Freedom

(This post was not intended as an ode to the recently-lost-from-us George Michael, but if your mind wanders in that direction given the title, meh.)

On the first of this year–what I had expected to be a sleepy Sunday poorly attended by our congregation (I myself had difficulty in summoning the will to attend, so I cast no aspersions)—our church held a Weslayan Covenant service. Many came to re-commit themselves to following after Christ in discipleship and humility—a pretty good way to start the year, I think.

The covenant service is a Methodist tradition in which members of congregation solemnly affirm (or reaffirm) their commitment to walk with Christ…and beg forgiveness for their past failures to do live up to the covenant. The service carries with it—as one might expect—a strong undercurrent of humility, obedience and service to the Lord no matter the cost. On first hearing the liturgy, one as selfish and concerned with his own will as myself might be tempted to focus on the humbling of oneself and the turning over to God of control. Difficult as it may be for one like me, such an offering is good and righteous, for the Lord’s yoke is light.

Instead of that focus, though, my thoughts ran in a very direction. I thought about what freedom of will really means. We think about freedom of will as the ability to choose—and it is that, but we must have a more specific definition, I think. To be free is to choose because the thing chosen is what the chooser really wants (or perhaps wants to want). The alternative is to be driven to a choice because of what other people will think, or the consequences to self that might follow; that is a choice that is not free.

In a previous post I talked about moving toward a more positive morality, arguing that it would be more in line with Christ’s teachings. To put that in the perspective of free will in this discussion, consider the difference between the law-abiding citizen who chooses to be lawful out of fear of punishment and the citizen who follows the law because he believes that the law correctly describes actions that should morally be required or forbidden. The end result may look similar, but only one of these individuals has freely entered into his determination to abide by the law.

Rather than a sacrifice of the will, I realized that entering into a covenant to be a servant to God regardless of one’s own desires is not simply a single act of will, but a continuous commitment to exercise one’s will in a non-intuitive and unselfish way. The strongest will is tempered with discipline—that will acts only of its own accord and not because of factors external to it.

When we talk about freedom in Christ, this, I think, is one of the things we mean but often lose in the mental construct of our servanthood. Rather than being led around by our sin like some harnessed animal, we choose our own path. We become unfettered so that we may make of ourselves what we wish to be. If we follow Christ’s call to us, we shall one day become that perfect version of ourselves God created us to be. The slave to sin is unfree, but the willing servant of Christ is. Paradoxical perhaps, but as Chesterton likes to tell us, there are many things in Christianity that are.

Freedom and subordination to the will of God is one of those things that Chesterton would put in the category of those “furious opposites” when he states that, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.” As we like to say in Methodist theology: it’s not an “either/or”, it’s a “both/and.”

But using the freedom of will—especially as it is given to us in Christ—is no easy task, and I do not mean to imply any antinomian doctrine. Christ’s blood has redeemed and continuously redeems us, but it does not relieve us from responsibility. One of my best friends once told me that “we are as free as we are willing to accept the consequences of our actions.” That wisdom has stuck with me for years because in that wisdom is the freedom that Christ offers. When we are willing to suffer for what is right—to bear the consequences of being righteous, how could we not be free? What could stop us, for the Lord is truly with us when we choose what is right without counting the cost.

We often misuse our will. More often this is because we allow ourselves to be controlled by circumstances that impose themselves upon our will—emotions run amok, our view of societal expectations, our fears. That is not to say that such things are necessarily bad and to be avoided. Our emotions are good things when we feel them but do not allow them to control us; they give us clues as to what we think, what our motivations are and who we are and want to become.

Likewise, some societal norms are beneficial—they are shortcuts to morality. I used to look distastefully at rules of etiquette, seeing them only as a methodology by which a group may insulate itself from outsiders. K has showed me, however, that certain rules of etiquette—usually what we call rules of hospitality—are actually designed to help outsiders feel comfortable and to ease the tensions of dealing with the unfamiliar. This form of kindness becomes reflexive, and that is why we appreciate other people who are well-mannered. Are their times when the situation calls for bending or breaking even beneficial norms? Yes, but then I’m rarely one to claim to have any sort of knowledge that gives me confidence enough to make a statement of the absolute.

Fear, also, is an ever-present reality, though many of our fears spring from our own creation and/or are not based in reality. Nevertheless, they become part of our psychology and they drive us—sometimes consciously, sometimes not. The daily fears of the average American may be smaller in magnitude than those living in less fortunate places—“will I keep my job?” versus “will I get to eat today?”—but they are also insidious and subtle.

These are only a few of the things we let lead us around and control our will (I feel I need not expand on the role of sin and selfishness on this front). I use them simply as examples of ways we are unfree even in the belief that we are free.

All of this is to say that we Christians ought to seriously think about the meaning of freedom in our theology. To some, submission to Christ appears to be an onerous and limiting undertaking, though this could not be farther from the truth.

We need to stop using shorthand without explanation. I commonly hear phrases like “submission to Christ,” “freedom in Christ,” or “servant-hearted.” These make great catchphrases, but from a semiotic view, I’m not sure what exactly they’re supposed to signify without interposing my own definitions. This, I think, is representative of the fact that we lack a developed theology of freedom and the will outside of its role in salvation. The result is that popular imagination imposes a quite dour and depressing view of human agency in Christianity, a view that I’d describe as “we were given free will to give it up to God.”

As I hope I’ve made somewhat clear above, I don’t think that that’s accurate. I think we need a theology of the will that uplifts and celebrates the existence of human individuality and willfulness while both cautioning against wanton and destructive uses of the will and demonstrating that following Christ is simultaneously an act of willful submission and an experience of greater freedom of the will. Let us be furious in our maintenance of both sides of this paradoxical relationship.

 

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