The Slavery of Freedom
*Sermon inspired by James K. Smith’s chapter “Freedom” in On the Road with Saint Augustine. To be clear, nothing Smith says is authoritative unless it’s founded on God’s word.*
What is the son looking for when he demands for his father’s inheritance, takes the money, and leaves for a far off country? What do any of us want when we toy with the idea of having lots of money, no family, just chosen friends? Leaving behind home, city, responsibilities for another state, another country? We’re looking for freedom — the open road. I don’t want Mom and Dad reminding me of what the house rules are, how to spend money, when to get up, go to bed, and what to eat. I’m leaving on an adventure into the great unknown. No one will see me or stop me from going where I want, buying what I want, drinking what I want, sleeping with who I want. Or, maybe our ambitions different from the son — I’m going to put this small-minded family and church behind, shake the right hands, and make it to the top. I won’t be poor any more — relying on and working for others. I’ll be free to pursue what I want where I want.
And yet, how well did it work out for the son to chase freedom and happiness? He ran out of money and a famine struck. He wished he could eat pig slop, but no one gave him anything. After a moment of fun, he found the walls of freedom were thicker and higher than his father’s. He couldn’t write a check or hop to the next town to get out of this slavery. Eventually, finite things break when we put infinite value, pressure on them.
Solomon did the same thing in Ecclesiastes — sought to fill his infinite longings for happiness with finite pursuits in this world. But Solomon didn’t run out of anything.
“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:4–11 NIV)
Solomon lives the life many of us have wondered about or even tried out. Whatever you have done or dreamed of, Solomon did it bigger. He had all the gold, homes, parks, fountains, fruit, steak, wine, sex, and live music you could dream of. And he got to the end and said he was running around with a net tried to catch the wind. The problem is not that Solomon and the prodigal son didn’t get what they wanted: they got exactly what they wanted and it disappointed them. The disappointment was so overwhelming that the son went home ready to become a slave and Solomon wrote a bestseller that endures nearly 3,000 years later. The son and Solomon “left” craving ribeyes, wine, and a harem; they crawled home just hoping for the simple life with God. The finite world couldn’t carry their infinite hopes for it.
What the son and Solomon bought was the lie we have all believed — as Smith puts it: “Freedom is freedom from, and the way to get from is to leave.” (p. 61) Think about how strongly this is baked into our society. Freedom is from the Brits, from heavy taxation, from the Catholic Church. It is certainly good to be free from actual oppression (1 Cor. 7:21), but somewhere along the way our definition of oppression has expanded and simultaneously our definition of freedom has narrowed into this obsession with freedom from — from society’s expectations, from familial obligations, from responsibility to the church, from church’s small-mindedness, and from God’s rules. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) is telling: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of the human life.” In Smith’s words, “Freedom means, ‘Hands off, I’ve got this, I know what I want.’ I’ll know I’m free when I get to decide what’s good for me, when every choice is a blank check of opportunity and possibility.” (Pg. 61)
Welcome to the U.S.A., where we founded a pretty great nation, but not one with the glory and dominion of God in Jesus Christ as the goal, but with freedom as the goal. And there’s nothing abnormal about that for this world — it’s what we should expect — what is strange is how if asked, most American Christians would see nothing unhealthy about putting freedom at the center. Whether it takes 250 years or 500 years to meet our demise, putting freedom at the center sows the seeds of our own destruction. Are we still drinking the “freedom from” Koolaid? We’re free alright — free from family and lonelier than ever, free to choose and crippled by anxiety, unchained from every ancient authority and free-floating through space. We’ve swallowed the promise of freedom from hook, line, and sinker. Surely now that our country does not know what is up or down, male or female, life worth protecting or not — surely the hangover will come soon?
I don’t want it, but maybe we need a famine. Like the prodigal son, it’s amazing how little the music, the title, the crown, the success, and the sex mean when you don’t know where your next cup of water or bowl of food will come from. Those pursuits suddenly seem very finite (which, is another reason why we should fast).
But what if you’re Solomon and you never run out of anything and the famine doesn’t come for a long time? Unlimited everything. He ended it all still hungry. Smith puts it like this when reflecting on Augustine who has a similar story: “When you’re swimming in a tiny above ground pool at your cousin’s house and keep bumping against the walls, you start wishing they weren’t there. But when in your rambunctiousness, you succeed in knocking them down, [if you’re honest] you realize the pool didn’t get bigger: it just disappeared. You’re left in the soggy ruins.”
To summarize Smith (pp. 62-63): for awhile freedom from feels great because we have imagined ourselves denied for so long. But at some point we may realize the loss of guardrails only means ending up in a ditch and we can “start to wonder whether freedom is all it’s cracked up to be — or whether freedom might be something other than the absence of constraint and the multiplication of options.” We end up like kids at a buffet without our parents — dishing whatever we want on our plates, and then realizing freedom feels a lot like nausea. Or we become like an adventurer who hits the open road without a map — we may find a lot of roads are dead ends. Or like a teen who goes off to college with no curfew and finds that truly nothing good happen after midnight.
Actor and comedian Russell Brand found at first that promiscuity seemed great: “You get to experience all of the intimacy with all of these strangers and it seems exciting.” But at some point he realized he was a lonely addict. “It takes a while to recognize the emotional cost on me, the spiritual cost on other people, the fact that it’s preventing me from becoming a father, from becoming a husband, from settling, from becoming rooted, from becoming actually whole, from becoming a man, from becoming connected. It takes a while to spot that.” (p. 97) Solomon discovered this too. He trashed the guardrails and took not just one woman, but one thousand. But, eventually, he counseled in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Eccl. 9:9), “Rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). The challenge Russell Brand talked about in this interview is this: not everyone wakes up to this reality that they are lonely addicts. It’s true. The life of freedom and sin has a numbing, anesthetic affect. Most people keep smiling.
What’s the point? If we ever wake up, we eventually find out that freedom and sin doesn’t pay the happiness it promises. That’s part of Paul’s point in Romans 6. After Paul demonstrates that we are freely justified by God’s gift in Jesus, someone replies, “Should I sin that grace may increase?” To which Paul replies, “By no means!” Rom. 6:16 ESV, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” Point: you may be forgiven for now, but don’t you realize sin could make you its slave again? And what good would that be? Notice Rom. 6:21–23 ESV, “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The paycheck of sin — freedom freedom to do and be whatever we feel — is death. If we would only come to the end of ourselves and see what we want from birth up is empty. If only we’d accept the freedom that comes from becoming God’s slaves. That produces fruit, and fruitfulness leads to sanctification (increasing holiness) and sanctification’s end is eternal life. No paycheck, but a gift.
Authenticity and Discipline
Consider two results of this for our day.
1. Freedom and authenticity enslaves; God’s commandments set us free. We are told, “Be yourself, everybody else is already taken.” (Typology Podcast) Don’t let society, family, church, or God hold you back. Be free. Look inside yourself and ask, “Who am I really? What do I really want? If I were authentic, what would I do?” Life is a highway, forget the directions and the destination I have been given, I’m going my way. This is one reason why many idolize the almighty automobile — it’s your ticket to the road and to go wherever you want. But Smith warns us that we forget something: the road “is not a blank slate; it is a network of channels laid down where many others laid a path before.” Even when you think “you’re alone on the open road, you’re following somebody. To answer the call of the asphalt is to follow ‘them.’”
Isn’t this exactly what Paul is saying in Ephesians 2? Eph. 2:1–3 ESV, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” The problem is that when we do whatever our bodies and minds want, whatever our flesh craves — we think we’re alone, authentic, truly ourselves. But actually we’re following the course of this world. We’ve hit the open road with our hearts as the only compass, yet we’re driving on the asphalt everyone else is on. And note, who is the world following? Who laid down the asphalt? “The prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience.” We can listen to the voice inside, but we shouldn’t be surprised to discover later that Satan has hijacked the voice inside of every one of us. To let our hearts guide us is to take up the map of Satan. As Augustine wrote, “Free choice is sufficient for evil, but hardly for good.” (p. 68)
But God offers true freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ. And he also offers freedom in an unexpected place: his commandments. I love the ESV’s marginal translation of Psalm 119:32. “I will run in the way of your commandments for you set my heart free.” This is the experience Augustine had when he read Romans 13. He had been chained to his aspirations and desires. Then, one day he picked up Romans which commanded him to not participate in orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and jealousy but to put on Christ (Rom. 13:13–14). Augustine later recalled that he instantly felt relief from all anxiety flood his heart. Rejecting the voice of doing whatever he genuinely wanted and listening to the command was freedom. As Augustine later wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Let’s not be obsessed with our liberties or with becoming our true, authentic selves. Good constraints — God’s commands, your parents’ instruction — are gifts.
2. Raise your children in the discipline of the Lord (not according to their voice inside). Eph. 6:4 ESV, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” We must not be overbearing, trying to micromanage our children or holding them to unreasonable standards. We’ll provoke them to anger and actually lead them to buy the freedom from lie. They will have to fall on their own. But fathers, we must bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. We need wisdom here, because our culture wants even parents to buy the hype of freedom. We want to be the cool parent that listens to the voice inside them.
Nearly 1700 years ago, this is the sort of father Augustine had, and it frustrated him. Smith summarized it like this: “He was being parented by someone still drunk on negative freedom, who hadn’t yet reached the point of realizing this wasn’t freedom at all.” (p. 68)
For those who have seen Moana (if you haven’t, watch it and cover your kids’ ears), what’s the ultimate message? Leave home, follow your heart and the voice inside you, and you’ll save everyone. Moana’s father is obtuse for resisting this and the grandma is cool because she says, “Listen to your heart, be who you are on the inside.” But here’s the thing: since Disney controls the story, it turns out that 95% of the time when you follow your heart and leave the home where no one understands you you’ll find yourself and save everyone in the process. It’s Moana, Little Mermaid, Frozen, Coco, Turning Red, and more. But, in reality, unless we are leaving to bring the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth or prioritizing Jesus over our family, leaving isn’t heroic at all. It looks more like Simba who won’t return to rescue his dying kingdom because “hakuna matata.” Leaving often makes us the prodigal son: shirking our responsibilities and refusing submission.
Jesus taught that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25) — but do we believe that for our kids? We don’t want to be overbearing parents, but we must not listen to the temptation to become Moana’s cool grandma who encourages them to go off into the unknown and find themselves — or onto a self-centered, covetous ladder of personal successes. Leaving home to choose your own path and forget the crown or the family business may be a modern right of passage, but its an ignorant one. We may think, “They’ll come back like the prodigal son,” but for every prodigal son that comes home, there’s likely ten more that don’t. Fathers, let’s not provoke our children to wrath, but let's man up and train them to take up the self-sacrificial cross of Jesus.
But it’s hard to communicate this to someone who’s still drunk on the promises of negative freedom. It tastes good for awhile and numbs us. And sometimes we truly have no choice but to be the good friend or father who runs to them if they do wake up and come home. Short of that, Smith suggests that a twist on the Mars Hill speech could be effective. There, as Paul looks around at all the idols, Paul says, “I see you are very religious.” And, as our spirit is provoked to compassion as we see people chasing happiness every which way as we once did, we could offer, “I see that freedom and happiness is very important to you. But, are you really free? happy?” And let that pebble sit.
We have an opportunity to put this into practice this afternoon: take up freedom by the restraint that comes by commitment to our cross-shaped family. Questions for the group meetings are in the foyer.
- Where all do we see this false promise of negative freedom in our lives and culture? Where all do you see freedom and happiness has been narrowed to “freedom from?” What are its results?
- In what ways have you found that God’s commandments actually set us free? That taking up the cross helps us find ourselves and our lives?
- Those who are more experienced — what counsel would you give others who desire the freedom in God’s commands — in self-control and discipline — yet are struggling and resisting submission?