A few weeks ago, I came to my fifth grade class with a question: “What does freedom mean to you? What would it look like to be completely free?” The specific responses varied, but the general themes were abundantly clear: Freedom means no one telling me what to do. Freedom means living my life however I want. And, particularly high on the agenda: Freedom means not having to finish my homework.
None of these answers were a surprise to me. After all, they line up perfectly with the way our culture has trained us to understand freedom — which, essentially, is all about opportunity maximization. In other words, we’re told, the more options and opportunities and choices you have, and the fewer limitations that you or anyone else puts on your life, the freer and happier you’ll be.
Pursuing individual freedom
In the wealthy West, at least, there’s never been a better time in history to pursue this kind of individual fulfilment. Want something you don’t have? Three clicks and it’s yours, with free two-day delivery (as long as the supply chain holds out.) Hate compromising with your family about what to watch on TV? Just pop in your AirPods and stream whatever you want on your phone.
Hate the opinions of the people you go to school with? Just get online and find some people with better opinions. Don’t like the identity handed down to you by your family or your culture or your community? Just mix and match your own identity however you want. And now, with the arrival of the metaverse, you don’t even have to live in the real world anymore. Just strap on a headset and dive into a whole new reality of your own making.
Of course, not all of this is all bad — but up against this cultural backdrop, it shouldn’t surprise us if, at first, the wisdom of Scripture seems kind of backward and upside-down.
Living with the right limits
Take Psalm 119:45 for example: “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” In stark contrast to our usual understanding of freedom, the writer says, “I am truly free because I let God rule and guide my life.” By this definition, true freedom isn’t about living without limits. It’s about leaning into the right limits. Which, like I said, might sound completely counterintuitive — but when you think about it, it’s a truth we already live out every single day.
For instance, sleep. Your body needs a decent amount of sleep each night in order to stay healthy. You can ignore that reality if you want to. You can keep chugging down coffee and energy drinks, keep slapping yourself in the face every time your eyes get heavy, but it’s not going to end well for you. Ignoring your body’s need for sleep might feel like freedom in the short term, but eventually it’s going to destroy your freedom. It’s going to ruin you both physically and mentally because your body is designed to sleep.
The deal is the same with food. Your body needs proper nutrition in order to thrive. Again, you can ignore that reality even if you want to. And living on nothing but burgers and fries might feel like freedom at first, but eventually, it’s going to ruin you. That kind of diet is going to mess you up because your body is designed for proper nutrition.
If you want lasting health and freedom, you’re not going to find it by ignoring the things you need to survive. You’re going to find it by embracing reality. You were designed to thrive on sleep. You were designed to thrive on real food.
And what God is saying through the words of the poet in Psalm 119 is that on an even deeper level, you were designed to thrive on his love and care and guidance. God is the one who made you, so figuring out who he is and figuring out who you are go hand in hand.
Despite how it might sound, God isn’t asking you to throw away your freedom in order to follow him. He’s asking you to follow him so that he can guide you into freedom — into the true life and meaning and purpose that he created you for. This is a big part of why you find Jesus saying stuff like, “broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Matt. 7:13) and, “narrow is the road that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14).
There are so many ways we go chasing after freedom that actually end up enslaving us to things like work or study or money or our own self-image or other people’s opinions and expectations. So, if there’s a way to be set free from all of that, then of course it’s going to be narrow, because it’s going to rule out all those destructive, oppressive options.
The truest freedom
“If the Son sets you free,” Jesus says, “you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Why? Because Jesus offers us liberation from death itself. Death is the ultimate tyranny that wipes out all our other freedoms. And he’s come to liberate us from the slavery of sin— that introduced death in the first place. God offers us forgiveness for all the ways we ignore and reject and disregard him, and all the havoc we wreak on each other, and on our own souls, in the process.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have paved the way for our resurrection into eternal life and everlasting freedom on the day Jesus returns. And in the meantime, Jesus promises to help us find true freedom in this life, here and now, by showing us a safe path through all those other options that promise freedom, but only end up enslaving us.
Jesus promises that if you put your trust in him and hold to his teaching, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). This might still sound kind of backward, but the more I live into that reality, the more I discover that not only is it true, it’s the most liberating, life-giving truth there is.
Find out more about Chris’ new book, Who Am I and Why Do I Matter?