journey post 17: Radical Freedom
(Part III-b, CONCLUSION: The grammar school of freedom)
The word “radical” is an attention-getter. It should be, for it includes the following ideas: ”far-reaching or thorough; an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of someone or something; departure from tradition, innovative or progressive.”* All of these could describe true freedom.
“Freedom” implies freedom from restraint, obstacle, compulsion. This was what my generation wanted so much in the 1960s, and we have now reaped its fruit: a cultural buy-in to a more individualistic, ego centric, personal freedom. If you doubt that, look at our governing elite: we used to call them “public servants”; look at a generation of young men who are still “adolescents” well into their twenties .
Christians speak of freedom with caveats attached. We speak of being “free from sin,” (i.e., the penalty of hell and sin’s continuing hold in a life), “free from the law” (e.g., from the Mosaic law or a variety of legalistic expectations). Thinking about some “radical” freedom seems dangerous, beyond the bounds of safety, so “freedom” generally comes with a “but…”: “I am free, but freedom has limits….” The idea of being “free” feels good, and keeps us from seeing the performance treadmill where we try to make sure of our acceptance, never mind that we are becoming increasingly captive to fear.
At some point I recognized my own lip service to the idea of freedom. If pressed, I could not have told you what it was. That is so ironic, since Jesus’ statement about being set free by him was one of the first things that ever captivated me and drew me to him like nothing else. It is ironic that I spent about 35 years on a “Christian” performance treadmill, never really sure of my acceptance. I longed to be “free to…” and I knew from Scripture that there must be this “free to,” but it remained elusive.
That “free to” crystallized for me the day I wrote the essay about my relationship with my dad called, “The Missing Picture.” Many things came together: My growing understanding of what it meant to be an adopted son of Abba Father had nearly deleted the picture of “my old man in the sky”—and my trust was growing. I was gaining a perspective on the nature of discipleship to Jesus (I call it “apprenticeship”) that seems to have largely disappeared from churches. My earliest take on discipleship was that it meant learning the basic doctrines of salvation, the inspiration of the Bible, how to witness for Jesus, etc. Once in a while as I read the Gospels, I pictured those first disciples traipsing around the country with Jesus—but to do what they did was certainly fantasy. One day I was challenged to immerse myself in the Gospels, to apprentice myself to Jesus, the speaker explaining discipleship as “spending time with Jesus, learning from him to be like him.” The disciples did that. I was now getting to know Jesus in a very personal way, watching him walk and talk and love people, hearing from his lips not simply Bible doctrine, but a way of seeing and thinking: it was his perspective I was gaining. That was indeed radical.
In the passage (John 8) where Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free…” he had been speaking with some Jews (the physical descendants of Abraham) who believed him in some way, yet also wanted to kill him. To these, he said: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31,32, NIV). They were incensed, arguing that they had never been slaves. But Jesus pointed out that, since they wanted to kill him, they were in fact slaves to sin, chasing after their own agenda. “Now a slave has no place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:35,36). Jesus was modeling life as a son and apprenticing people to learn to live out their sonship to God in the community of a family.
Another thing came together for me that day. While I would never find the missing picture of just me and my dad, I knew that I would in fact always be in the picture with my Father as a son in whom he delights. I had been learning about spiritual adoption for a couple years, and it suddenly became reality: My search for identity was over. I knew who I was: I am my Father’s son, and I am free. That is radical.
All the dysfunctional reality of my relationship with my own dad (and my mom) suddenly fell away when I realized the ultimate father analogy was that of God as Father whose heart is with me. To see the analogy, picture a fully functional family (which may be difficult), where the mother and father deeply love and are committed to each other. They love and accept their children unconditionally. They train them for life and responsibility in the world (and yes, that includes discipline). They encourage the children in their individuality to develop their gifts and talents and potentiality—the things they like to do, not for some vicarious wish fulfillment of the parents. They even allow them the freedom to fail…well, you get the idea: these are children who as adults will be free to exercise their individuality in the community, whether it’s the small family unit or the larger. They will be free, not because they took their independence, but because they were raised in the environment of honest, loyal, giving and sacrificial, self-forgetful love and set free—given independence—to do the same.
Family is the ideal environment in which freedom is learned (and ultimately given), and love is the “environment” in which we were designed to live out that freedom in community, where it can flourish. True freedom is a matter of the heart, and the heart can be free no matter the external circumstances. Because the heart is designed to grow up loved within a community, that is where freedom will thrive. That is where meaning and significance and satisfaction lie. The contradictory desires of the heart I mentioned last post will be arbitrated in the environment of love.
As for defining freedom: true freedom doesn’t yield to easy definition. Basically, it is this: I am truly free when I live out my identity in the environment for which I was designed, the environment I must have, in fact. The apostle made this radical statement, that the only thing that truly counts in Christ is “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
It was this freedom I discovered on that day at the writer’s conference. After 35+ years of running on the performance treadmill as a “legalist,” there is still a lot of baggage, but it is getting unpacked and sorted. God my Father, the perfect parent (he invented the concept, after all), is teaching me how to live out the freedom that I have as a son. I love because he first loved me, (see 1 John 4:13-19). I am free, but some of this “free” still feels like untested theory, and residual fear is sometimes palpable.
An eternity ago—or was it yesterday?—I crouched behind a mud hootch in a rice field in South Vietnam, waiting for the mortar fire to stop so I could make a break to safety. I didn’t make it. Laying on my back and helpless, I saw the Chaplain break through the bush some 20 meters away coming for me like an angel of God. And he was, quite literally, an angel, for the word “angel” means messenger. The message at the time was a question: Is God really there? Today there’s no angel, and there’s no question. My Father stands there at the edge of the field, beckoning. “Come on, son. I’m here. Even if you don’t make it across the clearing, it will be okay. I’m not going anywhere.” He smiles. I see his eyes, so I’m poised to run….
*New Oxford American Dictionary