When Freedom Isn’t Freedom

Les Newsom  |  October 01, 2012

Imagine a fish who one day decides that the real source of his problems in life is not his family, not his “school,” not his friends…but water. “Water,” he assumes, “is so restrictive, so limiting. It’s time to start to think outside of the box.” What he wants is a new life, free from the mundane and the usual. So to that end, he decides one day that he’ll leave the confines of the water for the happier shores (literally) of dry land where there is warm sun and beautiful beaches, but most exciting of all…air! Forthwith, he throws himself out of the water and onto the ground. But it doesn’t take long before he realizes that the “warm sun” is hot and burning. The beautiful beach is scratchy and rakes across his scales. And the first big gulp of air he tries to take chokes him. Freedom from water is not so freeing after all.

I heard Tim Keller contrast the difference between the present generation and our grandparent’s. He said that for our grandparents, the highest good was “being good.” Most valuable to them was the thought that they had done what was right, they had been a “good person.” However, for those calling the cultural shots in our day, freedom is the highest value. The knowledge that I was not coerced or manipulated in any way, that no one was trying to pull the wool over my eyes, that my choices were, indeed, uninfluenced…this, says Keller, drives the heart of contemporary culture.

Of course, there are two problems with our culture’s thinking here. First, is there really anything like an “uninfluenced act” in human experience? This kind of atomistic thinking sees man more radically separated from his environment than he actually is. Human beings are deeply influenced by each other’s actions…especially our words. The connections between our sense of “self” and our environment are much more powerful than we would often like to admit. Every act of mine is “influenced” in some way by the human forces around me.

But the second problem with our culture’s blind pursuit of “freedom” so called is that it fails to account for the fact of man’s design. That is, the self is not random. There is order to our existence in every facet. So persistent is this order that when we violate that design, we experience dysfunction. Our lives fall apart. For instance, if you fail to account for fact that your body runs on food, and instead feed it, say, motor oil, your intestinal tract will begin to experience alienation.

So the question before us is this: what if the human soul has a design, a pattern? And what if my most acute problems in life—heartbreak, loneliness, sadness, bitterness—are all functional results of my pursuit of freedom in a way which violates my soul’s design?

Further, what if when I honor that design (what we call in Christian parlance “obedience”) I actually broaden my human flourishing instead of diminishing it, and thereby, increase the enjoyment of my life? I once heard a preacher tell a story of a Pennsylvania public school system that had a large playground on one end of its property. Over the years, the neighborhood grew up around the school and the streets bordering the playground became busy and full of traffic. Fearing an accident, school administrators put up a large fence all the way around the playground.

Well, parents were deeply offended. It looked like their children were in a prison. The fight became so heated that the conflict went all the way to the city school board where it was decided that the fence would be torn down. What do you think happened the very next day? If you are thinking that a car struck a child, you’d be wrong. The children huddled together in a tiny clump in the middle of the playground, dreadfully afraid of the expanse of the playground all around them.

Do you see the point? The fence actually GAVE them the playground. What if God desperately wants to give this culture the playground? But we are so offended at fences (and screaming “Legalism!” at any sniff of them) that we either race out into dangerous traffic OR we huddle together in tiny clumps, never seeing just how much joy might actually be “out there.”