In our last post we looked at the declaration Jesus made that he had come to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah concerning the “year of the Lord’s favor” in (Luke 4:17-19). The scripture Jesus was reading from was Isa. 61:1, 2, which was in turn based on the passage in Lev. 25:8-13 which established the “Year of Jubilee,” the year-long celebration of the freedom given to the Jews which was to take place every 50 years.
There is much misunderstanding about the subject of freedom. On one hand there is the mistaken concept that freedom means that one is at liberty to do whatever one pleases whenever he pleases and with whomever he pleases. This is not freedom, it is libertinism. A “Libertine” is thought of today as “a dissolute person; usually a person who is morally unrestrained” (Wikipedia). When one dismisses all external restraints of morality or civil behavior he becomes a slave to his own passions and desires and destructive to himself and those around him.
Sociologically and psychologically, freedom is sometimes expressed in two different ways. First there is “freedom from” and the “freedom to,” or positive and negative freedom. Sociologically or politically, these two deal with freedom from human interference and freedom to do as I please within a civil society. (“Two Concepts of Liberty“, Isaiah Berlin). Social psychologist Erich Fromm, writing almost two decades before Berlin elaborates this concept …
“…freedom has a twofold meaning for modern man: that he has been freed from traditional authorities and has become an ‘individual,’ but that at the same time he has become isolated, powerless and an instrument of purposes outside of himself, alienated from himself and others; furthermore, that this state undermines his self, weakens and frightens him, and makes him ready for submission to new kinds of bondage. Positive freedom on the other hand is identical with the full realization of the individual’s potentialities, together with his ability to live actively and spontaneously.” (The Search for Freedom: Part I – Escape from Freedom).
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Fromm, in his book, “Escape From Freedom,” written in 1941, was exploring the dynamics of why the German people fell for Naziism, Adolph Hitler’s brutal reign and the horror of World War II. Following World War I, Germany had a short-lived, unstable democracy which Hitler manipulated to establish his Third Reich. The bulk of the population including the German church supported his totalitarian regime with his claim to racial superiority and right of world domination.
Fromm asked, “Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from?..Is there not also, perhaps, besides an innate desire for freedom, an instinctive wish for submission?”(Ibid). Think of it in the sense of a prisoner who feels so secure in jail that when he has served his time he goes and commits another crime so he can go back to jail. (I actually heard of something like this happening in a town I lived in years ago!)
Can this also happen in religion? In many respects the Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the repression of the religiously and politically powerful Roman Catholic Church. People actually fought and died to break the chains of pontifical, hierarchical tyranny and abuse. They were seeking freedom from what they conceived as oppression and a denial of the liberty to know and to act on their own. They had been used and manipulated for the purposes of the church and desired to break the bonds by which they were held.
Through the efforts of reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin led the way to a freer, clearer understanding of the Bible in European countries. Man’s individual responsibilities to God became known and became much of the focus of the Reformers.
“Protestantism and Calvinism, while giving expression to a new feeling of freedom, at the same time constituted an escape from the burden of freedom…Protestantism was the answer to the human needs of the frightened, uprooted and isolated individual who had to orient and to relate himself to a new world…Those very qualities which were rooted in this character structure—compulsion to work, passion for thrift, the readiness to make one’s life a tool for the purpose of an extra personal power, asceticism, and a compulsive sense of duty—were character traits which became productive forces in capitalistic society and without which modern economic and social development are unthinkable. (The Search for Freedom: Part I – Escape from Freedom).
But with the rise of freedom of the individual there came also upon the part of the religious institutions the desire to assure that people not stray away from the perceived teachings of the Bible which then resulted in the writing of the creeds of the various groups. These creeds and the peculiar dogmas spawned by the different groups, while intended to assure people’s freedom from the oppression of one kind of tyranny, actually resulted in the imposition of another kind. They did not completely deliver men into the freedom they need and long for.
The Protestant Reformation and the rise of capitalism slowly returned individuation and freedom to western humanity—but it became a “freedom from” rather than a “freedom to.” (The Search for Freedom).
The individual was not free to simply be a Christian – he was required to be a particular kind of Christian. He had to subject his thinking and beliefs to the rule of his church’s government. He had to support the causes his church approved, providing his money to do the “good works” the church identified. His or her behavior was strictly determined, not by his own conscience before God, but according to the definitions and demands of the church. In short, the average church member was – and in many cases – is not much better off than his ancestors were under the domination of a different hierarchy. Both were saddled with man-made rules and regulations that have little if anything to do with his relationship with God. Neither allowed men to become what God really wants them to become. And neither allowed people to recognize those of opposing groups as children of God and to have free association with them. They were seen as enemies even though they all used the same Bible, worshiped the same God and sought to do him service. This rigid separation is maintained by authoritarian powers that deny the right of the individual to express disagreement or to act without the approval of the controlling “authority.”
This especially has to do with the second aspect of freedom – positive freedom or the “freedom to.” It will be acknowledged that surely God’s intent for man is for each of us to reach the highest of our potential – to become what he made us to be. This requires the freedom of the individual to develop and exercise the abilities God has put into each one of us. It requires that we reach the fullest understanding of the divine purpose so that we might accomplish that goal. By the same token it denies the right of an authoritarian ruler or group to dictate to man without his understanding and approval what he must believe and what he must do. An individual must be free to respond to God according to his own understanding. Otherwise his response is not a free will act of obedience but the act of an automaton or robot.
What is the response God is looking for from us? At one time he had imposed a strict code of law, but man did not keep that law because of his own weakness. In the present age God has imposed no such restrictions on us. We have been given liberty to respond to him in the way that is most appropriate to our ability and our need. We have been given the freedom to love and to work. That is all that is really required of man. That is what will give man a sense of freedom and a sense of dignity and worth.
Biblically speaking, freedom is freedom from sin made possible by grace through the blood of Christ and appropriated by our faith in him. Sin and its control over us does not allow us to reach the potential of being that God made us to enjoy. Sin separates us from God and prevents us from expressing his design for us to manifest his image and glory. It prevents us from seeking and finding the greatest good – the righteousness he provides when we are forgiven from our sins and then in living in accordance with that righteousness.
Freedom for the Christian is also freedom from the domination of law. Paul, in writing to the Galatians said, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” (Gal. 3:23). Law is necessary as a restraint for man as long as he is away from God, identifying to us what sin is. But when we become children of God we come under a different restraining influence. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;” (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is the awareness of the love of Christ bestowed upon us through his sacrifice that keeps us on the “straight and narrow.” It is not a coercive restraint, but a restraint of conviction and understanding of his love.
This frees us to become what we were meant to be. We do this by love and by a productive, creative life. Through our active concern for those around us, our families, our friends, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in the Lord we work not to accumulate for our own pleasure but for the benefit of others (Eph. 4:28). We do all the good we can do just as God has done only good for us. By living this kind of life we reach the potential of our being and manifest the image of God in our lives.