July in America. A month for fireworks and tri-colored banners, parades and speeches and historical celebrations. Why? July Fourth: Independence Day. This quintessentially American holiday in which we celebrate our Revolution, when we cast off British Rule and declared “that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” Free and Independent. The meaning of this declaration has been hotly debated in the 238 years since it was signed. America exists, but what does it mean when we call it, as Francis Scott Key did, “the land of the free”? What, quite apart from the United States, is freedom?
Last month, at Wheaton College, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries held a Summer Institute (hereafter RZIMSI), a week-long apologetics conference revolving around the theme “Freedom: Dream or Delusion?” They sought to describe what true freedom—in Christian terms—is and how it is achieved, in contrast to definitions from other world-views. I had the privilege of attending that conference, and now it is my privilege to share some of what I learned with you.
I start where no one of the conference speakers started—or ended, for that matter—with Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This classic tale of how teenage rebellion is a sure way to reach happily-ever-after features a main character yearning for freedom. Not only does Ariel, the title mermaid, want to be free of her controlling father’s unreasonable—to her—rules, but she also, more desperately, wants to be free of all the constraints of life under the sea.
The problem for a mermaid who wants to be a land dweller is that, even if she manages to get out of the ocean, she has fins, not legs. She will be a literal fish out of water, not free to enjoy land life because unsuited for it.
Freedom is not simply a matter of shaking off fetters. Useful freedom not only unchains; it must also enable. The mermaid who wants to be free from water needs legs to make her free to walk.
I share this as an illustration of the fact that there are two kinds of freedom: negative freedom and positive freedom. “Negative freedom . . . is freedom FROM. . . . . Positive freedom is freedom FOR.” The American Revolution was fought to obtain freedom from British rule, and freedom for the purpose of having self-rule and pursuing the unalienable rights of created-equal men without interference from across the pond.
Popular conceptions of freedom tend to assume that lack of restraint and ability to choose, usually among many options, are the sum total of what it means to be free. However, the conference team asserted and reasserted that true freedom lies not simply in the ability to choose, but in the ability to choose well. A glance around our culture shows that the ability to choose often leads to the opposite of freedom; addictions proliferate, vices thrive, and the prisons and rehab centers are in no danger of closing. People are free to choose, and we watch our freedoms—and theirs—constricting with each poor choice.
How, then, can we enable good choices? We have a proliferation of laws to this end, but fear of punishment seemingly does little to control behavior. Something more, something other, is necessary. Given the chance at a good life, we seem intent on wasting it. What is our problem?
Our problem. John Dickson shared that, according to Buddhism, our problem is desire. We are kept, by our desires, in a world of suffering, and we must pursue utter cessation of desire in order to be liberated and reach Nirvana. While in some ways this view sounds appealing, Dickson rebutted it as a completely self-centered view, and provided a Christian response.
Desire, in and of itself, is not bad. Indeed, Christians serve a God Who is passionate in His desires—pursuing us to the point of death, even death on a cross—and Who calls us to passionately desire Him. “The more we find our fulfillment in the Creator,” Dickson said, “the less we’ll covet the things of creation.” We’re meant to desire, and we’re meant to be satisfied.
Our problem, in spite of Buddhism, is not desires. But if we say that having wrong desires is the problem, we will be closer to the truth. A wrong desire will lead to a wrong choice. In other words, a wrong desire, indulged, will prevent our choosing well, making us less free.
Why do we have wrong desires? In Genesis 6, “when man began to multiply on the face of the land”—just a few generations from the creation of Adam, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and the every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Wrong desires are a long-standing problem. We can trace them back to Eden, where, prompted by the devil’s whisper, Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” and “took of its fruit and ate,” making a disastrous choice to do the one thing—only ONE THING—which was prohibited.
Wrong desires are a congenital malformation of the soul—left to ourselves we can have nothing but wrong desires—and it is of this that we must be freed if we are ever to enjoy true freedom. As Stuart McAllister observed the first night of the conference, “we’re bound in our depths. There’s an inner brokenness . . . and we want to be free.”
Having located the problem, the question is what is the cure which can free us from our inner bondage? During a round-table discussion on the second night of the conference, Andy Bannister observed that “every worldview starts with the idea of slavery to something from which you must be set free.” John Dickson added that every worldview ultimately defines freedom as the capacity to live in accordance with ultimate truth—for Buddhism, this is cessation of self; for Islam, Nabeel Qureshi shared, this is submission to Allah; for post-modernists who define their own truth, this is being true to self, what Cameron McAllister called “a purely private freedom.”
In the Christian paradigm, ultimate reality and ultimate truth are found in our triune God, Who is at center, as Stuart McAllister pointed out, relational: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in a love relationship with one another. The Bible teaches us that we are made in the image of God, and thus, we are designed to love—God and others—and to be loved—by God and others. Since love is a form of desire, our problem of wrong desires is ultimately a problem of wrong love; “all of life,” Stuart said, “is a love story.” We need freedom from our inner bondage in order to love the right objects rightly.
But how? The conference speakers reiterated one answer throughout the week: the Gospel. We’ve all heard that “the truth will set you free.” Fewer of us have heard it in its proper context, words which Jesus spoke: “If you abide in my words, you are truly my disciples, and you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” If we know the truth through His words, we can assume His words are true. In case, you want that spelled out more, however, Jesus also made the claim to BE the truth, saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” As we get to know our friends through what they say, we can get to know the Truth through what the Truth says.
When we abide in Christ, He makes us new. He gives us new hearts. He makes us able to love rightly, to choose well, to live in accordance with ultimate truth. For this freedom, He makes us free.
Where He calls us to go, He will enable us. Even if we feel like mermaids who have been called out of the ocean, we can go confidently, knowing that if we need legs, He’ll supply them.
This freedom does not always end up looking like the “good life” which we tend to associate with being free. Because it is an inner freedom, it can be exercised even in physical bondage, in the constraints of poverty and hardship and persecution. It often is. Ravi Zacharias himself reminded us that Christians can expect to face scorn and violence and divisions; “we are living in a time when it is unbelievably unsafe to be a Christian in many parts of the world.”
In spite of that, we need not fear. Ravi summed it up this way: “The final chapter ends in two words: HE WINS!” Because we know He wins, we are free to follow wherever He leads, whatever the cost. This is a greater victory than that of thirteen puny colonies over the British Empire. It is more lasting. More worth celebration. Not just in July, but forever.
***As a postscript, I’ll add that attending this conference was a wonderful way of celebrating. It was an intellectually stimulating and spiritually encouraging week, with up to seven hour-long sessions in a day with high-caliber apologists who were refreshingly human, and still plenty of time for meeting other conference attendees and enjoying the fellowship of like-minded individuals from all walks of life and all over the world. If you get the chance to attend a conference on something you’re passionate about, here’s an encouragement from an often-fearful introvert and homebody: take that chance!
©2014 by Stacy Nott