by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Since we’re here at the doorstep of the 4th of July—Independence Day—the birthday of “the land of the free,” it’s a good place for us to stop for a moment to meditate on the questions: What, exactly, is the true nature of freedom? And, if we had it, what would freedom look like in our lives?
When I was growing up, most thoughts about freedom centered upon the reasons this country was founded—to liberate ourselves from tyrannical authority; to gain the freedom to worship as one pleases; and to have the freedom to self-determination. Of course, it’s easy to understand why so many people at the birth of this nation were willing to offer their very lives for such an ideal. However, even though our system of government was founded upon these virtuous standards, the spectacles of slavery and then the struggle over civil rights that came afterwards demonstrated that throughout the course of our history we haven’t always understood well, or been able to achieve perfect freedom in the way it was originally intended. Nevertheless, those original principles of freedom are every bit as worthy of self-sacrifice now as the day our country was born. Since then, however, the desire for freedom has dis-integrated further away from self-sacrifice, towards individual independence in a distorted ability to make our own decisions and choose our own path in life—choosing to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want. Most recently, this has become emphasized with almost religious fervor.
We live in strange times, where freedom in popular culture means a kind of license that says that people shouldn’t have to be limited by any kind of restrictions that aren’t to their liking. For instance, some people want to insist that everyone should have the freedoms to satisfy every kind of perverted sexual appetite with whomever they want; freedoms to kill unborn children; the freedom to take whatever drugs we might desire; the freedom to defy law enforcement; etc. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that much of the disorder & confusion and mental & spiritual illness of our own times is a consequence of this demonic concept of freedom. Even within the Church, it’s safe to say that much of the chaos we experience is due to our engaging more closely with the influences of the distorted culture around us than with putting effort into getting to know and unify ourselves with Jesus—the very essence of our Orthodox Christian salvation.
Some people may not realize that Jesus had something significant to say about freedom. When He revealed Himself as the Messiah, He said that He’d come to Earth to “proclaim freedom” (Luke 4:18). And on another occasion, He said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). For Jesus, freedom is central, but the heavenly version of freedom looks a lot different than what we see in the culture that surrounds us.
Jesus said to the Jews who had entrusted themselves to Him, “If you abide in My word [continually meditating upon and obeying My teachings] you are truly My disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). A little later, Jesus also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one goes to the Father except through Me. If you have known Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you know Him through Me and have seen Him in Me.” Since Jesus is both fully God and fully human, He is the truth about God and humanity. Whatever we need to be revealed to us of God’s nature, is revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ. And the whole truth about humanity, our worth, value and dignity, are realized in and disclosed to us in the Son of Man—Jesus of Nazareth. And once we understand that humanity’s foundational sin was (Genesis 3:5) and continues to be the idolization of ourselves as gods, we begin to grasp what’s meant by the statement that God’s Son came into the world “to save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
The scripture tells us that, it’s sin that keeps us in bondage (literally…locking us away into a kind of solitary confinement—depriving us of our freedom). Our sin (the preoccupation with fulfilling our own desires—making a god out of our self) has dreadful consequences right now upon us…and our families become unwilling victims of our sins. Our sin abuses us in all the ways we’d find in a prison…a system that almost guarantees a failure to rehabilitate.
So, what do you find in a prison? Because most prisons equate justice with punishment, you’re bombarded with a sense of total helplessness, becoming little more than caged livestock, in a concerted effort to depersonalize and dehumanize the prisoner. It’s a system designed to cultivate psychological and spiritual sickness in the incarcerated. There is a relentless entanglement of infestation with monotony, punctuated by moments of cruel violence… sometimes violence done to you.
Freedom is about becoming what God created us to be at the truest core of ourselves in Him. Freedom is about Who God is at His very core. God is free and He made us to be free as well. After all, we’re made in His image to grow into His likeness. The whole process of life, all its challenges, and joys, and every other experience, are all subtle invitations by God to discover this and become free.
According to Jesus, the true definition of freedom is meditating upon God’s word and obeying God’s will. I know to modern ears that sounds just the opposite of freedom, but the point is, we’ve lost the most crucial element in understanding what freedom really is. Freedom isn’t the ability to do anything I want, but rather it’s the discipline to exclude all behaviors that dehumanize and bring about spiritual illness and dying in me. Freedom happens when I approach every activity with the intention of utilizing it in such a way that I become united to Christ in it. Doing anything I want has never led me to freedom. It has always led me to the slavery of my bad habits. I’ve only experienced true freedom when I’ve disciplined my desires to embrace God’s will for my life. It’s in that stubborn willingness to unite my actions with Christ that allows me to throw off my bonds and step into authentic freedom.
That’s part of what Saint Paul is getting at in this Sunday’s Epistle Reading. Once, “we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Saint Paul wants us to reflect upon the fact that we were once held in bondage and abused by our masters—slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe—the demons. But that when the God/man, Jesus Christ came to redeem us and adopt us as God’s children…children who are here to fulfill their Father’s will and become preoccupied with the family business…we were finally able to acquire freedom.
So, going back to our original questions: “What, exactly, is the true nature of freedom? And, if we had it, what would freedom look like in our lives?” When the Son of God took on human flesh, he permitted us, not merely to imitate, but to continually re-live His life, conforming ourselves to His essence. So, we become free when we learn to make a habit of continually offering to God the Theotokos’ response to the Archangel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to Your Word.” Every time we step into this way of being, identifying ourselves with the God/man Jesus Christ, making His divine will our mission in everything we do and are in life, His freedom becomes our own.