The Paradox of Freedom

“Love God and do as you please.” – St. Augustine “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” – Galatians 5: 13-14

When I was young I yearned to be free. Free from rules about when I went to bed. Free from rules about what I could and couldn’t eat, especially right before dinner time. Free from rules about what I could go out looking like. Free from rules about how loud I could play my music and what kind of music was forbidden in my mom’s house. Free from rules about what time I needed to be home and how many times I needed to call home before I returned. Free to hang out with whoever I wanted to, regardless of my mom’s opinion of them. Free to clean the kitchen only if I really wanted to. Free to take the garbage out as often, or not as often, as I chose. Free to make my bed, or not, for weeks on end!

There were so many rules. So many laws that mom had laid down that you dare not break lest you face the consequences – ones that seemed pretty harsh to a teenager, like missing your favorite television show. There were no personal computers in my day, or the Internet, so being cut off from the computer wasn’t an option.

A funny thing happened on my way to freedom, though. When I was finally out of the house and on my own, I found that freedom really wasn’t what I thought it was. Sure, now I was free to go to the clubs, stay out all night, party and live it up – and while I did that now and then – I didn’t want to do it as much as I thought I did when I felt trapped at mom’s house. Instead, I found myself making my bed, taking out the trash, washing the dishes, playing my music at an acceptable volume, hanging with really good, cool people, and calling my mom more often. When I thought about doing things that my mom considered “bad” – I often thought twice about them. It’s as if Augustine had said, “Love your mom and do as you please” because it was always my mom’s voice that I heard when I contemplated loose behavior. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, so I found behavior she disapproved of less appealing once I was out on my own. I loved my freedom, but I did not use it as a chance for self-indulgence.

My mom’s lessons to me are the same ones the apostle Paul is trying to teach the Galatians. We are indeed free through Christ, but our freedom is not something that should lead to what he calls “the works of the flesh.” As process theologian John Cobb points out in God and the World, Jesus does offer us “freedom from the burden of obedience to imposed laws and from the guilt which arises from failure to obey. But in our day as in the early church it needs to be stressed that this freedom was in no sense license. Freedom was not to be gained by relaxing the existing requirements in favor of the desires of the individual. On the contrary, one became free from the power of existing institutions including moral laws by living toward and out of a new and far more demanding reality.

To so many of us freedom means doing as we please. If we want to drink, we drink. If we want to party, we party. If we want to have sex with someone, we do. But, both Paul and Cobb assert that this is not true freedom. Instead we are called, as followers of Jesus, to a far more demanding reality – we are called to live in the Spirit. To do that, we must follow Augustine’s advice to “love God and do as you please.”

I’ve heard objections from people who, upon hearing Augustine’s wise saying, completely miss the first part and focus only on the “do as you please” part. They ask: “How can I do as I please and love God at the same time?”

I ask them to think about someone they love – a partner, a parent, a friend, their mom. When they have that person in mind I ask them to think about doing what they please with the love for that person in mind. Suddenly, “what they please” begins to change. I may want to go and have sex with someone other than my partner, but if I love my partner, doing as I please suddenly changes. I don’t go and have sex with someone else because I know it will hurt my partner and damage our relationship. Suddenly, “what I please” is different. Because of my love for my partner, doing as I please means I want to do things that make my partner happy. I don’t want to hurt or disappoint my partner or damage our relationship, so now the thought of having a fling with someone else isn’t such a pleasing idea. It’s not what I really want to do after all, no matter how tempting it may be.

It’s the same with our relationship with God. If we love God, then doing as we please means we are always taking into consideration how God would have us use our freedom. I may want to lie, cheat or steal – but I don’t because I know that my love of God prevents me from damaging that relationship. Indeed, if I truly love God, it would never even occur to me to want to lie, cheat or steal – such things would never be pleasing to me. Augustine could make his bold statement because he knew that if we truly love God, whatever we please to do will be things pleasing to God as well.

It’s a paradox – we think we want freedom so we can do anything we please – but when we put God first in our lives, those pleasing things of the world don’t seem so attractive after all. Suddenly, the rules of the Spirit are what we find pleasing and we find ourselves expressing those fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

But wait, there’s more! Paul isn’t finished with the Galatians – or us – just yet. Not only is our freedom not license for self indulgence – it’s a command through love to be servants to one another. Here again, we’re faced with another paradox: freedom means we gotta serve somebody. Well, not just somebody, but everybody since we are commanded to love neighbor as self – and everyone is our neighbor.

As St. Francis of Assisi prayed centuries ago, “It is in giving that we receive,” likewise it is in serving that we find freedom. It is only in service to others that we find ourselves living by the Spirit and displaying the fruit of the Spirit.

The freedom of service is an alien concept in most of our country. Certainly, there are people and organizations that do good works and understand that true freedom comes through service to others, but too many people, including too many Christians, believe freedom means patriotism or doing as they please without regard to others, let alone God. This is another false idea of freedom. To be truly free we must outdo one another in service.

When I say service, I don’t mean martyrdom or letting people run over you, never being able to say no to someone who is taking advantage of your kindness. We still must take care of ourselves – that’s part of what Jesus means when he tells us to love ourselves first before we start loving our neighbors. We have to practice self care and not burn ourselves out in some false idea of “service.”

Service means doing what you can, when you can for those in need whether it’s volunteering with a good cause, helping a stranger by the side of the road, smiling at someone in the grocery store, helping a friend or loved one, lending money that you won’t ever see again because someone needs it more than you do. The list is endless, but in each good deed done – in each embodiment of love – we move closer and closer to true freedom through Christ – a freedom that allows us to live and move and have our being in Christ.