Finding Freedom in Unacceptable Places
Freedom has always been a big deal for me, going back to when I was a boy and sought a quiet freedom along riverbanks and in deep woods. Freedom was escape for me then; it remains so even today, though half a century or more has passed. I don’t mean a freedom to do wrong things but simply a freedom to be who I am. Or who I was meant to become.
One of the first verses that I latched onto after my salvation is Jn 8.32: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus, whose words these are, is talking to believing Jews at this point, telling that them if they continue in his word, they will made free.
Becoming a Christian and seizing upon this verse, I believed that at long last I had found real and true freedom. And I had. I did not realize how difficult it would be to remain free, however, and would find myself imprisoned time and time again.
To say I was naive when I believed is to say too little: I had been naive most of my life prior to my conversion and remained so for decades after. My idealism or romanticism or whatever shielded my sight led me to believe that everyone else would be as enthralled to find and practice freedom as I was. Who would want to return to some sort of bondage or imprisonment after freedom came?
As I said, I was naive.
People seem to like rules and restrictions. I don’t mean the kind of rules and restrictions that are for our own good – like no adultery, no lying, to gossiping. I mean the kind that keeps us from doing, saying, believing, or thinking things that are permissible within the realm of God. Good things. Things that have their ultimate source in God.
I have realized only recently that I have been walking a spiritual tightrope for most of my Christian life, ever fearful of falling off to what could only be my final ruin. The threat for me has never been primarily behavior (although I certainly struggle with behavioral sins just like everyone else). My chief threat has always been in the sphere of thinking or believing things that don’t necessarily fall within the limitations of the evangelical, orthodox subculture.
I read a lot of books and have a lot of thoughts about things. Some, if not most, of those thoughts are within the pale of biblical truth, if not always within orthodoxy. But that last phrase begs the question by assuming a universal agreement on what constitutes orthodoxy. What exactly is this assumed orthodox standard to which we are compelled to follow?
That depends not so much on who’s asking but on who’s answering. A Methodist will give a different answer than a Baptist, and a Reformed individual will be at odds with a Charismatic Christian. Orthodoxy, it seems, is drawn from Scripture but then specifically trimmed and tailored to whatever group you’re in. To be seen as orthodox requires you to know what is expected and then to become (or to pretend as though you’re) firmly committed to that standard.
My reading has taken me far afield at times but never to the point of having the essence of my faith and belief challenged. I think Martin Buber is on to something with his view on I-Thou and I-It relationships. But I don’t drink the Kool-Aid. And I find quantum physics and mechanics very interesting, but it doesn’t shake my faith in Jesus Christ as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. I’ve always believed that Christian truth can not just withstand close scrutiny but actually grow and deepen when carefully examined.
But most people are having a tough enough time staying on the evangelically-defined tightrope and don’t like anyone to come along who might create a gust of wind or somehow shake the rope – which is what I tend to do. My creed for life is, “Comforting the disturbed; disturbing the comfortable.”
That usually results in being marginalized within evangelical groups that produce and maintain the tightropes. They too often assume that I’ve fallen off and am now hoping to pull down as many as possible as I go, much like the Balrog pulled Gandalf into Khazad-Dûm. That’s wrong. Completely wrong.
I have indeed left the tightrope, not so much having fallen as simply stepped off. And I discovered, to my sheer joy, that I have not fallen but have been able to fly. Not literally, of course, but intellectually and emotionally. Finally I have found the freedom Jesus was describing in Jn 8.32. It is exhilarating. It is grace and truth; truth and love. “10 Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed!”
It is not a freedom to sin – or even to be completely free from sin – but rather a freedom to explore all of God’s creation and truth without fear of losing Him, my faith, or anything else. With the exception of most guardians of the evangelical church. Like the Pharisees of old, although certainly not with the same dire consequences, too many church shepherds have burdened their flock with unnecessary burdens. They unintentionally – am I being naive again? – cripple the sheep to keep them from straying.
At some point, it is no longer necessary to guard the flock so closely. Make no mistake: churches do need to “make disciples,” i.e., to teach Christians what they need to know to become independently dependent on Christ. Not to the exclusion of needing fellowship and Christian community, but to the point where walking a tightrope is no longer thought of as following Christ.
Freedom is meant for all Christians, not just a select few. It does not take years and years of seminary to be free; it does take sufficient training in all things true. But, to borrow from Pink Floyd, pastors do not need to forever keep people under their wings, where they won’t let you fly but they might let you sing.
More importantly, people don’t have to stay there. They need to be prepared but, at some point, they need just to step off the tightrope. Or maybe be pushed.