We’ve all heard (or experienced) the story of the young child who threatens to run away from home. A friend just told me about a proclamation her four-year-old child recently made in a fit of anger: “I’m leaving!” This friend proceeded to question her daughter on how she would eat, wash clothes, or get to preschool on her own. “I’ll walk on the road, or maybe even the sidewalk!” the little girl retorted. “And where I’m going, they’ll have grocery stores and washing machines.” Her mother replied, “But will you be able to reach the washing machine to put your clothes in?”
We chuckle in amusement when we hear these common “run away from home” stories because the folly of the child is so evident, and the threats are so ridiculous. Any rational adult knows that a four-year-old child marching “free” on the open road is a child marching defiantly toward her doom. Children are only truly free to flourish within the boundaries of a safe home and under the authority of loving parents. Yet, in the moment of her rash declaration, my friend’s child evidenced her own embrace of the lie every human being believes–the lie that freedom from the constraints of authority is the way to the good life.
The parent/child relationship is a parable built into the creation order to teach us something about God as Father and ourselves as foolish, rebellious children. In it, we see the myth of independence that we’ve all believed, but we also get a taste of the grace-driven dependence that leads to freedom and flourishing. You see, to run away from the boundary walls of home is to simultaneously run away from the rest, comfort and safety that only a home can provide. The two are inextricably interwoven, and that’s by design. So this leads us to the questions: What is true freedom? And how do we obtain it?
The Myth of Independence
The world defines “freedom” as self-determination, or the ability to sovereignly control one’s own life without the constraints of a higher authority or objective morality. This is a “you do you” concept of freedom in which the individual alone decides how to think, act, and be. Justice Anthony Kennedy summed it up well in his majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
This concept of freedom as self-determination isn’t new. It’s the same myth the first humans believed in the beginning—the age-old lie whispered by the serpent in the garden: “The path to true happiness is freedom from the constraining rules of that Creator of yours. Freedom is the wisdom to determine what’s right and wrong for yourselves. It’s the power to create your own identity, make your own rules, and chart your own course.” Our rebellious first parents sank their teeth into the beautiful forbidden fruit, but, instead of finding freedom, they found themselves slaves to corruption–a corruption they passed on to all people in all generations.
God’s word teaches that no human is truly “free” in the libertarian sense of the word. We are slaves to whatever we obey, either sin leading to death or obedience [to God] leading to righteousness (Romans 6:16-17). The will is never unfettered to the nature. And the human problem is that our nature is corrupted by sin. We’re children running blind–hell-bent on maintaining the independence that leads to death while desperately trying to satisfy our seemingly insatiable desires. This is the essence of slavery to sin–being locked into the endless chase for what our souls crave and never finding it, never finding Him.
James K.A. Smith writes, “When we imagine freedom only as negative freedom–freedom from constraint, hands-off liberty to choose what I want–then our so-called freedom is actually inclined to captivity… Insofar as I keep choosing to try to find satisfaction in finite, created things–whether its sex or adoration or beauty or power–I’m going to be caught in a cycle where I’m more and more disappointed in those things and more and more dependent on those things. I keep choosing things with diminishing returns, and when that becomes habitual, and eventually necessary, then I forfeit my ability to choose.
So, if the endless quest for independence enslaves, how does one break free?
Freedom as Dependence
The first step toward real freedom comes when our eyes are opened to see the chains that bind us in our pursuit of autonomy. True liberation comes through realization of need and the desperate cry for help that follows. The path toward freedom is found when the runaway child on the street, a moment ago so exhilerated in her quest for independence, realizes she cannot live without her parents after all (and doesn’t want to). So, she turns around and runs back home into their arms with tears of humility in her eyes. And she’s received warmly, not because she deserves it, but because of their gracious, unconditional love.
Our Heavenly Father has only one true Son who never rebelled and ran away from him– only one child who obeyed him perfectly and lived within the boundary lines of his perfect will and love. Yet, the Father turned his back on his perfect Son that he might welcome every rebellious son and daughter willing to run home into his arms through faith in that perfect Son. Grace is the answer. Our dependence upon God’s grace in Christ is the only path to true freedom from sin. It’s the only path to satisfaction in the God who made us.
Smith says, “It is the posture of a dependence that libertes, a reliance that releases. Once you’ve realized you need someone not you, you also look at constraint differently. What used to look like walls hemming you in start to look like scaffolding holding you together.”
Fully Free Forever
Freedom is the gracious gift of a new nature through which we desire to turn away from sin and run back to the Creator we’ve scorned. It’s the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to obey the Lord. But freedom from sin is progressive. By faith in Christ, we’re freed from sin’s power, but we’re still plagued by its presence in our lives during our time on earth. Not who we once were, we are still not yet who we will be. This is why Paul reminds believers that sin has lost dominion over us while still exhorting us to “present [our] members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:14;19b). It’s why he declares,” For freedom Christ has set us free” and, in the same sentence, exhorts, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
By grace, believers have been welcomed back into the family of God. Hidden in Christ by faith, we’ve turned away from the wide path leading to destruction and have begun our journey along the narrow way–the way to our forever home where our freedom will be full forever. Augstine writes, “What shall be more free than free choice when it is unable to be enslaved to sin?…The first freedom of the will was therefore to be able not to sin; the final freedom will be much greater: not to be able to sin…The Christian life is a pilgramage of hope. We live between the first and final freedom; we are still on the way.”
Wherever you are on the road, dear pilgrim, keep running heavenward in the freedom of Christ. In him alone, restless souls find rest. In him alone, runaway rebels know the freedom of being forever home.
***Quotes taken from On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith