journey post 16: A Son’s Heart Set Free
(Part III-a , on The grammar school of freedom)
“If the Son sets you free, then you will be really free” (John 8:36).
The first time I remember reading those words was 1970 or ‘71. I had this little paperback New Testament, a new, contemporary English version that I was reading so much it was falling apart.
But the verse puzzled me. Free? Close by was another verse that people quote a lot: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Jesus didn’t seem to be talking about being free from hell.
Freedom was on everyone’s lips in the 60s. It was the time when our nation, free from the Nazi menace, was getting schooled in what we thought freedom meant, nationally, racially, personally. Having “survived” Vietnam, I felt very alive and free. But I would soon be stepping into a religious world beset by legalism, and would not recognize it because I did know how legalistic and performance-minded I already was. The speed of the performance treadmill in my new world would be considerably faster. It took 35 years for me to finally get off the treadmill and understand Jesus’ words, “really free.”
I had been confused by all the personal freedom that people were claiming for themselves in the 60s. I thought there was something wrong with it, but I was unsure why. Back then, it was likely due to my legalistic sense of self-righteousness: I was okay, they were not. They were just selfish and sinful. I was to be reinforced in that condemnatory view by the new religious milieu into which I was about to enter.
But there was more to that view than selfishness, which most would agree is wrong. The 60s thinking went something like this: “I am free when I am free from all hindrances and obstacles to do what I want.” The idea wasn’t new by any means; what was new was its wide acceptance. Within a few years, it would become the unconscious working assumption of the shapers and movers of our nation: parents, teachers, lawyers, business people, politicians, et al.
So what could have been wrong with that? Did we not experience a “new birth of freedom,” becoming more tolerant, more accepting and encouraging to people pursuing their individual dreams? Yes, we did. But the idea of individualistic freedom is not wrong just because it is selfish. It is wrong, I now realize, because it does not take account of the complex nature and contradictory desires of the human heart. (More on this in the next post.)
If there is one thing I have learned in forty-odd years as a Christian, it is that the important things of life come from the heart. From the heart comes the “ask not what your country can do for you,” the sacrifices on Normandy Beach, the countless acts of charity and love, the routine kindness of friends; and from it also comes cheating on tests, fathers walking away from families, Auschwitz and My Lai. We puzzle over evil in our world, but in our hearts, we know the answer because we sense what our own conscience says is our inability to consistently do the right. History is a mirror that we ignore at our peril, a mirror which tells us not to trust in the “basic goodness” of mankind. Individualistic freedom has become so important that we are unable to evaluate the larger society around us and understand just what is being sucked away from us. It is being sucked away from our hearts, and we are blind to it.
I was as blind as anyone as long as I was on that treadmill. Scripture says we cannot evaluate and help someone else as long as we have a log in our own eye (Matthew 7). In my case, the log was a treadmill….
Here now is a foretaste of the freedom that was to come into my life at the end of the zigzag….
By 2006, I had not solved the underlying problem of what made me a people-pleaser or performance minded. I was just becoming aware of my thinking, how wrong it was, how self-destructive. Our church put a premium on pursuing personal holiness such that those who failed were suspect—which set some to running even faster on the treadmill without prospect of being acceptable.
I finally got honest with myself the same as I did on a hospital bed in Vietnam long ago. I admitted that I did not know if God cared about me at all. So I asked him: “Lord, what do you really think of me? I must know. I can’t go on like this!” Sitting in my despair, a verse from Proverbs came to mind, (3:12), that I’d only ever heard when our church disciplined errant members: “…the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” Delights? “Lord,” I said, “you delight in me??” It was one of those moments when the dawning light changes everything. Delight? How could it be?
I Googled my question, and was shocked but intrigued to see links referencing the teaching we had once received in Bible school about our spiritual adoption, that God the Father has adopted those who trust in Jesus as his children. Back then, it had bounced off my emotional baggage. I remembered something my friend Andy told me when they adopted a son. I asked him (this was 1973), “Are you going to tell him he’s adopted?” “Of course,” came the reply. “I want him to know just how special he is.”
I began in earnest, exploring “adoption” in Scripture, reading everything I could get my hands on in theology books (not much there) and the personal experiences of various other Christians. (My reflection and research eventually led to a thesis that I called, “God is out to get you.”) What did it mean that God is my “Father.” Wasn’t it merely a title used in prayer?
Long story short, my thinking was getting revised by what I was learning. I began to focus my Bible reading on the Gospel accounts to find out if Jesus said anything about it. I read the Gospels so much I began to feel as though I were one of those disciples walking around with Jesus, spending time with him, watching and listening, learning from him to think like him, to know his agenda and what was important to God. What I was learning was all about what it meant to be an adopted son of the Father. Jesus didn’t use the word “adoption,” but his teaching was all about a relationship with God and what the Father is like. Jesus’ confrontations with the leaders were about their legalism and their distorted view of God: Christian writer A.W. Tozer once commented, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”* I began to see how distorted my own picture of God truly was so I set out to get to know him as I had never before. Jesus taught his disciples to call God their “Abba,” a familiar, intimate name like “Papa.” He taught them that the Father (Abba) is like the perfect earthly father who always loves, always gives, always protects and provides, who loves unconditionally and never pulls away. He showed them God by his life: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” Much fell into place for me as I read Jesus, learned all over again to be his disciple, an “apprentice.”
On the day at that writer’s conference that I realized I would never be in the picture with my earthly dad, I also found something greater: the identity and the key to the freedom I had searched for all my life. I am my Father’s son. I am adopted. This is my identity. I am loved and delighted in simply because I now belong to him. Being a son was the key to my freedom. And I still almost hear the quiet voice of my Father in heaven saying to me, “My son, you will always be in the picture with me.”
Free at last.
* The Knowledge of the Holy, The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1961), 1.