Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
What Is Freedom?
Americans value nothing more than freedom. The concept stands enshrined in our founding documents and our hearts. But as a civilization, our constant challenge is to understand what freedom is and what it is not.
The modern notion of freedom — not modern at all, for we borrowed it from old Corinth — is an absolute, libertarian freedom. “All things are lawful for me” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Freedom is considered a sacred endowment of the individual.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (America’s Declaration of Independence)
But even that sentence betrays the problem. If freedom is bequeathed to us by another, if we are endowed with it by the Creator, then we are not entering this discussion as isolated individuals. This type of freedom is birthed by our relationship to God, and God, therefore, must define freedom. This type of freedom, descending from and beholden to Heaven’s Throne, is not the freedom our proud hearts crave.
As a teenager, I once read Anthem by Ayn Rand and instantly fell in love with it. Rand’s stories are tales of individuals finding themselves, their freedom, and their worth. She was a superb writer and to this day, I cannot read anything she writes without feeling a jolt of excitement. Here is a favorite selection:
At first, man was enslaved by the gods. But he broke their chains. Then he was enslaved by the kings. But he broke their chains. He was enslaved by his birth, by his kin, by his race. But he broke their chains. He declared to all his brothers that a man has rights which neither god nor king nor other men can take away from him, no matter what their number, for his is the right of man, and there is no right on earth above this right. And he stood on the threshold of freedom for which the blood of the centuries behind him had been spilled. (Anthem)
Sadly, it took a long time for me to recognize that Rand’s version of freedom is the reverse of reality, an ugly parody of God’s gift to man. Rand’s freedom did not begin with God but was instead opposed by the gods. All governments, institutions, and systems of men have suppressed freedom. Only when these shackles are broken can man be free. Do we see yet how opposite this view is from reality?
In Rand’s view, we were slaves and by our own volition pursued and achieved freedom. In truth, we began as creatures blessed with freedom who, by our own volition, pursed and achieved slavery. There is no freer creature than Adam in the Garden, just as there is no greater slave than he and his descendants who live even now in the bondage of sin.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned … Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14).
Rand sees our rebellion against the heavens as freedom. The gospel sees our rebellion as the abandonment of freedom in favor of servitude and failure. True freedom is not the unrestrained ability to do anything the heart imagines, but rather the bridled empowerment to do something good.
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Romans 6:17-19)
We are less free when we defy God because He is the eternal source of our freedom. Without Him, we remain shackled to sin, addiction, consequence, and death. With Him, we find that we are restrained, yes, but the yoke is easy and the burden light.
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.