One of the most popular blogs I have written was posted on December 29, 2017. Since we have added so many new readers in the past four years, I thought I would share it again.
Have you ever wondered why we make New Year’s resolutions? It struck me that we seek to make changes because we are not pleased with certain areas of our lives and see the new year as a good time to bring about change.
The problem is that most people have a hard time making their resolutions stick. I have a friend who owns a very popular family restaurant. He says every January the sales of salads rise dramatically and there is a large drop in the sales of hamburgers and cheeseburgers. However, once February rolls around, the salad and burger sales are back to their normal levels.
I think the heart of our problem is that we have a difficult time controlling our desires. This reminds me of one of the essays I wrote in the book Wisdom: Life’s Great Treasure. In this particular essay I wrote about the tension that exists between freedom and the control of our desires. Positive freedom involves self-control, training and discipline instead of self-indulgence. Wisdom recognizes there are times our wills need to be crossed for our ultimate good and well-being.
For instance, 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 really good, but are high in fat and calories. However, because of your physical discipline you say “No! I am going to have to 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 must be open 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 you desire in the moment, for the sake of something of true and lasting value.
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.