So What is Freedom Anyway?

Freedom is one of our culture’s favourite buzzwords. It’s an applauded theme in film, politics, and art, and why shouldn’t it be?  Freedom is a long sought after human right. Well known writer Ayn Rand said, “I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom and the greatest of these is freedom.” Or in the words of an influential philosopher of our own day: “we are born to be free” (Pitbull). Everyone agrees that freedom is a God-given right, but I don’t know that we’re clear on what freedom is.

Rand defines freedom as “to ask nothing, to expect nothing, to depend on nothing.” It’s popular to believe that freedom is the opportunity to be yourself without regard for the approval or suppression of someone else. Freedom is believed to be the declaration that I am my own person – which means that I am not only entitled to the expression of an opinion—since it’s tied up to my identity—but I am entitled to express that opinion without question or challenge. Why? Because this freedom is believed to lead to our flourishing, and help us to be fully ourselves.

Today, freedom means unhindered, unbothered, unquestioned existence. Freedom is independence. Freedom is personal identity displayed through personal expression.

Freedom is a recurring theme throughout the Bible, but it has quite a different ring to it than we might imagine.  I've been reading through the book of Leviticus, leafing through the tedious dots and iotas of the Mosaic Law. I'll admit, it's hard not to skim these parts or skip them altogether. But the intricate and calculated conferring of the law, seen in the context of the narrative as a whole, sheds some light on what freedom actually means.

In this part of the story God communicates his plan for Israel to unlearn the ways of Egypt through various laws. In order to read a book like Leviticus well, we need to read it in its larger context of God's great act of deliverance in the Exodus story. After almost five centuries of slavery, God graciously delivered Israel out of the fist of Pharaoh. And it's in this context of "freedom," that God forges a new law. But this brings up other questions that challenge our typical understanding of freedom.  Were the Israelites "saved" only to be enslaved all over again—just to another God? Is God’s salvation conditional? How is this just?

When we pay close attention to the story, we find that Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was motivated by nothing less than unconditional love; as a father calls a son, so God called Israel out from the ways of Egypt.  But that fatherly, patient love, meant that God's deliverance would not just be from something, giving the Israelites freedom to "express themselves" however they pleased. God's deliverance was and is aimed towards a new way of life—a way of life that works with the grain of the universe he created and makes humankind truly human.  The law was simply a means to an end; a part of God’s story of redeeming the whole world.

So who’s really free today? When we look honestly within ourselves, we will discover a chaotic and uncomfortable ebb and flow of different and conflicting impulses and emotions. The truth is, we don’t know who we are from one minute to the next. What we clench as “my thing” one moment we abandon just as quickly, until we have nothing left to hold on to and don’t feel free at all, only tossed by conflicting thoughts, oughts, loves, and wants.  We often find that what we know we should do and be is trounced by rabid desires. We are compulsively captivated and made captive until we become fragmented in despair. Today’s myth of freedom, if believed, eventually leads us to a slavery of our own making.

The good news is that Jesus saves us not only from something, but to someone: from idols to the true and living God, from darkness to light, from death to life, from lies to truth. Freedom is not about being the master of my fate and captain of my soul, but about acknowledging and following the true Master and Captain, who will make me more myself than any other thing ever could.

When Jesus saves us we learn to follow him into a new way of living, which will compel us to do some unlearning of our old ways.  The process of unlearning may feel burdensome or even impossible, but thankfully we can trust in God's unfailing love and steadfast patience through it all. We can rely on the cross of Christ which has broken the curse of sin and allow God’s Spirit to help us know the depths of God’s love which empowers us to new life. But it's in the larger context of God’s gospel plan to deliver us from sin and bring all created things to their intended purpose, that we learn a way of life that works with the grain of the universe and leads to true humanness, true authenticity, and true freedom.

In the Kingdom of God, we unlearn the ways of Egypt because we've been called out of slavery into freedom, and we learn that the best way to be free and fully alive is to follow and serve our cross-bearing King.