Revolutionaries in America and France proclaimed it; ‘freedom fighters’ like Che Guevara became iconic pin-ups; George Michael and Freddie Mercury sang about it; and the 1987 Richard Attenborough film Cry Freedom, following the life of Steve Biko in apartheid-era South Africa, won many prestigious awards.
Is ‘freedom’ a good thing? You bet! Like the proverbial motherhood and apple-pie, you criticise freedom at your peril.
Or maybe not. Perhaps it is time to take a careful look at ‘freedom’ before dusting it down and holding its banner aloft once again. There are some parts of the world where freedom is denied outright, and plenty more where it is being questioned.
Most obviously, Covid lockdowns have meant that you and I have not been as ‘free’ in the past year as we were before; but this has coincided with a growing trend in which various freedoms – most especially the freedom of speech – seems to be coming under threat. A ‘cancel culture’ in which those who hold specific opinions are ‘no-platformed’ is taking deep root.
How do we know that freedom is good? For that matter, how can we tell whether anything is good?
The first and best answer to that question is to try to find out whether God himself thinks something is good. So we read in Psalm 146:7 that he is the God ‘who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free’. The great and defining work of God in the Old Testament is the way he delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and made them free.
And this is only a foreshadowing of his great work in the New Testament, in which Jesus himself says that ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36). Yes, we can see that God himself clearly endorses freedom.
But there is more to it than this. God does not simply give freedom a ‘thumbs-up’, as it were: supremely, God himself is free. He defines freedom just as he defines goodness, justice, wisdom, power, knowledge, and all his other attributes. In God alone there is infinite freedom, just as there is infinite love and infinite holiness.
Passages in the Bible which set forth God’s freedom are far too numerous to list, but if you land anywhere in the ‘Roaring Forties’ of Isaiah you won’t have to look too far: ‘Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?’ (Isaiah 40:14); ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things’ (45:6, 7); ‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose”’ (46:9, 10).
God is entirely free in that there is no one and nothing that can constrain his power or his determination to do whatever he pleases.
Now wait a minute: what if everyone in the world were to be ‘free’ in that sense? We can quickly see that in a world of sin, chaos and anarchy would quickly result. Only a perfectly righteous Being can be perfectly free; ‘whoever sins is a slave to sin’ (John 8:34). But the God who is perfectly free is the One who proclaims and delivers freedom for those who trust in Jesus. We will come back to this next month.