By Steve Schlossberg
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Freedom is a major theme in the Bible. It’s a major theme in the Old Testament. The Exodus is a major event in the Old Testament, which pretty much writes the rest of the Old Testament: the story of God breaking his people out of slavery, liberating them from a tyrant, and setting them free.
That same theme carries over into the New Testament. The story of the gospel is the story of a new Exodus. The story of Jesus is the story of God breaking his people out of slavery, liberating them from a tyrant, and setting us free.
If we don’t normally think of freedom being a major theme in Bible, I think that’s probably because every time someone in the Bible promises us freedom, what they end up giving us is bunch of restrictions. So it is in the Old Testament: God sets his people free from slavery and the very next thing that happens is that he leads them to Mount Sinai and gives them a bunch of commandments. I am the God who set you free, he tells them, and then he tells them, Here’s a long list of things you must do, and here’s a long list of things you must not do.
The same thing happens in the New Testament. Jesus set all kinds of people free and then he gives them all kinds of restrictions on their freedom. If you want to follow me, he repeatedly says, here’s a list of things you must do, and here’s list of things you must not do. It’s like a bait-and-switch proposition. We’re promised freedom and what we get are bunch of rules.
That same pattern is found in the second lesson this morning. It begins with St. Paul trumpeting all the freedom we enjoy in Christ, and he admonishes us never to surrender our freedom, and then, sure enough, he restricts our freedom. He starts out innocently enough by saying the only restriction that God imposes upon us is that we must love our neighbors, which doesn’t sound too terribly restrictive, until you begin thinking about who your neighbors actually are, and what kinds of sacrifices actually loving them would really demand. But before we have a chance to think about that, St. Paul lays down a long list of other restrictions. Thou shalt not commit fornication, licentiousness, idolatry, anger, envy, drunkenness, or carousing.
And then, sure enough, after the list of prohibited behaviors comes the list of mandatory behaviors: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Now you can start anywhere you want on either of those lists, but when you get to the last item on the second list — self-control — that pretty much says it all. We can have all the freedom we want, as long as we promise not to exercise it.
That’s not my idea of freedom. My idea of freedom is I should be able to do what I want, and some of things I want to do are on the list of things God and Jesus and Paul tell me I can’t. That, to me, isn’t freedom. My idea of freedom is an unrestricted freedom.
The only problem with my idea of freedom is that it doesn’t exist. Forget about God: I live in Virginia, and there are things I want to do in Virginia that the tyrants in Richmond prohibit. There are things I want to do when I’m driving on the highway that are against the law. Now those laws don’t actually take away my freedom; those laws by themselves don’t actually stop me from doing what I want, they just try to scare me away from doing what I want. If I did what I want to do on the highway, I would either go to jail or lose my license. Which is to say that if I chose to exercise my freedom to do what I want to do, I would lose my freedom.
So I usually exercise self-control on the highway. I choose not to do some things I’m free to do so that I can stay out of jail and retain my freedom to do other things I want to do, most of which are legal.
But there are other things I want to do that I’m not free to do, not because they’re illegal, just because I’m not able to do them. Legally, I’m free to marry anyone I want or to live with anyone I want, but I can’t live with anyone I want unless the other person wants to live with me. My freedom is limited by the other person’s freedom.
Legally, I’m free to live anywhere I want, but I can’t live anywhere I want because there are some places I want to live I can’t afford. My freedom is limited by my income. My income is limited because, though legally I can work anywhere I want, there are some jobs I can’t get because I’m not able to do them. I don’t have the brains or the body or the talent to do them. I am limited. Because I am limited, my freedom to do what I want is limited. And that’s frustrating.
There’s another idea of freedom, an ancient idea of freedom, which defines freedom not as the freedom to whatever I want, but the freedom to do what is right. That to me is a less appealing definition of freedom than mine, but it has at least one thing going for it: it describes an unlimited freedom that actually exists.
Regardless of where I live, regardless of the laws of the society in which I live, regardless of what the Church tells me I must or must not do, I am free to decide to do what I believe is right, and there’s no power on earth that can stop me. The most that the world or the Church can do is to punish me for exercising my freedom.
But even if they throw me in jail for doing what is right, I remain free in jail to choose to do what I believe is right. Regardless of the situation, and how limiting the circumstances are, and how few options I may have — regardless of how many freedoms the government or the church or anyone else successfully takes away from me — there is no situation in which I am not free to exercise my conscience and choose the right thing.
That’s a healthy view of freedom. It’s an emotionally mature view of freedom. It’s a rational view of freedom. It’s just not the freedom St. Paul is talking about. He’s not talking about the freedom to do what is right; he says he’s talking about is the freedom to do what we want. St. Paul really does believe that we ought to be free to do what we want. From his point of view, the list of things we must not do are things we must not do because they take away our freedom to do what we want to do.
Now I know that sounds crazy, because his list of things we must not do includes things we all want to do. Who doesn’t want to get drunk and go carousing?
St. Paul believes there’s something we want more than that. He believes that what we really want more than anything else in the world is to be right with God and right with the people around us. Whether or not we know it, whether or not we believe it, St. Paul sincerely believes that nothing would make you and me happier than to love each other as we love ourselves. The problem, as St. Paul sees it, is that I’m not altogether free to love you like that — not because there’s a law against it, but because I have a limited ability. I’m not able. Something is stopping me. I am under the control of a tyrant.
And from St. Paul’s point of view, the tyrant isn’t the Devil. The tyrant is me. I set out to gratify myself, I set out to serve myself, and now I can’t stop serving myself. It’s a bait-and-switch proposition: I set out to serve myself and I end up enslaving myself. Enslaved to myself, I’m no longer free to love my neighbor. Enslaved to myself, I’m no longer free to love myself.
Who doesn’t want to get drunk and go carousing? Someone who’s done a lot of drinking and a lot of carousing and finds that none of that is getting him what he really wants. It’s taking what he wants away from him. And then he finds that he can’t stop doing it.
Who doesn’t want to be angry and envious? Nobody wants to be angry and envious. But we all indulge in anger and envy. Why? Because we’re not getting what we really want.
Here’s the thing about anger and envy: not only are they not what we want, they stop us from getting what we really want. And then one day I wake up and realize anger is not what I want, it’s taking me away from God, it’s dividing me from the people around me, it’s making me miserable, so I decide to stop it. And I find I can’t stop it.
St. Paul believes that there is a power on earth that can take away our freedom to choose what is right. It’s the same thing that takes away our freedom to do what we want. Today we call it addiction; St. Paul called it sin.
St. Paul’s list of things not to do is a list of vices. What is a vice? It’s something that grabs you, grips you, immobilizes you, and squeezes the life out of you. What drinking is for some of us, what promiscuity is for some of us, what anger and envy are for almost all of us: they’re not what we want; they’re what we settle for when we can’t get what we want. They help me cope with my not getting what I want. But all they really do is stop me from getting what I want.
And I can’t stop doing them.
If you’ve ever gotten to that place like I have, then the least attractive thing on the second list becomes the most attractive thing in the world: self-control. If I only had self-control, I would have finally have some freedom. But I can’t control myself. I’ve lost that freedom.
Here’s the thing about self-control: from Paul’s point of view, self-control is not a mandatory behavior. Self-control is a grace God gives as a gift. It’s a gift that sets me free to love.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control: those are not mandatory behaviors, those are freedoms that God gives his people. They are gifts he gives people who aren’t free to do what they want so that we can do what we want.
That’s what St. Paul calls life in the Spirit. That’s the life we’re free to live, because we’re able to live it, because the Holy Spirit has been given to us, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to live it. He breaks the grip of the vice; he releases us from the power of the tyrant.
That’s the freedom God gives. That’s a freedom we can lose. That’s a freedom we can take away from ourselves. That’s the freedom Jesus came to restore. But how that works out depends on how we exercise one of our God-given freedoms. We have to exercise the freedom to decide for ourselves what it is we really want.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia.