A Christmas message from Peter Jensen Archbishop of Sydney

Peter Jensen Peter Jensen is a retired Australian Anglican bishop, theologian and academic. From 1985 to 2001, he was Principal of Moore Theological College.
01 December, 2006 3 min read

The madness of choice

Any visitor to the USA will comment on the same thing – the huge variety of choice available. I am a simple man with simple tastes. Trying to order a sandwich in the US is a nightmare.

For years now, all I have wanted from a sandwich is two pieces of buttered bread, brown, with a slice of cheese and a slice of ham. I don’t want mustard or pickles or any other such thing. I have reached the limit with ham and cheese.

Not in the US. An order as simple as the above results in a frenzy of choices which bewilder and paralyse the uninitiated visitor – and not only with sandwiches!

Worshipping the self

Now apart from the sheer material wealth that this reflects, I think something deeper is at work. There seems to be the worship of the self. Whatever people want, they must be able to get. I must be as free as it is possible to be. I must be allowed to be myself and make my own choices whatever they may be. Human fulfilment is found in abundance of choice.

There is a philosophy behind this, a philosophy of individualism, or autonomy, and it is very sad. It is evident in the US, but in fact it has penetrated all western cultures. Instead of fulfilling our humanity, it endangers and demeans it.

What I mean is this. We are social creatures and our best days are days spent in the service of one another. Our best actions are those in which we submerge our own wills in the will of another person. Ultimately our best day is the day we decide to surrender our will to the will of God. All this is best for us, because it is the way we have been made.

Choice and community

Good choices go ‘with the grain’; bad choices work ‘against the grain’. In itself, our ability to choose is fairly unimportant. It is what we choose that matters.

Experience tells us this. True happiness is found in relationships, not in individualism. Love is the greatest thing of all and happy is the person whose life is full of it. But love unites us to another person or group of persons. And the cost of love is the surrender of individual choice.

I am not talking here about collectivism, which is the opposite of individualism. The grey monotony of a regulated family or society is just as demeaning as individualism. I guess if there is a word I would use, it is the word ‘community’.

Actually, this is what the Bible tells us. When man was created he was alone, but God quickly provided a companion, equal but different – one to whom the man was drawn in love and union to begin the human family.

When two people join together in marriage, they give up a multitude of choices and take one another alone. Their happiness is not found in choice, but in lack of choice.

The ultimate liberator

This is an important insight into the meaning of human freedom. We all want to be free, but freedom does not lie in removing all constraints. It lies in recognising and accepting proper constraints.

When we grasp this we can see that even a prisoner, or a bed-ridden or very elderly person can be truly free, whereas the person who expresses their ‘freedom’ by constantly buying things or acting promiscuously is actually in bondage.

The freest person of all is one who has found the true purpose of life in following Jesus Christ. By trusting him with all we have, and by obeying his commands, we find our true humanity and are set free.

As Jesus himself said, ‘everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin’ (John 8:34). He meant that sin has an addictive quality – we cannot stop sinning even if we decide to do so. He meant that sin is a deadly spiritual disease which leads to death and condemnation.

But he then went on to say, ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’. He claimed to be the ultimate liberator from the bondage that afflicts us.

Undeserved mercy

How did he do this? As the Son of God – God come among us – Jesus had access to all divine power. He truly had an infinity of choices. But his actual choices reflected his character of love.

In the end he submitted his will to the will of his Father and was crucified – an undeserved death. He suffered in our place that we could be set free from the consequences of our own sins and folly.

What Jesus accomplished for us through his death was forgiveness. We do not deserve the mercy of God, but we may receive it through Jesus. Of course, receiving his forgiveness involves us in a costly choice. People who are born individualists (and are encouraged by their culture to live for themselves) are called on to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is their Lord – that from now on they will trust him and serve him. In the Bible this is called ‘faith’ and ‘repentance’.

But then there is the strangest paradox. By committing ourselves entirely to the service of this Lord we find true and lasting freedom. The experience fits our humanity. It is what we were meant to be.

Peter Jensen is a retired Australian Anglican bishop, theologian and academic. From 1985 to 2001, he was Principal of Moore Theological College.
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