“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh rather, serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
Sometimes, moments of clarity come at the most unexpected times. One came to me in early July. It was in the middle of the day while standing in a parking lot at a church camp far from home and having a conversation with a ministry partner who had just driven up. The reason we were both there was camp attendance, but he arrived during a lull in activity. I happened to be outside and recognized him after he got out of his car. I walked over to him and we began to talk.
I can’t tell you anything about what we talked about other than it was of a spiritual nature (we are both wired to teach and so this wasn’t unusual for us). The moment of clarity came when something he said triggered this thought: We have liberty but not independence. While I knew this intuitively, the simplicity of the statement was new.
The fact that we had this conversation a few days before the Independence Day holiday made it a little ironic. It was a perfect reflection of life in Christ. I remember verbalizing the point, “We have liberty but not independence,” and he nodded in agreement. This is an essential for the Church to grasp and live within. It is a distinctive of Christian life and when not learned and internalized or when ignored, results in all kinds of unfortunate inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
I find that many people have difficulty dealing with paradoxes (things that are seemingly, but not necessarily, contradictory). A reliance on straight-line thinking and difficulty with ambiguity can make paradoxes, including spiritual paradoxes, challenging for them. The teachings of Jesus and His Apostle Paul, however, are notable for the use of paradox. I suggest looking at passages such as Mark 20:16; Luke 9:48; 13:30; 22:26-27 and John 11:25-26 for a sampling (go ahead and do it; it will only take a minute or two).
A reader’s overwhelming preference for an either/or answer may be frustrating when the paradox suggests a both/andconclusion or when a norm is turned on its head in favor of something that seems illogical to our conditioning. If this happens when trying to understand a biblical principle, it raises a question about how well that principle is internalized. How much effort is expended to wrestle with the paradox to gain understanding? Is the paradox just accepted at a surface level without understanding? Is one side of the paradox ignored or rejected in favor of the other, preferred side?
These are important questions, in general, for grasping scriptural teaching is a stewardship responsibility (see 2 Timothy 2:15). They are also important because of our current socio-political climate in which words like liberty and independence are used interchangeably and, too often, thrown about without a sense of accountability beyond the self (which, in God’s kingdom, is no accountability at all).
A New Testament understanding of spiritual liberty makes it clear that liberty is the result of God’s grace. It is a freedom won by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit which offers freedom from our spiritual poverty. It is freedom from the falsities of life that blind us to truth. It is freedom from the experiences of life that hold us captive to a wrong view of ourselves and others. It is freedom from those oppressing factors that impose themselves on us like chains that bind our souls. It is freedom that declares God’s favor which He desperately wants to impart to each of us. This liberty is a gift of God; it is not and cannot be self-generated regardless of our good intentions or the inspirational speeches of seminar leaders and sellers of DIY books.
Liberty, understood in this way, makes it obvious that independence is not a Christian concept for none of us is independent from God. None of us are masters of our fates nor captains of our souls.1 The poetic line is nice and highly inspirational and appeals to our sense of self, but it’s not true. Spiritual health requires that we come to grips with this and live in the paradox: we have been offered liberty and Jesus is Lord.
Because our liberty is a gift and is not self-generated, how then can we rightly say we are not accountable for how we use it? We are accountable to the One who gives the gift and therefore we accept the paradox and use our liberty to be servants of God (2 Peter 2:16). It’s the best way because it was the way modeled by Jesus.
1 From the poem Invictus by William Earnest Henley, published1888, in the public domain.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2022. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted.