Wednesday, 1 March 2006

The meaning of freedom

(I wrote this post yesterday for Lyn Perry’s “Daily Brew” column, and I’m reproducing it here.)

In the history of the church, human “freedom” has often been understood simply as the ability to choose between alternative options. I can choose either A or B, and therefore I am “free.” But such an understanding of freedom is absurd: merely standing at a crossroads does not make me free. Freedom is not the abstract ability to choose between two paths—rather it is the concrete choice of one particular path.

Indeed, the mere ability to choose can lead to unfreedom. Just think of our consumer culture, our supermarket shelves lined with a thousand possibilities. I may experience such possibilities not as an enlargement of my personal life, but as a confinement—I may find myself paralysed by choice. In this case, the ability to choose between alternative options has become enslavement, paralysis, unfreedom.

But according to the New Testament, true freedom is not an abstract ability to choose. It is not the state of the consumer in a supermarket of possibilities; it is not the motionless state of a traveller at the crossroads. Rather, freedom is a specific movement of my personal life—it is an act in which my whole self goes out of itself towards the other. Or, to put it simply, freedom is love—not love as a static possibility, but love as an act and movement of my life in one very specific direction, in relationship to another person.

I am not free in relation to my wife if I am standing at the crossroads, able to say either “Yes” or “No” to her. I am free in relation to her only when I go out of myself towards her with a decisive and unqualified “Yes.” Similarly, freedom before God is not the ability either to choose God or to reject him. Freedom before God is the movement of life in which my whole being responds to God with an unqualified “Yes.” As long as this “Yes” is merely one possibility alongside others, I am not yet free. Only in the act of saying this “Yes” do I enter into the life of freedom.

This is the freedom of self-giving obedience, the freedom of joyful service, the freedom of love.

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