Substance (6) - Virtuous Freedom 1: Freedom From
Last week I wrote about how Christ is the only true and fully trustworthy one. An essential step in walking with Him is to recognize this and to trust Him. However, in our love for worldly things we don’t want to admit that clear things are clear—we don’t want to see the truth because then we might feel obligated to change our actions. For example, Galatians 5 says that the works of the flesh are obvious. Yet many today claim that we cannot know what is right and wrong—they convolute and confuse obvious issues; they throw dirt in their eyes and claim that everything is cloudy. But we cannot walk in the freedom that Christ desires for us without first trusting that His definition of what is right and wrong, loving and unloving is the definition that is true.
As a people we love freedom, but poorly it. True freedom includes freedom to and from, but also freedom for (which I will write about next week). Freedom is not about doing what we want, rather it is moral in nature—true freedom is the liberty to do what is good and right.
Freedom is not an unqualified good—it can be used for both good and evil. We are qualified to freedom to the exact proportion in which we put moral chains on our own appetites. For freedom requires us not only to give rights to others, but also to trust them to use their rights and freedom not to harm us. Therefore only widespread virtue can sustain the trust necessary for freedom.
(Pastor Gibson includes an interesting footnote at this point in the chapter about the problem of democracy in a society declining in virtue. According to Gibson, even if that society produces a man of great virtue, the wicked will never appoint the man of virtue to power. This is because they don’t know what to look for and are more easily deceived by scoundrels; virtuous behavior seems foreign to them and, therefore, suspect. They will elect the corrupt or the tyrannical or they were will revolt to install a wicked man. The key, therefore, to reforming a fading democracy is not merely to elect the right person, but rather to become people, families, churches, schools, communities, cities, states, and a nation of godly virtue. This is food for thought as we find ourselves in the midst of a presidential election.)
Everyone wants happiness and many seek justice. But God has designed the world so that divorcing freedom from virtue cannot produce happiness, gratitude, hope, or justice. If we seek freedom as liberation from moral restraint we must reject virtue and thereby create anarchy. This is why so many reformers (c.f. from the Jacobins in France to post-colonial leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa), though well intentioned, have created tyrannies worse than the ones they fought to overthrow. We cannot get good ends without good means! Ultimately justice and hope are only found in God and they cannot ever be achieved if we ignore His means, His commands.
But to pursue virtuous ends we must become virtuous people. This doesn’t come naturally any more than one is naturally an Olympic caliber athlete. As the body must be forged into a place of athletic strength and prowess, so too the soul must trained and forged into one of virtue. But how? The soul must pursue something of greater value than the things the flesh desires.
Given our sinful condition, we are all slaves, all dominated by the cravings of the flesh. We not only want to gratify the flesh, but are guided by what it wants. This enslaves us from within even when we think we are free. It dominates our thoughts and feelings. Compulsion builds the slavery of habit and at the same time encourages other people to control us because they fear our instability. It leads us to idolize the things of this world if only they will fill our desires. The antidote to this is not self-improvement, but faith.
Faith is ultimately a question of allegiance. We’ve been called by God to act like God in this world. The more we obey God the more we will resemble Him. The idols of the ancient world, the gods they represented, were always connected to a real human desire: protection, strength, fertility, good fortune, and so on. We’ve never stopped looking to things in creation to provide for us, fulfill us, gratify us, empower us, approve of us, or comfort us in our desires, passions, and cravings. Jesus never feared we would serve nothing. He took His time to show and tell us we cannot serve more than one thing. This is not only because He alone deserves our praise, but because our idolatry harms us. Idols can only offer the kind of counterfeit and diminishing pleasures that leave us perpetually hungry; they won’t point us to anything higher than the flesh. They are like Pharaoh: they give us no rest, but constantly demand more while giving us less. In contrast, real freedom means to be dependent only on what is greater than ourselves and to give ourselves over to nothing which God has told us to govern.
Far too often we say “I had no choice.” But we gave ourselves over to our craving for security and then we looked to our job, our marriage, or the approval of others for that security. And then we felt we had to protect that idol by paying whatever cost it demanded—dishonesty to please a employer; adultery when our spouse wouldn’t give us the approval we desired; gossip when we felt insecure in our circle of friends. We boxed ourselves in, led ourselves along the path of sin, by giving the idol a monopoly on providing liberation and salvation. We did all this because we decided that God was too risky an option for liberation and salvation.
Most of our idols are good things that have a real purpose in God’s creation, but when we make these created things our gods, they can’t bear the weight. Not only will our idols not deliver us like God, but in the long run, they won’t even be able to deliver the very thing they claim to be. Even idols of good things, like children, work, health, love, or leisure, will crush us under the weight of our expectations. Our kids will resent us. Our hobbies will feel empty. Work will feel more like a prison than a blessing. It is a perennial truth that whenever we put something in the creation in the place of the Creator we ruin it, ourselves, and rob God of his rightful place. The real and final cost of idolatry is the loss of God, ourselves, and everything in creation.