forgiveness • peacemaking • reconciliation
equality • poverty • missions


What Is Freedom?

September 13, 2017 by

kids climbing trees

Most western nations boast that their citizens are free. What is freedom? Is it the pursuit of happiness? Is it license to do whatever you want? Is freedom the absence of oppression? Is freedom a state of mind? Many people have given their lives for freedom’s cause. Jesus gave his life to free every person from the bonds of sin. So sin must be a form of enslavement. Am I free as a Christian in the West?

The Declaration of Independence promises the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Yet many Americans admit that they are unhappy, empty, and depressed. Some two million Americans are addicted to opioids or prescription painkillers. Ninety-one Americans die every day from opioid overdoses in an attempt to numb themselves. Antidepressants are the third most-used medication in the United States. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death; about 45,000 people commit suicide in this country every year. If Westerners are free, something does not add up.

Historically, people turned to God for freedom. In ancient times the Israelites cried out to God when they were enslaved by the Egyptians. With miraculous might, God liberated an entire people. More recently, African slaves in the United States pleaded with God to free them from their misery. Ari Goldman writes “American blacks used the language and imagery of the Exodus in their struggle. ‘When Israel was in Egypt land,’ they sang in churches and on the freedom marches, ‘Let my people go.’” Before slaves were freed in body, they were freed in spirit. And no government, slave owner, or white supremacist could take away their freedom.

Freedom is not license to do whatever we want. I don’t think you can find happiness that way.

But God’s greatest act of redemption occurred two thousand years ago. His son, Jesus, was born to set people free. Jesus gave his own life to end humankind’s enslavement to sin. He told the people, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” (John 8:31–32, 34–36).

A friend once shared with me his metaphor for sin. Picture a child in a room filled with toys. The child ignores the toys and heads straight for the electrical outlet, although dad has told him not to touch it. Sin is like the outlet. It is harmful. Parents want their children to be happy and free, but they set boundaries and rules for their child’s well-being. And sometimes the child disobeys.

God wants us to be free and his commandments are in our best interest. Freedom is not license to do whatever we want. I don’t think you can find happiness that way. Even if we define freedom as being free to love in the way we see fit, Jesus makes an unequivocal link between love and obedience: “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (John 14:15).

Obedience is hard. The apostle Paul knew what it was to waver: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. What a wretched man I am! Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:14–15; 24–25). Paul found freedom from sin in Christ. He was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for sharing that good news. He willingly and joyfully sat in chains so that others could have the same freedom.

The early Christians followed the example of Jesus and his apostle, Paul. They served others before themselves. They went singing to prison and to their deaths. Not only were they free, but others were also freed because of their witness. In his book The Early Christians, Eberhard writes, “The practice of surrendering everything in love was the hallmark of the early Christians…. Urged by this love, many even sold themselves into slavery or went to debtor’s prison for the sake of others.”

Many of my heroes gave their lives for the sake of others. They spent time in prison for following their consciences. They refused to be silent when others needed their voices. They did not protect their own lives when others were in danger. Ironically, they found freedom in prison; even behind bars, their consciences were free. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to prison for non-violently confronting oppression of blacks in America. Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were university students, and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, went to prison and were executed for actively protesting Nazism in Germany. While in prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed a poem entitled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.” Here is one of the stanzas:

Dare to do what is just, not what fancy may
call for;
Lose no time with what may be, but boldly grasp
what is real.
The world of thought is escape; freedom comes
only from action.
Step out beyond anxious waiting and into the storm
of events, carried only by God’s command and
by your own faith; then will freedom exultantly
cry out to welcome your spirit.

For individuals like Bonhoeffer, freedom was not the sanction do what they desired, but was the liberty to serve others.

Haven’t we been deluded by our western culture? Freedom is not free. It comes at a cost, but it is worth everything. If you think that you are free without Jesus, you are still enslaved. God wants us to be free from ourselves so that we are free to love others.

Read Emily Hallock on Hitler, Just War, and pacifism.

Am I, a western Christian, free? Yes – as long as I love others more than myself. Am I willing to go to prison for the gospel of Christ? Yes, by the grace of God. I stand with my fellow Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith. I am preparing for the time when Christians in the western world will not be allowed to proclaim the good news or confront sin. But I will always be free. As Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8: 36). And in the end, God’s definition of freedom is all that matters:

Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the LORD and against his anointed, saying,
Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.
The One enthroned in heaven laughs...
I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.
—Psalm 2:1-6

The author thanks her husband, Dan Hallock, for his help on this article.


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