Freedom in Christ
“It is not freedom when we say everything is permitted. This is slavery.” These words from St Paisios the Athonite, one of the newly canonized saints of our Church, could well be directed towards our individualist, contemporary society.
On this July 4th weekend, we Americans celebrate the freedom we received on the occasion of our country’s independence. In fact, so many of us greatly pride ourselves in this freedom! This past week I was in New Hampshire, where I repeatedly saw the state motto emblazoned on their license plates: “Live Free or Die.” These words summarize the great American Patriot, Patrick Henry, who declared to the British “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Freedom is a precious gift, one of our greatest privileges, a blessing that so many others around the world don’t enjoy. Just think about the uprisings of the Arab Spring over the past several years, and we see people thirsting for freedom. As we look upon people risking their lives for the chance of freedom, we should gratefully thank God for our own freedom that we enjoy in this country! Too often we Americans take such freedom for granted.
Well, as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to understand freedom not only from a national point of view, but even more importantly from a spiritual perspective. Our deepest and most cherished freedom is an integral part of the divine love out of which we were created, and which is given to each of us by God. In the beginning, the Almighty Lord created human beings out of His love, and instilled His divine agape within each one of us. In expressing His love, He reminded Adam and Eve that authentic love includes freedom. God never forces or demands us to love Him back. He doesn’t force us to love one another. He gives us freedom to choose – we are free to accept God’s love and love Him back, or not; we are free to accept God’s love and share it with others, or not. We are free to accept God’s invitation to live here and now in His Kingdom, to experience His daily presence and peace and love, or we are free to reject this heavenly Kingdom and His Presence and live within our own, dark, egocentric world.
Always remember that the first and greatest freedom we have, we have received from our Creator. And this implies not only our initial freedom of choice. Through Christ Jesus’ resurrection and victory over Satan, sin and death, we are freed from the power of sin in our lives. The fear and uncertainty of death no longer prevail. Death itself, as the ultimate end, has been defeated! We are now free to live a new life in Christ, a new life without fear, a new life in God’s kingdom here and now!
On this July 4th weekend, as we gratefully celebrate our country’s independence and freedom, let us also thank God for our personal freedom, our freedom in spirit, our freedom from all that is dark and evil and sinful and death-filled. We are truly free!
Yet, with such freedom comes choice and responsibility. What will we do with our freedom? How will we live out our freedom? Will we use our freedom for good or for evil? Will we use our freedom to build up, or to tear down? Will we use our freedom to free others, or to enslave others? Will we use our freedom to free ourselves, or to place ourselves under bondage? Will we use our freedom to walk in the light, or choose darkness?
Freedom is a two-edged sword. It can be an incredible blessing, and yet it demands great responsibility. Unfortunately, in our contemporary society, we too often use our freedom irresponsibly, for our own selfish and destructive passions, desires and habits.
This is what St. Paisios meant when he said, “It is not freedom when we say everything is permitted. This is slavery.”
Aleksander Solzinitzyn once noted in his famous Harvard address A World Split Apart, “At the birth of American democracy, all individual human rights were granted because man is God's creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.”
With freedom comes great responsibility! Unfortunately, we too often ignore this connection.
We can see this in so many ways in our contemporary society. Several years ago the Supreme Court declared that California couldn’t limit the sale or rental of ultra violent video games to children because we would limit their freedom. In the name of freedom, we allow our children to harm their minds and hearts by buying violent games, even though we all accept that children aren’t mature enough to make other serious decisions. We allow our children to corrupt their minds, hearts and souls, and we defend this abuse in the name of freedom!
In his 1970s address, Solzinitzyn went on to highlight, “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people through pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept.”
One could even argue that the most recent Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage will act as another step in understanding freedom as “everything is permitted.” Yet, St. Paisios reminds us, “It is not freedom when we say everything is permitted. This is slavery.”
In contrast to self-destructive freedom, St. Paul offers the Christ-centered perspective on freedom. “Brothers and sisters, you have been called to freedom, only do not use freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [for fulfilling our selfish desires and passions], but through love serve one another.” (Gal 5:13) As Christians, God calls us to use our freedom to love one another, to help one another, to serve one another, to reach out to one another. Freedom isn’t a gift with which we indulge ourselves. Freedom shouldn’t be a pretext to fulfill our selfish desires. God gives us freedom to choose, but then challenges us to allow His Spirit to guide us in our choosing. If we are filled with God’s Spirit, and imbued with God’s grace, then we will use our freedom to authentically love one another – to do whatever is best for the other!
“It is not freedom when we say everything is permitted. This is slavery.”
As we celebrate the freedom of our country this weekend, let us reflect on the serious responsibility that comes with freedom. And let us always keep our freedom within a proper Christ-centered perspective – freedom that is used to better love God, ourselves, and the world around us!
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