Freedom in God's Boundary
When Paul preaches to the 1st century Athenians, he tells them that God has set the boundaries of their lives. The Athenians were Greek, descendants of those who founded democracy. They worshiped a god for every endeavor, believing that through their sacrifices, they could persuade the gods to their side.
So when Paul proclaims that the people are utterly dependent upon the decisions of an almighty God, the claim cuts against the core of their self-identity. Some who heard Paul probably thought he was teaching that Fate controlled everything or that there was an unmovable Power—that the whole world was set in motion with no hope of a better future.
If this God really set the place where I would live and the time that I live in, how am I any better than a mindless robot?
What is freedom anyway? Is it all colored in red, white, and blue? Does it mean “I can do whatever I want to do”? Or are we already operating under a broken framework?
To put it another way… why do you want to be free?
Among those that I’ve talked to, most people want to be free for one of two reasons: 1) so they can know they aren’t controlled or 2) for the possibility of changing the outcome for the better.
When it comes to the first reason, some people want to know that they are responsible for their own actions. Nobody else controls them. They get the credit for the good things, and they take the blame for the bad things. They want their independence recognized.
The problem with the first reason is that no one is completely independent. A mother birthed you into the world, and somebody raised you. As you live your life, sometimes things just happen. Things are beyond your control. You can’t determine the price of gas, but the price of gas can determine how often you travel. You can’t determine the weather, but the weather can determine whether you suffer heat stroke. Nobody exists in a vacuum. Your experiences and the world around you shape and influence your life… sometimes in ways you never really notice.
When it comes to the second reason, some people simply want to know that a terrible ending isn’t waiting for them. As long as they act wisely in the world, they can expect that things will go well. Bad outcomes can be avoided and good outcomes can be… persuaded to happen.
The problem with the second reason is that nobody can make a specific future certain. We tend to think that we can build up enough good karma to make everything turn out well. Or if we’re a “practical” person, that as long as we follow the rules (regularly maintaining our home, keeping up with our vehicles maintenance schedule, exercising regularly) that no surprises will upset us. We know that exceptions occur, but that always happens out there somewhere. Not us. We’ve been diligent about everything. But how often do we hear, “She was the picture of health” or “I never thought I’d get that phone call.”
Both reasons are so persuasive because they’re partly true. The Bible does say that you’re responsible for your actions. And the Bible does teach us to obey wisdom “that it may go well.” And yet neither truth is ultimate. God is the only ultimate, and from him all things come and find their being.
There must be a way to rethink responsibility and wisdom with a view to the ultimate God.
So what if responsibility wasn’t independent? What if responsibility was relational? What if it depends on how you relate and respond to an infinitely wise and loving God? What if responsibility recognized its dependence on someone who was powerful and caring and guiding? If that were true, then your responsibility would be bordered. But in a way, that’s more freeing, isn’t it? Within your given boundaries you are free to act and relate and respond, but you will never outperform God. Your wildest actions cannot surprise him, and you are never so far gone that he cannot reach you. That’s incredibly good news! And incredibly terrifying news if you use that responsibility to act and relate and respond in ways that the Creator has not designed for you.
And what if wisdom wasn’t all for your own personal benefit? What if there were others in life and the world for whom you could hope to bring good? What if the wisdom you learn from surviving in the world was secondary? What if the hope of a better future is too small? If that were true, then your wisdom would have to be shaped by something (someone) who knew what was ultimate. Your wisdom couldn’t be for your personal good alone. “Good” itself would have to be redefined. Freedom wouldn’t be about hope for a better life. Freedom would be the actual possibility that you could be and do true good here and now. You wouldn’t be a slave to your own desires, and you wouldn’t feel like a failure if you never reached your goal. With that kind of wisdom you could change the world for those around you.
True freedom isn’t doing whatever I want. True freedom is the ability to act for the good of others in the way God has intended.
After all, God is the one who is truly free. In his freedom, he chose to bind humanity to himself. “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
Manny Boston is Family Pastor at Hope Hull United Methodist Church. In that role, he leads our ministry with children and youth so that they grow into the love and knowledge of Christ.