Finding Freedom in Constraint
Religious people are rarely thought of as free, since they are supposed to abide by the doctrine they choose to embrace, often at the cost of their own opinions and desires. In popular culture, freedom is commonly understood as both the capacity to think for oneself and as the absence of constraints. People who are thought to be free are those who can make their own decisions without having to give explanations to anyone. The kind of freedom that is highly valued in contemporary society requires those who pursue it not to submit to something greater than themselves.
The underlying assumption behind this notion of freedom is that truth is relative, and thus people have different, equally legitimate options to choose from. As the Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling reads, “At the heart of one’s liberty is the right to define one’s concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe,” implying that all these self-made concepts are valid. The existence of an absolute truth is an unpopular claim since it implies that some people are right and others are wrong. As Timothy Keller puts it, by deeming some beliefs “heresy” and some practices “immoral,” Christianity looks to contemporary observers like “an enemy of social cohesion, cultural adaptability, and even authentic personhood” because it deprives us of that right to define our own concept of meaning, and it fails to acknowledge how diverse those definitions can be across cultures.
However, as Keller also argues, there is no way to avoid exclusion once a community is established. For even under relativistic assumptions, communities need to be defined by characteristics that distinguish them from the rest—otherwise there would be no need for them at all. And if absolute truth indeed exists, we Christians claim to have discovered it. We see it as a vertical contract that comes from God and over which we had no choice, rather than as a horizontal one which we carefully crafted for ourselves for discriminatory purposes. As a matter of fact, had we had the authority to define this belief system that we try to follow, we would have certainly done it differently, since accepting it requires numerous constraints for us. Just to name a few precepts, it is generally agreed among Christian denominations that we must always forgive, that we should not accumulate wealth beyond our needs, and that we should not have sex before marriage.
Some non-Christians are often shocked at how incredibly limiting these principles seem, yet they fail to recognize how much we agree with them on this point. Regardless of our faith, Christian or non-Christian, we all see these rules as constraints. All of us feel spite, greed, and lust (even though we might have different names for them) and we find them hard to overcome.
However, Christians differ from non-Christians in that we are called to understand these constraints in context of the complex gospel story—one that bluntly tells us “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price,” yet also promises “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Christians believe that surrendering to feelings that may seem so natural, such as spite, greed and lust, is not good for us since it goes against the original purpose for which we were created. Like fish are meant to live underwater and trains are meant to stay on their tracks, we are meant to follow the path that God has drawn for us and has revealed through Scripture; no matter how appealing the alternatives are, we believe that we could not possibly be better off diverging from it. The Gospel promises us rewards far greater if we follow Jesus Christ than whatever earthly good comes of living otherwise. And throughout Scripture we see that God is faithful in His promises.
Indulging in earthly pleasures might provide us with instantaneous gratification, but it does not satisfy us in the long run. We catch glimpses of happiness and beauty in books we like to read, music we like to listen to, and places we like to visit, but we can never capture these ideals for ourselves. Happiness and beauty do not follow us around—they stay in the objects where we found them even after we depart from them, and there is often a painful longing associated with leaving pleasure behind.
Free will that means surrendering to our immediate desires is not liberation if we ultimately become slaves to them. Christianity offers us a way out from this enslaving pursuit by guaranteeing that one day God will receive us into His fullness and we will need nothing else. It not only promises us to see beauty in the face of God, but also “to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it” for eternity. In exchange for this, Christian constraints seem like a small price to pay.
However, despite knowing that there is something better out there, many Christians wouldn’t mind ignoring that person who hurt us, spending money carelessly, or getting laid every now and then without having to marry someone first. Because God often feels distant, it is common for us to sometimes doubt His promises and believe that our hopeful submission to these constraints is in vain. And when we think about how we won’t experience His promise of eternal life until after our death, the wait seems interminable. Imagining all the temptation we have to resist until then makes us cry out “O Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” Yet experience teaches us how to combat this skepticism: often, the more obedient we are, the closer God feels to us, which increases our faith and in turn, our obedience. For those who are not religious, this might appear to be a cycle of self-deceit. But Christianity provides us with a framework to understand the nature of our deepest longings that we cannot make sense of through reason alone—a framework that both matches our personal experiences and is reasonable based on our interpretation of the evidence we have at hand. Once we recognize that there is this yearning for meaning and fulfillment within us, how can we consider ourselves free? Until we find a way to satisfy it, we cannot. And the dominating notion of freedom in our society is simply not enough. If experiencing true freedom for eternity requires submission to constraints for the rest of our earthly lives, we say so be it, “for a day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
Marcos Martinez (CC’16) was born and raised in Paraguay, where he learned the value of people, pets, and air conditioners. He considers himself as spontaneous as an INTJ, Economics-Mathematics major can be. God keeps surprising him day after day with His faithfulness, and he hopes to convey some of that through CC&C.
1 Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter plurality opinion, Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)
2 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
4 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
5 John 8:36
6 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
7 Saint Augustine, Confessions
8 Psalm 84:10beauty, economics, forgiveness, freedom, money, reason, sex, timothy keller