Sometimes we reduce sin to a notion of breaking a few commandments. And as serious as believers might consider that, St Paul takes sin to an entirely different level. For he portrays sin as horrific, brutal and inhumane – enslaving us, and thus forcefully dehumanizing us. He writes:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:17-23)
For each of our impulses, when it takes control, becomes the master and we the slave. Like a tyrant it seizes the citadel of the soul, and by means of its underlings plays havoc with its subjects, using our own thoughts as the servants of its good pleasure. There they are: anger, fear, cowardice, arrogance, pleasure, grief, hatred, spite, heartless cruelty, jealousy, flattery, bearing grudges and resentment, and all the other hostile drives within us – there is your array of the masters and tyrants that try to enslave the soul, their prisoner of war, and bring it under their control. (From Glory to Glory, p. 89)
A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)
Even apart from these celestial gifts distinguishing the saints from other living people, there are further ways of recognizing their superiority. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, summoned to him all the peoples to worship the image that he had set up (cf. Dan. 3:1-30). But God in His wisdom so disposed things that the virtue of three children should be made known to everyone and should teach everyone that there is one true God, who dwells in the heavens. Three children, captive and deprived of their liberty, spoke out boldly before him; and while everyone else, in great fear, worshipped the image, and even if not convinced did not dare to say anything, but was virtually speechless, like beasts dragged along by the nose, these children behaved very differently.
They did not want their refusal to worship the image to go unrecognized or to escape notice, but they declared in the hearing of all: ‘We do not worship your gods, 0 king, nor will we bow down before the golden image that you have set up.’ Yet the terrible furnace into which they were cast as punishment was not a furnace for them and did not manifest its normal function; but as if reverencing the children it kept them free from harm. And everyone, including the king himself, through them recognized the true God. Not only those on earth, but the angelic choirs themselves were amazed at these children. (St Symeon Metaphrastis,, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 33936-58)
As we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, we can think about the nature of freedom by considering the narrative in the Book of Daniel about the Three Youth in the fiery furnace. Those 3 Jewish children though captives exiled in Babylon were able to exercise their free will despite their enslaved existence. The Babylonians on the other hand though living at home as free citizens also lived in fear of the king and were not able to exercise their consciences but rather lived the king’s lie. So who was truly free – the slaves who had free will or the citizens who had no right to refuse their king’s demands?
Christian freedom means the right to live the godly life even if threatened by punishment of death. Choosing martyrdom for Christ is the greatest example of choosing free will. Christian freedom is not just about making all kinds of consumer choices, or being able to express oneself without constraint. Christian freedom is far greater than any rights guaranteed in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. As becomes obvious in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, freedom is denying oneself in order to follow Christ. As St. Mark the Monk noted Christian freedom, has nothing to do with unrestricted self-expression ( Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 1717-1718). Rather the Christian is one who is able to deny the self in order to conform himself to the will of the Creator. This is something all of us Christians in America need to consider. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
“Dostoevsky shows that suffering lies in the very nature of man as a free and morally responsible being, that nothing can eliminate it as long as man remains what he is, and that the purpose of human evolution is not to abolish suffering, but to explain its meaning, for only those who are not afraid of pain are matured and truly free people.” (Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets, p. 93)
“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)
Theologically speaking, freedom and free will have particular connotations in Orthodox thinking that they don’t have in secular culture. Modern Western culture, influenced by the Enlightenment, sees true human freedom as the ability of an individual to shake off the shackles which society imposes on the individual’s thinking. Freedom in popular thinking is defined more as the individual choosing to do whatever that person wants to do. Government, society, law, all become oppressors of the individual as do tradition, culture, social or religious norms. Freedom means freeing oneself from the expectations of others.
Theologically though freedom has more to do with the path we choose in life and the consequences of those decisions. God places before each individual life and all its choices. There is a path that leads to humans being more godlike, and there is a path which leads away from God. We are free to choose the path we will follow, but the paths have very different consequences for ourselves and for all of humanity.
One path, which does follow human choice also means we become more attuned to ourselves as individuals, isolated and alienated from all others. On this path, we lose our belonging to humanity as a whole, we lose our sense of being a relational, interdependent being. We choose our way into a confinement, a slavery to self which ends up being guided by sin. This path seems like the greatest personal freedom but it also involves ever increasingly becoming a slave to self, to sin, to death.
The other path also requires choice, and sometimes is a difficult path, but in it we choose to maintain our relationship with God and with others. It is a path of love which leads to self denial – for the good of the other. We sometimes may feel we are giving up personal freedoms to follow a path of another – of God. But it also is the path which enables us to become most godlike. It involves free choice, but the choice is to limit one’s self interest. It means not making self preservation the greatest good, but to choose to make love for others to be the greatest good.
If we follow the first path we do end up being slaves to self, sin, death and Satan. It may maximize our sense of being freed from the constraint of others. We choose our way to that end. But it does separate us from others and from God, and thus is death. But God who is love willingly provides redemption for those who find themselves in that dead end. No matter how far down that path one may walk, God provides the way out. But, we have to choose to accept God’s offer.
“…let him hear the whole truth of the matter: that every human soul has bowed down under the evil yoke of slavery imposed by the common enemy of all and, being deprived of the very freedom which it received from the Creator, has been led captive through sin. Every captive has need of ransoms for his freedom. Now, neither a brother can ransom his brother, nor can anyone ransom himself, because he who is ransoming must be much better than he who has been overcome and is now a slave. But, actually, no man has the power with respect to God to make atonement for a sinner, since he himself is liable for sin. ‘All have sinned have need of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ our Lord.‘” (The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil Exegetic Homilies, p. 317)
God’s love for us never ends, even when we choose our way to slavery to sin and death. We will find in that enslavement that we are not free to grow in godliness or to attain eternal life. God provides us a way out of that enslavement to sin and death. We cannot free ourselves of it, but God offers us life if we choose our way back to Him.
In the United States, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day which many Americans consider to be the very basis for personal freedoms. We can as Christians look at history to see how Christians in past Centuries (long before there was a United States) understood the notion of freedom. One expression of Christian freedom which grew rapidly after the establishment of the Christian Roman Empire is monasticism. Monastics, among other things, wanted to be able to practice their faith fully, without state interference and without being influenced by the masses of Christians who the monks felt practiced a watered-down version of Christianity. For these monastic Christians, the monasteries and the deserts into which they fled, leaving behind the Christian state, offered them freedom. Certainly we can recognize the value of some of the freedoms they sought.
“The telos of the monks’ life in the desert was freedom: freedom from anxiety about the future; freedom from the tyranny of haunting memories of the past; freedom from an attachment to the ego which precluded intimacy with others and with God. They hoped also that this freedom would express itself in a positive sense: freedom to love others; freedom to enjoy the presence of God; freedom to live in the innocence of a new paradise. The desert fathers’ aspiration toward freedom expressed itself in many different guises and touched upon various levels of their lives. They drew heavily upon biblical images to articulate their hopes, focusing on such New Testament ideas as “not being anxious about anything (Mt 9:25),” “not worrying about tomorrow (Mt 6:34),” “seeking first God’s kingdom (Mt. 6:33),” believing in the limitless goodness of God (Mk 9:23), and on what the Psalms call “casting one’s cares upon the Lord (Ps 54:23).” Taken altogether, these images comprise a montage expressing the ultimate goal of renunciation and detachment for the desert fathers: freedom from worry, anxiety, and care, born of a sense of total dependence upon and confidence in God.” (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, p. 222)
They felt themselves freed of worldly values and norms and able to live completely in and for the Kingdom of God.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)
One of the great mysteries of Christian theology is the humility of God. God is willing to serve our needs, and to even humble himself to become a servant, a slave who works for our salvation. God’s humility and God’s willingness to serve us are true because God is love. God is willing to empty Himself (kenosis) for us humans and for our salvation. This is the incarnation of love – God becoming human in Jesus Christ.
“Behold, our freedom forced our Lord to be a servant to us.” (HYMNS, p 181)
When God created us with free will, God knew full well that we might choose against him. God knew our freedom might lead to His needing to save us. Thus, as St. Ephrem notes, the freedom which we so enjoy carries the implication, the corollary, that God would have to become our servant to save us. This doesn’t alter God’s love for us. Despite the humility required from God in creating us (needed to save us through the incarnation), God created us anyway. He gifts us with freedom knowing He will have to save us – thus our freedom forces God to be our servant.
This is the great mystery of God’s kenotic love.
Next time you hear the expression, “Freedom isn’t free”, think about what our freedom cost God.
“Freedom obliges, freedom calls for sacrificial self-giving, freedom determines one’s honesty and strictness with oneself and one’s path. And if we want to be strict and honest, worthy of the freedom given us, we must first of all test our own attitude toward our spiritual world. We have no right to wax tender hearted over all our past indiscriminately – much of that past is far loftier and purer than we are, but much of it is sinful and criminal. We should aspire to the lofty and combat the sinful. […] And it would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. She tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There instead of lukewarm you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed, instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish in Christ.’
It is to this foolishness, this folly in Christ, that our freedom calls us. Freedom calls us, contrary to the whole world, contrary not only to the pagans but to many who style themselves Christians, to undertake the Church’s work in what is precisely the most difficult way. And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”
Commenting on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Chapter 5), scripture scholar Elliott Maloney notes that “freedom” has a very particular meaning to it in the epistles of St. Paul because he clearly connects all notions of personal liberty with Christ’s teachings on love.
“Paul cleverly combines his explanation on the proper use of freedom with an instruction on the new principle for right action, the Spirit. He starts off with a positive note, ‘You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,‘ and then wisely cautions, ‘only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence’ (5:13). The only way to be sure of your behavior is to make sure that it is oriented in love for the good of others. Two points are made here: righteous living always serves, and acting justly is always done not for the sake of being ‘right,’ but out of authentic love. Those who continue to gratify the flesh, that is, those who look to their own advancement (as if there were nothing else to guarantee their own survival), will in fact perish. They ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21), since they do not live as its heirs. Paul contrasts life in the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23), the various facets of behaving with the good of the community in mind.” (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 3006-3012)
God gifts us with free will, and we are indeed free to act as we wish. St. Paul’s teaching is that to use the gift of free will merely to satisfy our personal physical desires is in fact to enslave ourselves to desire. What we are gifted by God for is to love one another. Freedom is a gift given to us to enable to love and serve others. Self indulgence is something we can do with our freedom, but in the end we will become slaves to selfishness and sin. Whereas, God has gifted us to aspire for the divine life of love.