Liberty — our great ideal & our great idol

The Statue of Liberty stands in her solitary glory on Ellis Island, holding her torch aloft as a beckoning beacon and inviting those in need of her gift to seek it here in America.

Liberty is a lofty ideal. The second-listed of our Constitution’s God-given rights, following only life itself, liberty is at the very heart of what it means to be American. We love it. We give ourselves over to it. We fight for it. We die for it. And we die because of it.

Liberty is also a deeply ingrained biblical ideal. The story of the Exodus is one of liberation, of God seeing his people in slavery and freeing them from it. Similarly, the death and resurrection of Jesus is seen as an exodus-like event, winning for us freedom from slavery to sin. The biblical term redemption has at its center the image of being bought back out of slavery.

It is no wonder that in Galatians, Paul’s great letter of freedom, we read these words: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

Freedom is an end to itself. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

Our God is free. We do not enslave him by our prayers, by our theologies, by our expectations of him. And in his freedom, he wants us to be free.

But as Timothy Keller is wont to point out, any good thing that we turn into an ultimate thing becomes an idol. And to that I add, all idols enslave us.

The line between an ideal and an idol can be hard to maintain.

After those powerful words of freedom to the Galatians and a plea that they not create a new legalistic form of slavery for themselves and others, Paul reminds them that self-indulgence and lawlessness is not what we’re after either.

Lawlessness isn’t freedom. It’s actually just another form of slavery.

Anything we find ourselves addicted to has become our master. Our smartphones. Our coffee. Our sports teams. A possessive relationship. Sex. Surfing the internet. Buying shoes. Eating and drinking sweets. Anything we give ourselves over to ends up chaining us, even if it seems like freedom at first.

Even earning money, which can open up all kinds of opportunities to enjoy our freedom, enslaves many. There’s a reason why earning a large paycheck at a job that requires most of your life is referred to as golden handcuffs. The wages are so high employees choose to be enslaved by them.

Paul writes: “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” (Gal. 5:13).

The free life isn’t one of self-indulgence. It’s one of love. It’s one of moving from being preoccupied with self to being occupied by care for others.

And just to be clear, the love Paul is writing about here is not romantic love, which tends to be far more self-indulgent than we acknowledge. This is a pouring out of the self for others which we’ve seen lived out so well in Jesus and which Paul elaborates on, calling it the “fruit” of God’s Spirit living within us.

This free form of love looks like this: “joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).

There is no law against this way of life because this is the kind of life we were created to live in the first place, the kind of life Jesus saved us to, the kind of life we are meant to be free to explore and offer to God and to others.

There are many kinds of slaveries alive and active in the world today. Some are imposed on people from outside and good people like the folks at IJM work to fight against them. But the most insidious forms of slavery are the ones that are self-imposed, masquerading as freedom.

So, let us cling to the ideal of freedom while making sure it doesn’t become an enslaving idol.