – and is still leading – to secrecy, repression, taboo and scandal.”  The fruits of this are seen in the secrecy of Christians struggles with sexual ethics and sin, as so many feel there’s no safe place for conversation.  Those who feel that way aren’t fabricating their fear.  I know it’s real because of the sweeping condemnations invoked in Jesus name from pulpits and print.  When I’ve blogged about homosexuality in the past, I’d estimate that there were about 10% of the comments that I refused to approve, because their words were so harsh and damning, even while they would sometimes say them, according to their own view, “in love”.

So, here are three resources to help you bring the issues into the light.  Read, agree, disagree, discuss charitably.  Above all else though, bring these conversations into the light, so that we can, as people of hope, provide a sense of safety for people to explore the intersections of faith and sexuality.  The result will be, I believe, a coming into the light and safety of grace, which is above all else, a place of health and transformation.

Your Brain on Porn is a ‘secular’ website that catalogs the damning nature of porn by virtue of what it does, physiologically, to the brain.  I’ve pointed several men to this material who’ve thanked me, finding it frankly more helpful than a website quoting Bible verses about sexual purity.  The problem with those Bible verses, often, is that folks stuck in porn already know them, but have become stuck in a dopamine addiction that overrides reason and their commitments to holiness.  Ironically, many people find that when the subject is de-spiritualized a bit that it’s easier to deal with it and break free.  The website includes testimonials from people whose lives were transformed by breaking free.  Every pastor should have this website in their toolkit, but so should every friend, and every person.

The Demise of Guys is a book I reviewed earlier, but offer it here again because just as women do, men face unique issues which have conspired to hinder their full functioning.  Guys have become more passive, less able to pay attention, less inclined to choose reality over fantasy, and more filled with shame, fear, and insecurity.  All of this is the result of the cultural air we breath, including porn, video games, and fantasy leagues.  Until guys name this stuff,  commit to renewing their minds, and choose life giving ways of using their free time, there’ll be little hope.  This book is a wake up call, and can be a first step toward a fuller life for many guys.

Finally, “The End of Sexual Identity” is an important book for anyone looking for an honest conversation about sexuality and Christian ethics.  I sense that the author’s shaped by Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” book, which means that she resists easy moralizing and judgmentalism, believing that proof texting, and shooting people with Bible verses isn’t what it means to be Christ followers.  For this reason, many conservative won’t like her.  On the other hand, she makes a strong case of exalting celibacy and chastity, which will no doubt alienate some liberals who falsely believe that being sexual active is a necessary ingredient for being fully human.  There are far too few books on this topic that nuanced, thoughtful, gracious, and well grounded in both scripture and cultural history.  This is one of them, and so even though I doubt anyone will agree with everything she writes, I recommend it without reservation.  After all, what’s needed right now aren’t the same old theological sound bytes, delivered up more loudly, or with special scary effects.

What’s needed is a bringing of sexuality into the light so that we can say to one another, “come – let us reason together”.  This will help us become more like Jesus, both individually, and collectively.

Happy Reading!    Feel free to share other resources that have proven helpful by responding in the comments section.