Happiness and the Control of Our Desires

Isaiah Berlin, the great Oxford philosopher, stressed to his students that there are two types of freedom, both negative and positive. Most of us today see freedom in negative terms. It is all about freedom from restrictions, freedom from restraints. We see restraints as keeping us from fulfilling our hearts desires. Negative freedom says, I am only free from outside influence to do what my heart desires. Berlin says positive freedom is freedom for – in essence, freedom for excellence – to be all that you were meant to be. For a musician, a dancer, an athlete, positive freedom involves self-control, training, and discipline instead of self-indulgence.

Os Guiness says that Winston Churchill would often quote Alexander the Great who said that the Persians would always be slaves because they could never say “no.” He was saying that true freedom thrives on self-restraint and the power to say no. A culture that cannot curb its desires is a culture with no future. Guiness says that freedom requires a clear refusal of what is false, what is bad, what is excessive, and what is destructive. Therefore we need to aspire after virtue, justice, excellence and beauty. We should not just understand these ideals, we should live them out. They should be foundational to who we really are as people.

Most Americans today, however, seem to think that no one should ever surrender their spiritual and moral authority to anyone else. Even God. Particularly God. We have somehow come to believe that if you surrender your life to God and obey Him, He will abuse you; He will steal your happiness from you. However, you have to wonder, why would the God who made us and loves us want to make us unhappy? Have you ever thought that maybe God has designed the ultimate path to happiness, but either we don’t like the path, or do not believe it will take us there. We believe that He will consistently cross our wills and deprive us of our freedom. However, there are times our wills need to be crossed for our ultimate good and well-being.

Here we are at the beginning of a new year. You decide you really want to get your body in good physical condition and therefore decide to exercise each day before work. Your alarm goes off the first day, and you are semi-awake, and it feels so good to stay in the bed. It feels so right. What do you do? You cross your will and decide, “I am going to get out of bed, get dressed, and head to the gym.” You have to cross your will even though the bed feels so good and so right. Later that night at a restaurant as you look over the menu. There are several entrees that look so good, but are high in fat and calories. However, because of your physical discipline you say, “No! I must cross my will and eat something healthier.” Finally, you decide to hire a personal trainer to work with you. That person has some degree of authority over you and your training. You work under their supervision, and they may tell you, “Do one more set on the bench press.” Do you see what is happening? There are many experiences in this life that feel right and good, but over time can harm your health. Therefore you are willing to have your will crossed. Physical health and physical freedom come by finding the right restrictions.

This is the paradoxical nature of true, positive freedom. It is knowing the right restrictions, setting boundaries, saying no to yourself so you can build a good physique as well as strength and stamina. You are forfeiting something of value, for the sake of something of greater value. This is what Berlin meant by positive freedom.

Positive freedom is also at work in the moral and spiritual realm. We were made to operate a certain way. God designed life so that it is governed by certain laws and principles, and if we live in harmony with them our lives will flourish. For this reason, a life full of foolish and unwise choices is not freedom. As Os Guiness rightly observes:

Freedom is not choice so much as right choice, good choice and wise choice. When everything is permissible, no one is truly free, so it is ironic but not accidental that millions in ‘the land of the free’ are in recovery groups from one addiction or another.

In the New Testament we are told that by observing God’s law we are set free. James calls God’s law,the perfect law that gives freedom (James 1:25). But how can you really be free and follow God’s law? Ronald Macaulay, in a wonderful essay titled Grace and Law: The Pursuit of Freedom, explains it this way:

[God’s law] helps us to see how we are made to function. For obviously, if we are made to live in a certain way, and we live against that design, we make life difficult for ourselves. It is a little like treating plants, or animals or even machines according to their design. We have to find out the proper environment, temperature, food, attitudes, fuel, etcetera, which each requires – then, as we respect these design factors, things work, plants are healthy and produce flowers and fruit, animals are healthy and obedient, machines run smoothly.

The same is true for man. He is designed in a certain way, both physically and spiritually. Therefore, the closer he gets to living consistently with his design, the better he is, the freer he is. This is how the law has a positive function. This is why we must respect it, search for it, receive it gladly (even when it contradicts previously held opinions). The more we receive it, and the more we try to do it (“continue in it,” “hold to it”), the more we are set free.

This is the way God intended it to be, and this is what leads to our ultimate well-being.

*Please forward this post to someone who is struggling with addiction.


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