What is freedom? I think our tendency is to think that freedom is autonomy (self-law).
In childhood, most of us sought less restrictions and more “freedom.” As we learned and matured, our parents gave us a longer tether so we could start making our own decisions. By necessity, when we got our driver’s license and got out on our own, or when we went off to school, our parents had to give us a measure of autonomy. While we still had rules in place and standards to follow, we pushed boundaries when out of our parents’ watching eyes.
Even as adults, I think we all naturally want autonomy, the ability to rule ourselves. We would love to characterize all we think and feel as good and the contrary as bad.
The question is, I think, are we better off shedding restrictions, our parents’ or more importantly, God’s?
The secular world certainly seems to think so. Behavioral taboos are shrinking so that almost nothing in the realm of “mutual consent” is frowned upon. Moreover, behaviors considered alarmingly abnormal just a few years ago are encouraged and applauded today. “You be you” is the new standard. In other words, whatever your heart (or libido) desires, follow it—your heart can’t be wrong.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)
While the Bible as a whole doesn’t speak so disparagingly of the heart—the seat of our emotions—the warning here is that our hearts are incredibly capable of misleading us. For the committed biblical Christian, “follow your heart,” should be qualified by the boundaries set forth in Scripture. The mind, then, informed by Scripture and the wisdom of experience—ours and others’—is to bridle the heart so that we don’t follow it foolishly.
It’s not wrong to decry broken or unjust systems, or to call out the clear misbehavior of others, but the biblical Christian understands that we know ourselves and our own heart and sins better than anyone else’s, so the improvement effort starts there. Even for the areligious conservative, personal responsibility and accountability is the bedrock of a free society—an inward recognition of our own imperfections and a move to improve on them.
Some from the more progressive side of religion and politics would blame all societal problems on the systems in place—an outward focus on group sin (real or imagined). In this case, few are to blame for their own law breaking or misbehavior—except of course conservatives or the rare progressive who transgresses the sin du jour on the shifting sands of progressive morality.
It remains that no one is free from moral judgment—from within or without. Whatever freedom we have, then, is not autonomy. It is limited and conditional. Since we all recognize multiple, competing sets of moral boundaries, the question is, “which one should I follow?” Also, “which gives me the most freedom?”
Three kids are sent into a large field to play. One is given a map that has warnings and cautions about certain dangers, but each time he looks, the map changes and what was previously dangerous is now safe, and vice versa. Another has no map at all. The third has a map from the field’s owner with fixed demarcations—sections of complete liberty, sections marked “take great care,” and some of “avoid at all costs.” Tell me, which child is most free to play?
Steve Post is a Tallahassee resident, armchair theologian, and past local ministry lay leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.