Christian Liberty: Free, or Not Really So Free After All?

It’s odd. In our religion freedom figures so highly, but we seem to experience so little.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (II Corinthians 3:17-18)

Freedom / Liberty

Many images come to mind when we think freedom: a woman riding her Harley-Davidson on a winding coastal highway, a grampa fishing on a mountain lake with his granddaughter, a carload of college students on spring break driving to South Padre Island, or a camera trained on the lucky winner of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.

Freedom is intimately connected with beholding God in the passage above. When we’re first starting out, that beholding can come with the wobbly baby-steps of sitting in silence and contemplating the proximity of God at your center. The word Paul uses here is ἐλευθερία (eleutheria) — the liberty, the freedom of God.

Focusing on external, Christ-like actions is not what I’m talking about here. As I understand it, our actions are to flow naturally from who we really are, and who we really are undergoes a continuing metamorphosis that results from beholding God. Some people will approach becoming like the Messiah with Aristotle in mind, who taught that people become just by acting justly. You remember, actions = habits = character = destiny. And this approach is valid. It works. That’s a pragmatic, Biblical approach. In this post however, I’m looking at an equally Biblical approach to becoming “the person you really are.”

Postmodernism has deconstructed the notion of the “self,” and insists that there is no such thing as a stable, coherent, knowable self. This seems to me quite congruent with the Corinthians passage. Instead of our self view being constructed by a constellation of organizational affiliations and people’s opinions of us, Paul urges us to behold “ultimate reality” and allow that experience to do its work. But folks like Kant and Derrida are not the focus of this post.

Transformation and Ridicule

Remember what we’re talking about here: how beholding God, sitting quietly in the presence of God (as faulty as that phrasing may be) will result in becoming more like God.

Our freedom to be transformed into the bold, assertive, confident people that Jesus models for us–that freedom comes to us on the authority of God, so it doesn’t matter what resistance we get, or from whom. Whether you emerged from adolescence as a straight-laced goody-two-shoes, or as a sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n roll rebel-without-a-cause, you will be maligned and criticized (blasphemed) when you leave your group. The Jewish leaders spoke evil (βλασφημοῦντες) of Jesus (Luke 22:65). They spoke evil (βλασφημοῦντες) of Paul (Acts 13:45). Old friends spoke evil (βλασφημοῦντες) of new believers when they left their debauched, party-animal lives (I Peter 4:4). You have probably heard what Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

You are free. It doesn’t matter what threats they mutter against you or what they say is now your dark, eternal destiny. It doesn’t matter what motives they assign to your actions or character flaws they allege. The word blasphamountes (βλασφημοῦντες) is rendered: to speak evil of, slander, abuse, vilify, malign, and blaspheme, and does not apply exclusively to deity. I’m sure you remember what Jesus said:

A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called the Prince of Demons, how much more the members of his household!

Freedom According to Paul

Our freedom comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. Think about what the gospels tell us about Jesus. The freedom Christ had to minister to the masses, to publicly rebuke the scribes and Pharisees, to retreat from public ministry and hike with his disciples in the hills of Galilee, to take time alone to recharge his batteries, to ignore the criticisms of his family–we have these freedoms as well. We don’t need to be afraid of people, of the future, for our own individual futures, or for our salvation.

Paul discusses our freedom in many places. Our freedom from the Mosaic Law is highlighted in Galatians 5:1: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” In Galatians 5:13 Paul writes, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Even here, you remain free. You could use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature. I certainly have, and the world didn’t come to an end. You really are free. In his discussion of conscience in I Corinthians 10:23-33 Paul says that even though we may choose to curb our freedom in response to the needs of another, those occasional choices do not negate our essential freedom: “For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?” (This is what attorneys would call a “Non-Waiver Clause.”)

“The Perfect Law of Liberty” According to James

Freedom was so important to Jesus’ brother James that he elevated it to the status of law, the perfect law of liberty.

But those individuals who look intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abide by it, not becoming forgetful hearers but effective doers, these individuals will be blessed in what they do.

And James really does mean that your liberty is a law. It is a law to which you are expected to conform. You are free, you will live in freedom, and your actions and words are to reflect that freedom.

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.

What does this mean in real life? One thing it means is that now you are to act freely, and not give excuses for why you don’t. “I couldn’t do that because of what my church teaches.” Nope, that won’t fly. “I couldn’t say that because of what my family would think.” Uh-uh. Doesn’t work. “I can’t do that–what would people think?”  Seriously wrong question. That question places other people’s opinions ahead of God’s image and presence. That makes you a people-pleaser. In this case you can actually be the greatest obstacle to experiencing your own freedom.

You are not going to be judged under a law of conformity, duty, or fear. You are free, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” But don’t beat yourself up when you fall into your old habits, either. With God, a day is like a hundred months, and a hundred months are like a day.

“There is No Conflict”

Lacking a certain wisdom and self-knowledge, Darth Vader claimed he experienced no conflict, when of course he did. To be reasonable, I want to say that there are of course limitations on our freedom. The problem with this is that, for religious folks like me, we already labor under so many illegitimate restrictions on that freedom that to acknowledge legitimate restrictions risks surrender to the status quo, leaving us unchanged.

Rather than get all analytical and verbose, I need to simply repeat the imperative. To start, sit in silence, behold God, allow the transformation to happen, and assume the freedom to let it happen. External sources of guidance are good, but the focus here is internal, that’s where God is.

(Please note: I have not, and never do, say to clear your mind of all thoughts, make your mind blank. It’s okay if your tradition teaches that, but I don’t.)

Conscience: the Realm of the Intellect and Beliefs

While this is not primarily an intellectual problem, such problems do exist. This is one of the main arenas of the conscience. If our background and beliefs tell us something is wrong, even if it isn’t, then we experience a sense of compromise if we disobey our conscience. The sense of compromise relates to what Paul would have called “an unclear conscience” according to a letter to Timothy. Don’t do anything that seems wrong to you, until you understand that it is not really wrong, and why.

I can’t emphasize enough the fact that you must sort through this discernment process yourself. Your intrinsic powers of discernment will never grow strong if you don’t exercise them. It is not helpful to ignore the still, small voice when it tells you that there’s something amiss. How many times have you known there was something wrong, but ignored the warning? Sucks, doesn’t it.

Priscilla tells us that “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” If you don’t practice exercising your powers of discernment, but instead rely on tradition, habit, and the opinions of others to dictate your actions, then the capacity for discernment within you will atrophy and, if it doesn’t die, will remain weak.

A Major Problem with “Freedom from Sin”: Focusing Too Narrowly

One of the problems with using the phrase “freedom from sin” is that sin too narrowly understood and applied. As destructive as they are, sin goes far beyond dissipation and debauchery as commonly understood. Sin includes a lot of attitudes that are tolerated, even encouraged, by many of the people who supposedly promote freedom from sin. A partial list of such attitudes includes 1) religiosity, 2) bibliolatry, 3) devoting ourselves to institutional maintenance, 4) walking in bondage to the Letter of the written code, 5) a condemning spirit, 6) fearing people’s opinions (conformity), 7) speaking evil of the Image of God within homo sapiens, 8) lording it over others (hierarchy, dominance, and status), and 9) neglecting love and justice.

Many church cultures encourage us to narrow the focus of “sin” to personal habits and thereby leave our traditions and our religious sin untouched. Jesus called this straining at gnats and swallowing camels. This is one of our biggest practical and conceptual problem, how “freedom from sin” is misapplied and misinterpreted. The problem is not the reality of eleutheria as described in the Bible.

Major Problem with Change: Universalizing Our Own Changes

In the church one of the problems we face is thinking, “Everyone needs to make the changes that I’m working on.” The reality is that we’re all on different journeys, many of us in the same direction. The nature of the journey depends on where we begin. Some of our journeys begin in tightly controlled environments like a Missionary Baptist Church, and others begin by stealing cigarettes from our moms’ purses. The resulting journeys can look quite different. Some journeys begin with or lead to meditation, to beholding God’s presence, where we are transformed into what we are becoming.

It’s really hard when we are spontaneously reminded of where we are changing when we know someone who seems mired in it, whether it’s carousing or religion or apathy. I’m thinking of a blogger friend. I have often felt absolutely infuriated by him. His journey is leading him to the order and discipline of religion, when my journey is leading me away from what I see as religion’s filthy rags.

Closer to Home

On the issue of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels,” I think many of you agree that a large segment of Christendom focuses too narrowly on personal sins and neglects attitudinal and corporate sin. After all, it’s fun and easy to target our opponents, who are our “enlightened” versions of the Other. If, on the other hand, I were to characterize the sin common among us and our friends, three top the list: conformity, sloganeering, and that condemning spirit. I understand and accept these “to a degree.” I understand the need for shared values, group cohesion, common goals, etc. But as the adage says, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” That’s where being humble comes in.

Despite any complications, we are free, and we will act freely more and more. As we behold in that mirror the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. We’re becoming more like Jesus. Don’t forget the freedom in which you walk. Don’t forget what you’ve seen or who you really are, royalty, Daughters and Sons of God who all have the same Older Brother as an example. And he set a bloody good example for us, too.

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For more posts on inwardness and outwardness, click here.

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About Ron Goetz

Lay leader, intellectual, struggler, disciple, writer, activist. Husband, father, grandpa, friend, son.
This entry was posted in Christian Liberty, Contemplative Prayer, Deeper Life, Devotional, Homo Sapiens, Meditation, Sin and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Christian Liberty: Free, or Not Really So Free After All?

  1. Denise Smith says:

    Let’s remember also Ron, that according to the bible, God created all that man would have need of… set him in the midst of it all and said ye can freely partake…

    Freedom was a provision of God and evidence of the grace of God for all things from their beginning…. It is only when one turns from that to listen to another and turns from that freedom …. is when you will need someone to show you the way back or provide you the way to get it back….

    There is just a lot that has to be gone through once one turns from all the provisions of God from his/her beginning….. even if one has done so without knowing that they have….and once it is understood how one turned from that freedom and has it back… one then knows what is not to be repeated again ….so not to loose that liberty and freedom again. ♥♥

    • Ron Goetz says:

      Yes, and I agree with John on this, that we have no [absolute?] need of teachers, that the anointing that is on us will lead us into all truth. But there were differences of opinion on this among the early Christians (i.e., Paul and James), just as there are today. I believe our ability to embrace diversity begins among ourselves. But Jesus said to call no one teacher, so I really feel led to go with the Messiah on this one!

      • Denise Smith says:

        Yes, Ron, there was no reason to have anyone teach man for it was God Himself as the opening pages of the bible states that did that as well. The bible has been telling us that not only did God create all that was from their beginning but blessed them and gave them instruction on what they were to do and not to do, told them what had been provided for them… all without any other teachers necessary.

        When man took instruction from another voice in the garden and followed that…. the issues started between man and God.. the only teacher that was to ever be needed by man…. so when Jesus states that man is to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, that as the prophets said, “all shall be taught by God”… that “God knows what ye have need of before ye ask”…. it was so from the beginning.

        What seems to have happened, as outlined in the bible… man took instruction from another and set up the “tradition” of being lead, guided, taught, and instructed from one other than God and what it was that had been provided within him/her for that purpose… thus came along countless other teachers, preachers, prophets, pastors, evangelists all through the OT telling people to turn back to God… to hear and obey Him.. .and Jesus came and opened the eyes of their understanding of the scriptures so that they would know how that “tradition” of hearkening to the voice of another got started… so that they wouldn’t go there again… for “all are to be taught by God”…. and those as Jesus said that have heard from God and learned of Him will come to Christ….

        So I’m with you … there is no one in need of anyone to teach them… or to be taught one of another to know the Lord…. for God Himself will take care of that Himself and has made the provisions and given the way for that to happen … provided for man as well… knowing man would have need of it before man ask … or in some cases knew about it. :)

        Wonderfully profound messages/lessons in the pages of the bible for us all to see…

  2. What I find odd for a “freedom loving” group of people, such as “Christians,” is the fanatical yerning for a Messiah figure who is basically a dictator; whose first act is to destroy individual freedoms.

    • Ron Goetz says:

      Yes, there’s a great irony in that, Rabbi. It’s unfortunate that more people of all faiths can’t effectively express your theme of the “brotherhood of all peoples, all races, all religions, all sexes and all sexualities.”

      We really do need to embody that brotherhood as much as we can.

  3. Thank you for another profound exegesis on a topic we former fundamentalists have a lot of trouble to understand.

    Curious that you brought up the “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” which came up in my own readings for my recent post on love.

    I believe more and more that if fundamentalists would sit with the Gospel of Matthew, reading it from cover to cover without preconceptions or attempts to proof-text a pet theory, it will completely change their minds about a lot of things. It certainly did mine.

    • Ron Goetz says:

      I guess great minds think alike, Jeffrey. (And so do ours!)

      And in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is exactly that, the mountain top of Christ’s ethical teaching. It is truly tragic that fundamentalists have substituted Paul’s gospel for Jesus’ Great Commission to “go into all the world, teaching them everything I have commanded you.” There are actually fundamentalist teachers who say that the Sermon on the Mount was supposed to be the ethical basis for the kingdom of God, but since the Jews rejected their kingly Messiah, that Matthew 5:3-11 don’t apply to today.

      I was appalled when I heard that. If you gut the church of both the Holy Spirit and Christ’s ethical teaching, then you truly have only the form of religion, denying its power.

      • Denise Smith says:

        Yes, Ron, and more significantly in gutting or substituting Paul’s gospel for Jesus’ commandments and the Great Commission to teach others to observe whatsoever He had commanded His disciples…. most forget that Jesus said that it would be to those that keep His commandments that He would manifest Himself to, and the Father and He would come make their abode with.

        I agree with Jeffrey… it was through forsaking all, laying down all traditions, all the prior preconceived notions that I’d heard and been taught and reading the words of Jesus in the pages of the bible as they are written that surely changed a lot for me as well. That’s what Jesus said that one was to do to be His disciple according to the bible… forsake it all… including preconceived notions, traditions, teachings of any other… for how else can one be taught of God unless one does??

        Jesus after all told His disciples, “the kingdom of God is within you”…. so how precisely does that get disqualified by someone else rejecting Jesus???

  4. I appreciate the good Rabbi’s remarks about the lack of liberty embraced by those looking for liberty. For some time I have been struck by the parallel between the Israelites’ cry for a King to replace the system of Judges and the Fundamentalists’ cry for a Conservative Politician to restore America to some vision of Taliban like morality. Indeed, Fundamentalism prizes unthinking obedience above all other actions and values.

    • Ron Goetz says:

      That episode about Israel demanding a king is key to knowing that my anti-hierarchical sentiment is thoroughly Biblical. The prophetic view is anti-hierarchical, favoring God’s direct relationship with us, unmediated by others.

      • Denise Smith says:

        Yes, Ron, not only was it the prophetic view that there was to be a direct and personal relationship between God and all things, it is as it was from the beginning. This is also what Jesus opened the eyes of understanding of the scriptures about as well to those that came to Him as His disciples. He echoed the same thing that the prophets had said… “all shall be taught by God”… that man was to hear from God and learn from God and live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God to him… without the need for any other as it had been from the beginning!!

        It was those that followed in the “tradition” of Adam… refusing to hear God directly, and obey what God wrote in their hearts and minds directly Himself that were always looking for another to lead them or calling out to God to provide them leaders!

        Jesus makes a point in sharing that it was due to the hardness of the heart of the people that God gave the laws that Moses gave them… not because they were hearing from God and doing as God gave them to do Himself directly and personally as Abraham is recorded to have done …. who had no one between him and God and yet kept the commandments that God gave to him…. unlike Adam… who likewise had no one between himself and God and yet did not obey what God said for him to do.

        Eternal life, as outlined in the bible is to KNOW the one true God and Jesus Christ…. unmediated by others…. God revealing Himself and who Christ is… not flesh and blood… as it has been from the beginning!! Jesus opens the eyes of the understanding of the scriptures to those that keep His commandments, for them to know what had been hidden from them from the beginning… that it was NOT to be about hearkening to the voice of another who is not God… or being taught or lead and guided by another… that was the “transgression” or the way that ‘sin entered the world”… not the means to have it taken from the world….

        Jesus took away the sin of the world at his coming by showing and making known the way to go and sin no more… for those that had… and for those that had been faithful in the little they had… to have greater understanding and power of God as a result of them keeping the commandments God gave to them. Those that hear from God and learn from Him come to Christ…. as Jesus is recorded to have said.

        Wonderful discussion…. ♥♥

  5. theologyarchaeology says:

    So you are following God’s word where you think it gives you permission to do what you want and pursue whatever desire you want but disregard the Bible when it sets forth God’s rules and limits what you can do. Is that right?

    You are not free to sin, practice sin, or disobey God or His word. I have the idea given by your words that you are looking for justification to disobey and do what you want.

  6. beneficii says:

    I find what is here interesting, as a newly converted follower of Christ, but I have a hard time understanding it. Do you have a Liberal Christianity 101 link?

    I find it interesting that the Liberal Christians seem to be making a stand.

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