Recently I have been studying the issue of freedom and what it ultimately means to be free. It struck me that there are two ways to approach life: to submit my life to God and His will, or to seek to be free to do whatever I want to do. Said another way, it’s Thy will be done vs. My will be done. The second approach clearly has great appeal to all of us; after all, it is the human condition to be selfish.
I have concluded that, subconsciously, so many Americans believe that freedom means the absence of restraints in our lives. As long as we can follow our hearts wherever they lead, and as long as we don’t hurt anyone, this is the key to a full and happy life – to fulfill all of our yearnings and desires.
But clearly this modern view of freedom is not working. It does not lead to happiness, and it never will, because this way of thinking inevitably breaks down. It leads to chaos and pain. In fact I would be so bold as to say that this model of freedom explains why people’s lives aren’t working in a culture that seems to offer it all.
I think that one of the main reasons this modern view of freedom breaks down is because of our failure to understand the complexity of the human heart and human design.
We believe we are only free if we can do whatever our heart wants. But have you ever noticed the competing desires in your life and how they can be so contradictory? For instance, I want to be healthy and fit and to live a long life. But I also like to smoke cigarettes and to drink heavily. At some point you realize that your model breaks down. The competing interests require that you choose a side. And you finally understand that freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want; your desires can be endless, yet they so easily collide with one another.
Philip Yancey tells an interesting story about his older brother. Apparently his brother was an incredibly gifted musician. And Yancey says:
In an attempt to break the shackles of a confining upbringing, he went on a grand quest for freedom, trying on worldviews like changes of clothing: Pentecostalism, atheistic existentialism, Buddhism, New Age Spirituality, Thomistic rationalism. He joined the flower children of the 1960s, growing his hair long and wearing granny glasses, living communally, experimenting with sex and drugs. For a time he sent me exuberant reports of his new life. Eventually, however, a darker side crept in. I had to bail him out of jail when an LSD trip went bad. He broke relations with every other person in the family, and he burned through several marriages. I got late-night suicide calls. Watching my brother, I learned that apparent freedom can actually mask deep bondage, a cry from the heart of unmet needs. The most musically gifted person I have ever known ended up tuning pianos, not playing them on a concert stage.
Yancey had a front row seat to see the destructive power of a life of unrestrained freedom. And if you think about it, had his brother really wanted to become an accomplished musician and play in concert halls, it would have required hours and hours of practicing, and this would have restricted the freedom he desired. But the discipline and hard work would have unleashed the ability to produce beautiful music that otherwise lay dormant.
In the book of James, we find some interesting words on freedom. He speaks of the person “who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom.” But how could that be true, that God’s perfect law leads to our freedom? It would seem to be just the opposite – that God’s law would take our freedom away from us. So many people see God as one who desires to steal our happiness from us.
However, I would ask you, from a different perspective, to consider what James has written.
Tim Keller says that you sometimes have to deliberately give up your freedom to engage in certain things which will enable you to release yourself to a richer kind of freedom. And as we look at the competing desires of our heart, it is critical for us to discover which of our desires are liberating and which are destructive. Ultimately we need to determine which of our desires are aligned with who we really are, and therefore, enhance our lives.
In our quest for happiness it is crucial that we recognize that freedom is not a lack of restrictions; rather, it is finding the right restrictions. Freedom occurs when you discover the restrictions that best fit your being and that lead to harmony, peace, and joy in your life.