For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14
Over time we have this way—as people and cultures—of redefining what words mean. Based on how we use them and what we attach to them we can take a word and narrow its meaning. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In some ways it’s helpful. If words have a narrow scope of use and meaning then we are much less likely to be misunderstood. But when we come to Scripture this can leave us confused or disconnected. After all, God’s inspired words were written to at a specific time and in specific places. They were written out of (and in to) cultures and people and circumstances. Words had certain meanings.
Add to this our need to translate it into our own languages and it’s easy to understand, from a very practical standpoint, our need to tread carefully and think critically about what we read; what God intended. Not to mention that we are speaking of a living word—God’s very words—a message that will forever challenge and inform our thinking, emotions and ultimately our hearts. We alter the meaning of words and so comes the challenge of hearing—not just reading—what God is saying when he uses words that we use today, but uses them with a different perspective.
The word I’m mulling over today is the word freedom. As an American I can see that we have a fairly weird relationship with this word. Just short of obsessive, I would say. And the way we like to embrace freedom is not at all the way Paul utilizes it in his letter to the Galatians. For us as Americans—and truthfully for many people living across the globe as well—freedom means many things that contradict the way Paul (and ultimately God) understands the word.
For us, freedom often incites visions of doing what I want and being able to simply play and relax. Freedom implies not being told what to do and not doing anything I don’t enjoy. Freedom can mean options upon options and never being given less than what I choose. Freedom can easily be seen as a soaring above and beyond the kinds of responsibilities that just seem to weigh us down. Don’t get me wrong, freedom isn’t all bad in our current way of thinking. It can also mean fair treatment for all, equal access, a fight against prejudice and so on. But none of this is what Paul focuses on when he speaks of freedom.
“But you have been called to live in freedom…”
That sounds so great! Let’s just stop there. Time to start the party. I hear the echoing cry of Braveheart, “Freedom!!!!….” But look at what Paul says about our freedom:
Don’t use it to satisfy your sinful nature.
Use your freedom to serve and love one another.
Don’t make your freedom in Christ about yourself. Make it about being what others need. Make it about living for the good of another instead of always thinking in terms of self-preservation and self-promotion. Is it just me or does this sound more like work and less like freedom?
Serve? Focus on other people’s needs? It’s counterintuitive to see this as freedom. And yet, living without always worrying about self, living without the tyranny of pursuing material gain, living out of a deep interest in others is freedom. It is stepping out from under the slavery to self that so quickly and continually seeks to entangle us.
Just last night I sat on my porch with a friend and talked about the struggles that go into being in community with others. Let’s be honest—being in relationship with people is not always a walk in the park. It’s not always fun; it’s not always easy. People are messy! Freedom feels like it would be a shedding of the duties of loving others. Freedom feels like it should involve no longer considering others, just worrying about our own needs and interests. But it doesn’t work that way.
Freedom is found in giving rather than hoarding. It’s found in serving rather than promoting my own needs. True freedom is found in being in relationship with those who are also seeking the freedom found in loving well. This is what it looks like to truly be free in Christ: to be open to the changing of hearts that he is doing. Ultimately, freedom that comes from Christ is a freedom from guilt and shame, a freedom from selfishness and the fear of being forgotten. So we are free to focus on others. Free to love them knowing that we are already loved perfectly ourselves.
It may require redefining the word a bit, but I think it’s high time we reclaim freedom and bring it in line with what God thinks of when he offers it to us.