It’s the July 4th holiday, where we celebrate freedom as a nation. There is something about freedom that is inherently appealing. We all want it. But many of us don’t feel fully free to be the people that God created us to be.
Some people aren’t free because of literal slavery and bondage. Slavery of African Americans is part of our country’s history, and slavery still occurs in some parts of the world even today. Other people aren’t free because of choices they make themselves. You might struggle with an addiction that controls you, or feel as if you have to run your life based around the expectations of someone else. Finally, some people aren’t free because they feel like they have to perform or follow a set of rules in order to please God or their religion. You might think you have to be ‘good enough’ or achieve a certain standard to be accepted by God.
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the relationship between Christianity and freedom. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the Christian life should be one of freedom. Sadly, this isn’t often the case, and it certainly hasn’t been true of my experience with religion. For most of my life, I engaged religion with anxiety, feeling a great deal of guilt or shame whenever I would mess up or fall short of whatever standard I had set up for myself. Maybe you have had a similar experience.
Interestingly, the apostle Paul talks about freedom a lot in his letters to various churches in the New Testament. Paul stressed the importance of grace—it wasn’t the things you did that made you right with God; instead, grace was a gift, free to all. Other people disagreed with Paul and told people they had to do various things—abstain from eating certain foods, get circumcised, etc.—in order to be okay with God. This focus on the rules was the opposite of freedom, and Paul rejected this teaching outright. Here’s what Paul said in his letter to the church in Galatia:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:1-6).
It’s interesting how vehemently opposed Paul is to this rule-bound way of doing life. He’s not even-handed about it. The rules don’t matter. Circumcision doesn’t matter. Whatever your modern day ‘circumcision’ is doesn’t matter. The key is faith expressing itself through love.
Here is a common progression I have noticed in religion. We start with a good principle that is close to the heart of God, like faith, love, or justice. Then we try to make a bunch of rules about the principle to try to control people and make sure the principle happens. Before long, the underlying principle is lost, and the focus is on the rules. This happened 2,000 years ago, and it happens today as well. Paul says to fight this tendency and stand firm in our freedom.
Discussion: How free do you feel in your life? Have you traded in your freedom for bondage because of certain rules you deem important? What is one step you could take in order to lay down your rules and move toward the principle of faith expressing itself through love?