Children, teenagers, young people – they look forward to being free. Of course they do and of course they should; this is one of the healthiest and most natural things in the world. The idea of breaking loose from parental control, to be able to go where I want, when I want, with whomever I want, to do what I want – come on, what’s not to like about that?
But sooner or later everyone must discover that totally untrammelled and uncontrolled ‘freedom’ is no freedom at all; instead, it leads to a worse kind of slavery than we might have imagined before. No doubt the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 left his father’s house with a heady sense of personal independence in his mind. Free at last!
Like the Soup Dragons, he might have been singing to himself, ‘I’m free to do what I want any old time.’ He kept singing it while the money and the fun lasted. But before long, his life lay in tatters and he was living the worst kind of nightmare imaginable: poverty, shame, and drudgery meant that he was a slave.
I might decide that I am ‘free’ to drive my car on the wrong side of the road at any speed I like, and even to leave the road entirely and drive over pavements, gardens, fields; but if I choose to do that, I will endanger life and limb – my own and others’ – as well as my car, which will no longer be fit for purpose. What kind of freedom is that?
Perhaps this isn’t you. Maybe you’ve grown up a bit and you’ve learned the hard lessons of youth. But the lesson which Paul spells out in Galatians 5:13-14 still needs to be applied: ‘For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’
There is an attitude in all of us that is inclined to say, ‘I can do whatever I like and nothing will get in my way.’ Maybe over the course of the last fifteen months, and in view of more restrictions on our lives than usual, this spirit has reared up in us more frequently than it used to. I speak from honest personal experience. But the danger here is that I begin to view my personal freedom – so highly prized in the Western world – as a kind of supreme idol. The necessary corrective which Paul supplies here is that of love.
When I pursue my own personal freedom above every other goal, I become a slave to myself, to my desires, preferences, and appetites; this the ‘flesh’ which Paul talks about in Galatians 5:13. If I live this way then I am denying myself the opportunity of showing love to my neighbour, and I am thereby curtailing my freedom a great deal. Other people will think me selfish because I am selfish, shut up in my prison of self-service.
But the way to true freedom in the Christian life is the way of Christ himself, that of loving service to our neighbour. Paul goes on a little later to list the nine fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). What do you notice about them all? They are attitudes of heart which God himself plants in our hearts, and they find free and voluntary expression in actions; they are not the result of any human compulsion.
Paradoxically, we must all learn that freedom cannot exist without constraints. The one who is most free is the one who is most constrained by the love of God himself, the one who says, ‘I will love them freely’ (Hosea 14:4).