July 5, 2001
All my son, Josh, wants, is freedom. Too bad his old man’s such a tyrant.
Our church is on a busy street, so when Josh plays outside in the church yard, he has limits. He can run around all he wants on the grass. But he can’t cross the sidewalks onto the parkway that borders the street. And he can’t go into the parking lot.
Now, the grassy area he can play in is large. There’s plenty of space there for him to run in. He can hide behind the sign. He can crawl into the bushes and play in the dirt. It isn’t like he’s tied to a stake in the ground. There’s plenty of room for him and all the other kids at church to play any game they could imagine.
And the restrictions, of course, are for his own good. He might not believe it, but my only motive in telling him he has to stay between the sidewalks is his safety. He’s too little to play any closer to the street. The fact that he doesn’t recognize the danger doesn’t make the danger any less real.
But he wants freedom. And he thinks that freedom means breaking the rules. As he sees it, I’m impinging on his liberty to go where he wants and do what he wants. And he’s getting to the age where he objects to being told what he can’t do. So he tests the limits. He runs right up to the edge of the sidewalk, and looks back at me over his shoulder, waiting for my response. Sometimes, he gets daring and puts a foot on the concrete. And sometimes he even crosses his boundaries.
Here’s the thing, though. He’s really freer following his father’s rules than breaking them. I’ve given him plenty of room. You should see him, running around happily in the wide-open space I’ve given him. He doesn’t have a care in the world. But as soon as he starts testing the boundaries, his demeanor changes. Suddenly, he’s thinking about where he’s stepping. He’s looking around warily for me, trying to gauge how much trouble he’s going to be in. He’s increasingly anxious. And, whether he knows it or not, he’s in danger when he crosses the boundaries.
Freedom? Hardly. But he just can’t seem to understand. Wonder why not? Where could he get the idea that freedom means an absence of limitations?
We Americans love our freedom. But, from our country’s birth, we’ve understood freedom to mean the absence of rules. No absentee monarch can take our money as taxes. No person or organization can silence the press. If I object to something, no one can force me to keep my objections to myself. No one can force me to adhere to a particular religion, or any religion.
And so we’ve pulled around ourselves like warm, cozy pajamas a thousand different individual freedoms -- understood as a thousand different things no one can keep us from doing or make us do. For the average American, freedom means being able to do whatever I want, with whomever I want, whenever I want, with a minimum of interference from legal or moral authorities. And it means that everyone else must not only tolerate it, but also approve of my doing it. For us, freedom has meant clustering at the boundaries God has set, fascinated with the forbidden territory beyond.
“I will walk in freedom,” said the psalmist, “for I have devoted myself to your commandments.” The phrase translated “freedom” is, literally, “wide-open spaces”. Doesn’t that sound strange to American ears: freedom, not by escaping God’s commands, but by following them? How could that be? Is it really possible to walk in “wide-open spaces” while following the “narrow way”?
That we would even ask the question indicates how badly we’ve misunderstood freedom. Freedom isn’t the same as carte blanche. Freedom doesn’t mean anything goes. Freedom, for human beings, is complete trust in our Creator. That’s what the psalmist understood. That’s why God’s commandments brought to his mind, not narrow, constricted, rigid laws, but wide-open spaces of true freedom, marked out and protected by God and his laws. To use a different image, those who obey God’s word “are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season without fail. Their leaves never wither, and in all they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:3, NLT)
A tree is rooted in place. It can’t move. It’s stuck in one spot. It’s restricted. Limited. So do you liberate a tree? Cut it loose? Uproot it, so it can do what it wants? Of course not. A tree is limited, but it’s free. Free to grow, bloom, and bear fruit. Free to live. To cut it loose is to kill it.
To use our freedoms as license to ignore God is to take an axe to our own roots. Our “enlightened” world has not outgrown the need for God. If you doubt that, look at what we’ve done to ourselves by insisting on individual freedom at the expense of God’s word. We have not fared well when we’ve wandered away from the wide-open spaces our Father has given us the freedom to roam. When we’ve crossed the boundaries, disaster has without fail been the result.
So thank God for your freedoms as an American. But thank him even more for the wide-open spaces that he has marked out for you with his word. Live in freedom, yes, but don’t delude yourself. True freedom is only found in trusting and obeying your Father. You’ll never outgrow that need.
Enjoy the wide-open spaces of God. They’ll take you an eternity to explore.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
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