By Jim Palmer
July 10, 2009
What does freedom mean for Christians?
Last weekend, most of us were likely celebrating our nation’s independence with some combination of friends, grilled meats, watermelon and fireworks. While we remember and give gratitude for the reason behind the festivities, it’s also compelling to consider what freedom means in the context of faith. What does freedom mean for Christians, and how does this differ from our concept of political freedom?
I looked up the definition of freedom, and found this: “The power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints.”
According to this definition, it’s a freedom from “externally imposed restraints.” The underlying premise is that the enemy of freedom is hindrances imposed upon us from something or someone outside ourselves. We all want this kind of freedom, and cry out when it is absent. For example, slavery is a cruel denial of freedom because the system, and the people who perpetrate it, coerce people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, or prevent people from acting, speaking and thinking for themselves. When I traveled with International Justice Mission, I witnessed firsthand the tragedy of forced child prostitution and child slave labor, which violates the most basic human rights. Americans enjoy the benefits of living in a “free country,” whereas many others around the world suffer under an oppressive regime.
To achieve and maintain this freedom without external restraint is a continuous challenge. Some of the factors involved are outside our control. And yet, as an expression of the love and compassion of Christ, we seek to bring change in the world wherever people are denied basic freedoms and human rights.
When Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God has come,” it totally confused people who were expecting God’s Kingdom to be a theocracy, with King Jesus ruling and legislating God’s agenda. Instead Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus was teaching that God’s Kingdom wasn’t about establishing a new world government, but awakening people to another dimension of reality.
The truth is that most people seek eternal qualities or attributes through temporal avenues, something or someone outside ourselves. We think, “If only I … had more money … had a better job … had more success … had someone who loves me like I desire to be loved … could lose 25 pounds … could get away from all the stress … had better friends … could eat large quantities of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream without putting on weight … had a bigger house … could get a new car … was in a different church … could follow my heart’s desire … had a different family …” This is pinning our hopes for love, peace, well-being and contentment on people and circumstances outside ourselves. Conversely, people assume it's life’s circumstances preventing them from being happy.
At the center of the spiritual reality Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” is freedom. Not freedom from external restraints, but freedom from internal restraints. The truth is that the only thing preventing you from experiencing the “abundant life” Jesus offered—God’s Kingdom of love, peace, well-being and contentment—is, well, you. You have imposed restraints upon yourself, imagining that these are keeping you from the good life. Jesus’ message is: “There is nothing preventing you. You are free to be at peace, and live a life of love in every moment.”
Here are some of the imaginary restraints we create for ourselves:
It is impossible to achieve peace and well-being in “every moment.” What about all the hardships and tragedies of life?
God’s peace and well-being are not dependent upon either “good” or “bad” circumstances. These are an eternal flow that cannot be improved or diminished. The only thing that ever changes is your awareness of and dependence upon that eternal Kingdom within you. This is the true hope of the world because for many people, their external circumstances won’t change, but those circumstances can’t prevent them from living in the present reality of God’s Kingdom. That was the “secret” Paul learned: Whatever his circumstances might be, he could always be content.
There are so many ways I mess up with God. How could I ever be a candidate to truly live a life filled with love and peace?
Your identity in God’s eyes is not based on your behavior, morality, attitude or current level of spiritual progress. At your core, you are as God created you—an image or reflection or expression of God. You became lost to this fact, and instead created a life based on a false identity. This produces a deep disharmony within you because you instinctively know you are falling short of God’s loving intention for you. Ultimately, you feel you have violated God, and are separated from Him.
The life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus offer the healing balm enabling you to overcome this. That healing balm is knowing you are a beloved child of God, and all is forgiven. Why keep dragging up all your flaws and failures, and making them an obstacle to experiencing the present reality of God’s Kingdom? God doesn’t. God lives in the eternal now, and in that eternal now God looks at you and sees a reflection of Himself and smiles. In the eternal now, God offers you that unconditional “abundant life” Jesus spoke of. Quit living in the past of your failures, or living in the future of some better person you suppose you should be. Just meet God in the now, where you are His beloved and, therefore, a candidate to receive the spiritual riches of His Kingdom.
I don’t really know enough yet to get this.
So, you feel that a lack of knowledge is preventing you from walking in the present reality of God’s Kingdom of love, peace and contentment? Yet Jesus said you have to become like a little child to inherit the Kingdom of God. Do you think you have more knowledge than, say, a 6-year-old? If so, then you are capable of getting it. Why? Because it is not a matter of head knowledge, and it is not complicated. Would it make sense that a loving God would offer us a life of love, peace and contentment, if He knew it wasn’t really possible for us to experience it? Or would a loving God offer such a life, and then make it highly complicated or nearly impossible to figure out?
Human living involves pain and suffering, and that’s all there is to it until we get to heaven.
There is a difference between “pain” and “suffering.” Pain is the natural human response to our human conditions. You spill hot coffee in your lap; you yell and let fly a few words that you ordinarily don’t use. That’s pain. You don’t get the job, and you feel disappointment because you really hoped it would work out. That’s pain. Your spouse dies of cancer, and you grieve their bodily absence. That’s pain.
But suffering is the mental, emotional and spiritual anguish that is added because you have made your well-being dependent upon your human conditions. If you spill the coffee, and then berate yourself for being a total failure and stupid person, then you are allowing your sense of self to be determined by your human conditions. That’s suffering. If you don’t get the job, and you were depending on that outcome for purpose, worth, happiness and security, it will be a catastrophic setback. That’s suffering. If you lose a loved one, and the major premise of your life story was that this person would always be there, you may not want to live anymore. That’s suffering.
Living in God’s Kingdom doesn’t protect you from the normal pain we all experience, including Jesus, as part of our human context. Living in God’s Kingdom connects us into the frequency that satisfies our deepest eternal desires, and therefore eliminates the suffering we experience when we seek to fulfill these through other means. That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy what we experience in our human context. Enjoy the warm sun on your face in the morning, but don’t blow a gasket if it rains in the afternoon. Enjoy the love you feel from your spouse or close friend, but keep in mind that there will also be times when they will hurt you. Enjoy it all, but hold on to things loosely, and remember that the true source of love, peace, well-being and contentment rests upon the presence of God and His Kingdom within you.
The reality is that there are neither external restraints nor internal restraints keeping you from truly living in the present reality of God’s Kingdom. You are free in every moment to choose or not choose God’s Kingdom. Over time, as you choose that Kingdom, you become the Kingdom—you become love, you become peace, you become freedom, you become contentment—your life becomes a living expression of the Kingdom of God, and true freedom. When people see that alternative in you, they are likely to say to themselves, “Oh, so I don’t have to live as if my happiness is contingent upon an if-only-I list?”
This is not a freedom from something—from external restraints or circumstances—but a freedom to do something, a freedom to live in the present reality of God’s Kingdom. In other words:
You are free to be peace even when your life circumstances unravel.
You are free to be love even when others reject or hurt you.
You are free to be contentment even when you’re barely making it financially.
You are free to be the beloved of God even when people put you down.
You are free to be compassion even when others rationalize their apathy.
You are free to be joy even when people or circumstances disappoint you.
You are free to be grace even when others judge you.
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