In some ways human history can be summed up in the search for freedom. Not only to be free, but more profoundly, what it means to be free. The path goes something like this: if we can figure out how to be free we will as a result be happy, satisfied, and fulfilled. The search for freedom, as you can imagine, has followed many different routes each attempting to define those elusive elements needed to ensure true human freedom. Ancient and modern philosophers, most religions and spiritual systems, science, technology, and social systems have all sought the answer. After thousands of years and diverse propositions the world has come no closer to a real answer, for every human effort invariably fails to provide the freedom that the human heart is seeking.
'We are free,' many have claimed, 'yet we are miserable', they conclude. 'We are free,' they say, 'yet we are corrupt' they realize. Oppressive systems have attempted to impose control on societies valuing order over personal freedom, leaving populations far from happiness. Democratic or 'free' societies have placed freedom so high upon a pedestal that restraint of any kind is revolted at, yet they are amongst the most depressed populations in the world. To do as I want when I please is the order of the philosophical day, but it has not led to happiness. One might conclude that 'freedom' is a kind of will'o'the'wisp, an illusion always just out of reach and that true happiness is also an illusion fooling us all as we grasp at empty air pursuing it through a dark forest.
Now this seems quite dour to be sure. What of the Christian whose belief in Christ centres around the hope of not only salvation, but freedom as well? How does the follower of Christ respond? In John 8:34-36 Jesus makes a profound claim: 'Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.' This declaration leads us to two important questions regarding freedom: what has he set us free from? What exactly is the kind of freedom he is talking about? In a liberal western culture we tend to assume that freedom is synonymous with autonomy and thus we assume that Jesus means we will be set free to do as we please. Is this what he meant?
To answer such questions about freedom from the perspective of Jesus we have to consider the biblical conception of the freedom problem and its answer.
The Loss of Freedom
What drives the human quest for freedom? We must look back to the mysterious beginning of the spiritual history of humanity, all the way back to Eden and to a conspicuous tree growing in the garden. We search endlessly for freedom and happiness because in every human heart is the echo of having once known them and then having lost them. At the outset God created humans free. A quick read of the opening chapters of Genesis reveals Adam and Eve living in total freedom and happiness. Only one constraint is requested of them: don't eat the fruit of that infamous tree. What temptation led them to throw restraint to the wind and eat that fruit? It was a lie, a familiar lie, that they could be equals with God, that they could become gods. The loss of freedom results from grasping at what appeared to be the greatest freedom of all, to be divine in nature. When humanity's parents attempted to ascend they fell hard and their freedom, their happiness, was lost. In exchange the terrible chains of what we call Sin entered the created order like a violent storm infesting everything with corruption and decay. Sin became as inescapable as the air we breathe. The effects of the Fall were now in place and Sin became our master....the long darkness had begun.
While this is a brief description of the loss of freedom it gives us an understanding of Jesus' perspective on freedom and why humans seek freedom so desperately. We are prisoners, in the biblical world view, of a System, a corrupted spiritual order, that prevents us from being free. Worse, the situation is one of decay, death, corruption, and terrible bondage.
Now to be imprisoned is an intolerable state of affairs. It demands action, it requires some attempt to escape. Human history is filled with such attempts to scale the prison walls, evade the gun turrets, and make a break for it. It is not within the scope of this short essay to recount that religious, political, and philosophical history, but our journey from Eden is indeed filled with the human effort to slip the chains of Sin and get back to a free state. Such efforts fail as they in the end can only offer counterfeit forms of freedom. Let's focus on what most of us conceive of as the meaning of freedom in our present era.
Modernism came to the conclusion that freedom is the essence of being human. The complexity of that short sentence could and does fill entire books, but we shall keep it simple here. To be free then is to be free without constraint. Nothing may limit our freedom or we will stage some kind of personal or social rebellion. “You can't tell me what to do!” is one motto we can keep in mind...and probably have all uttered or shouted at some point. This freedom rages at the prison walls angrily demanding that we be free to do what we want when we want. It is the attempt to forcefully break free from the chains we can't necessarily name, but certainly feel tightly bound around us. Freedom without constraint means to move from a constrained existence of slavery to complete autonomy. “We were constrained from doing as we pleased, preventing us from being happy. Now we are unrestrained and thus free and therefore happy”, so to speak.
This is problematic for a few reasons, but centrally as an answer to the freedom problem it can only fail as a possible answer because of Sin. Sin, if you will recall, infested everything, and the human heart most of all. The Bible calls it the sinful nature, the unredeemed fallen heart of humanity is home to the very prison they would escape. It requires a spiritual answer...a spiritual action. What is really gained in a freedom without constraint is the illusory freedom of acting and behaving in whatever way we see fit. This is a problem since the sinful nature is corrupt and invariably our freedom to live as we please bears the fruit of that corruption leading to all manner of injustice in our personal and corporate lives. To put it bluntly, we are 'sinners', an ugly word in our day, but true none the less. Avoiding this truth and denying it has done us little good and it may be time to confront the reality with a little courage and honesty. The honest thinker and observer quickly realizes that our freedom without constraint plays out in sinful actions, behaviours, and lives. It is the self-centred reality of the heart trapped by the power Sin that it will live sinfully and thus not in true freedom whatsoever. At its core this kind of freedom is selfishness in its purest form and has little to do with being truly 'free'.
Freedom without constraint acts as a false hope in the human attempt to be free. Science and technology, for example, promise that they will ultimately lead us into a world in which we will be freed from the constraints of toil and material lack. We will be set free to pursue only those things that we believe will make us happy and fulfilled. The reality seems rather that science and technology have delivered to us a world of consumption that is not leading us into freedom at all. Regardless, they cannot offer us a real answer to the freedom problem because it is a material answer to a spiritual problem. Modernism has given us political systems that attempt to construct society in such a way that we can experience the essence of being human by being 'free'...though we might wonder just who is meant to be free and who isn't in these systems. The belief that if we are not restrained from doing as we please when we please will lead to happiness and being fulfilled does not seem to be holding true. So it is with all human attempts to escape the slavery to Sin and attain freedom.
The Exodus to Freedom
The biblical answer to the freedom problem is found in the story of Jesus. The Gospel is God's answer to the freedom problem. Let's see if we can concisely describe the situation. At the beginning of this foray into the problem I described the loss of freedom in Eden and the resulting invasion of the all encompassing atmosphere of Sin into the created order. Here we find the answer to what Jesus is referring to when he says he is setting us free, 'Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin'. The freedom problem requires an answer to the Sin predicament. If we cannot escape the atmosphere, then we cannot be said to be truly free. Or to put it another way, if we cannot have our sinful nature transformed into something else then we cannot be free.
Thus God's answer to the freedom problem comes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God acted in Jesus to set us free from the power and enslavement of Sin that corrupted human nature at the loss of freedom in Eden. Christians readily understand this language, it is familiar to them. But do we understand the profound implications of salvation? It seems that we focus on being 'saved' and largely ignore being transformed. Yet, the Gospel message, and the bulk of the New Testament are more about the transforming power of Christ's death and resurrection than simply being 'saved'. The symbolic reality is that in Christ's death something passes away and that something is the old sinful nature. In his resurrection something new comes into being, a newly regenerated or created nature freed from the slavery of Sin.
Jesus frees us from the corrupted sin nature and its master Sin, the pervasive force of decay in the created order and within our very spirits. This is the freedom which leads us out of the prison. Jesus does not dig a tunnel under the wall, but rather he leads us to the gate, opens it, and takes us out, leaving the gate open behind him for anyone willing to join the exodus into his kingdom. Following him into this freedom means we are leaving the old System behind and entering a new land where freedom is truly possible.
The freedom of the kingdom is, not surprisingly, different from the freedom sought in world terms. The freedom of which Jesus speaks is nothing less than a new creation within us. A new heart, a new spirit, a new way of seeing and hearing, a new way of living. No longer caught in the atmosphere of Sin, we are free to become what he is making us, what he is transforming us into.
The freedom of the kingdom is therefore constrained. The loss of freedom in Eden left humanity with a deep desire to be free once more, but the only freedom we could attain to was one that kicked against the prison walls of Sin and gave us the illusion that freedom must equal autonomy. If we could be our own masters then in our autonomy we would 'feel' free. But we were not created to be creatures with no master. In Jesus we return to the freedom of living under the right and perfect rule of our true master, God our creator. In this redeemed relationship we are able to not only 'feel' free, but are free indeed. Our freedom is constrained by the transformation taking place within us. We are set free to live as we ought to, namely by the law of Love.
Now the law of Love is simple to state. Jesus gives it to us: 'Love God with all your being and love your neighbour as yourself'. The freedom of autonomy, to do what we want when we want is not the true essence of what it means to be free. True freedom is more profound. It is deliverance from the ego centred world of Self first into an outwardly focused vision that loves, loves as God loves. It is in this love of God and neighbour that we find the precursor to freedom and why Jesus spoke of it so highly.
Freedom is constrained then by love. We are free when we can deny the demands of autonomy and put the needs of others before our own. We are free when we can resist doing what we want when we want when that causes others harm. We are free when we recognize that the pursuit of happiness in materialism is not that which will truly satisfy the cry of our hearts. Though everything be permissible, Paul might say, now you are free to be wise and refrain. We are free when we allow constraint to prevent us from pursuing that which is not beneficial instead of chasing after it for freedom's sake.
The transformation of our very being is the deep expression of Christ's freedom within us. True freedom is found in becoming like Jesus, becoming the children of God. We are no longer bound by the brutality of our former master Sin, which drove us to attain a freedom that was self destructive, unconstrained, and illusory. It is for this reason, this setting free accomplished in the action of the cross and resurrection that Jesus can say to us: 'Whom the Son sets free is free indeed'.
Epilogue: The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Some ideas are better understood in the context of a story. In the parable of the prodigal son I see a layer that tells the story of the freedom problem. The younger brother demands his inheritance from his father and leaves with his wealth to do as he pleases where and when he wants to. He spends his freedom in living according to whatever he desires. At last he comes to a point having spent all his wealth and is left destitute living in complete poverty. We are like the prodigal son in the sense that we too have spent our freedom on the illusion that to be free means living as we want to doing whatever we want to. This autonomous life leaves us in a poverty of spirit. Like the son we realize that we are not free, especially when the food the pigs are eating looks tempting. What is the prodigal to do? He realizes that if he returns home he will have a better life as a servant in his father's household and this is what he sets out to do. Here the parable gives us an amazing picture of God's freedom. When the son is a long way off (when we were still sinners) the father runs to greet him, to welcome him home (God acts in Jesus to ransom us from Sin). The son is restored to the family completely (we become the children of God) and a feast is given in his honour. The prodigal son enters true freedom when he returns to his father's household. Can we not say that in the same way we return to the freedom that was lost in Eden when we return to God through Jesus? This is freedom indeed to live as the children of God under his perfect and just rule in the kingdom that he has given Jesus. Free to be the sons and daughters of God and free to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. There can be no greater freedom than to follow our master Jesus out of the prison of Sin and into the glory of becoming like him.