Over 30 years ago I read Sheldon Vanauken’s wonderful book A Severe Mercy. In the book he tells the true story of his dogs that serves as a great parable to help us better understand human depravity and true freedom. It is the story of Gypsy and Flurry.
Gypsy, a furry, wheat-colored collie, found herself in possession of several hundred acres of hills and woods, full of good things like rabbit trails and streams and intriguing burrows, and she delighted in it all. She was given a comfortable bed and good meals. Perhaps she rather took it all for granted. Of obligations there were few, and they not heavy. She was, to be sure, supposed to worship her Master and be right joyous to be with him. She knew she must not chase the chickens. While she must obey certain commands – to follow, to come, to lie down – there were no unreasonable ones, and no tricks. After all, to obey and to worship were natural to her dog nature.
There came a day when, as Gypsy was prowling on the far hill past the springhouse and pasture, two things happened at once: the Master called her and a rabbit fled across the hill. Gypsy wheeled and raced towards the Master, as she had always done. Then she stopped. It entered her mind that she didn’t have to obey. Perhaps the Master didn’t understand about the rabbit. Anyhow, these were her hills. The rabbit was hers, too. Very likely it was all lies – that story of everything, including herself, belonging to the Master. How did she know the food in her dish came from him? – Probably there was some natural explanation. She was a free dog and that was the end of it. These thoughts went through her mind swiftly while she stood irresolute. Again came the Master’s command; the rabbit crossed the hilltop. Gypsy whirled and raced after the rabbit. She had made a choice. She was free to choose.
Hours later she came home. She saw the Master waiting for her, but she did not rush gladly to him, leaping and frisking as she has always done. Something new came into her demeanour: she was penitent at the moment. But she had a new knowledge – the knowledge of the possibility of sin – and it was a thrill in her heart and a salt taste in her mouth. Nevertheless she was very obedient next day and the day after. Eventually, though, there was another rabbit – and she did not even hesitate. Soon it was the mere possibility of a rabbit. And then she dropped the rabbit thing altogether and went her way.
The Master loved her still but trusted her no longer. In time she lived in a pen and went for walks with a rope round her neck. All her freedom was gone. But the Master gave her, from time to time, new chances to obey of her own free will. Had she chosen to obey she would once again have had perfect freedom to wander her hundreds of acres. But she did not return to the obedience. She always chose, is she were out of reach, to run away. The Master, knowing hunger would bring her back to her pen, let her run. He could have stopped her: the rifle that would have ended her rebellion with the crack of doom stood in the corner. But while she lived she might still return to the obedience, might still choose the obedience that was freedom.
One day, during a journey by car, Gypsy and her good little daughter Flurry, were taken into the edge of the wood. Always Gypsy had limited her disobedience to her own hills. But now, coming back to the car, she suddenly felt the old thrill. She turned and fled. The Master called with a note of sharp urgency. Flurry, with the courtesy that always ruled her, came at once. Gypsy, her ears dulled to the meanings of the Master, continued her rush into the dark forest. After hours of search and calling, the Master sadly abandoned the lost one and, with Flurry beside him, went home.
There Flurry continued to live in freedom under the obedience. She was right joyous to be with the Master and gay when she did a thing that pleased him. She knew that in his service was perfect freedom. She obeyed gladly of her own free choice.
But lost Gypsy, if she still lived, wandered the woods and roads an outcast. She became dirty and matted with burs. No doubt stones were thrown at her and she was often hungry, but she had lost the way home. If she had puppies, they, too, and their children had lost the way home, for Gypsy’s perilous and bent will to disobey must infect them; and the comforting hand of the Master would be unknown to them, except as a tale. This is the way Gypsy chose on the Day of the Rabbit and continued to choose until, suddenly, there was no more choosing.
This is a great picture of the Fall and the depravity of mankind, however the words that capture my attention are Flurry “continued to live in freedom under the obedience.” She knew that in service to the Master there was perfect freedom.
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 Guinness 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.
The great irony is 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 lead to harmony, peace, and joy in your life.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.