The Freedom of Restraint
Why is it that often, the more we desire freedom, the less of it we have? Do we hold so tightly to freedom that we crush it, like a child crushes a flower in their hand while trying to protect it? Indeed, love can be bruised, and even extinguished, if held too tightly—so can freedom. Love cannot flourish without freedom nor can real freedom thrive without true love.
Freedom, in truth, cannot be free without boundaries, else it becomes either anarchy or licentiousness: “[Freedom] requires efforts, it presupposes mental and moral qualities of a high order to be generally diffused in the society where it exists”1 said John C Calhoun. Freedom must be tempered with morality, or the free-will of one may suffocate or imprison the will of another. Self-determination can easily become selfishness. When I rejoice in my deliverance rather than my Deliverer, I have made an idol out of the gift.
My history tutor succeeded in teaching me at least one thing in my eight weeks of Oxford study: Rights entail responsibilities. According to the Declaration of Independence, freedom is a God-given right. Life is a right. Private ownership of things [not people] is a right. With these rights then, come responsibilities. A right is a moral duty, a rule of conduct; it is a just claim and a privilege. When we want a right without assuming the responsibility it entails, it will crumble. Thus, when I want freedom on my terms, I find what I have called freedom is hollow—crumpled in my grasping hand. When I buck the parameters given because they feel confining, am I asserting freedom of will or willful selfishness?
Let us think for a moment of what it takes to maintain life: clean water, food, shelter, clothing. These are obtained through work—our own or others’—the work of digging the well, catching and growing the food, building the structure, and making the clothing, or exchanging services or money for those things. Sometimes our work can feel like a restraint. At work I would rather come and go as I please, but I need to be subject to the hours of operation and to be available to my co-workers. All the other hours of the week are my own. If I squander my morning routine by sleeping until I have to leave for work, is that the fault of my work for being too early or my own for being undisciplined? I have chosen to be subject to the parameters of a certain time frame, location, and of whether or not I am challenged by my position—all by choosing to remain in this job over seeking another. Have I stifled my freedom to go hiking or to read and write? By no means. There are certain hours of the day when I have chosen not to pursue those things, but they are still mine to pursue on off days and off hours. Further, I couldn’t afford car insurance or gasoline (let alone housing and food) if I didn’t have a job; I would not be free to live in a mountainous state to hike in if I didn’t have my job.
Freedom has its framework, keeping it from becoming an amorphous, languid, insipid dissipation. I am only free to communicate in writing if I obey the rules of grammar. I am only free to hike if I have strengthened my muscles, taken care to feed my body the right proteins, fruits, and vegetables, looked up a route and driven to it, etc. I can’t hike in the Collegiate Peaks if I don’t get in my car and drive two hours away in the right direction. Because I live in this little Colorado town, I necessarily do not live in any other place. Is this somehow a lack of freedom or is it a type of freedom?
A similar question can be asked of love. When you feel like you must love someone back because they care so much about you, is that really love or obligation? By very definition, the word “obligation” means binding. And while freedom involves duty and staying within morality—like a thought is only free to be expressed and understood when it is bound by proper punctuation—it is not binding, neither is it a lack of freedom. A thing cannot be itself and its opposite. This is why God gave humans freedom of will. Yes, taken out of its parameters, it is turned into anarchy, self-indulgence, and licence—these broken forms being the heartbreak and death of millions throughout history.
Yet, what a difference it is to freely give love, without feeling that we have to! If we were obligated to love God because he loves us, rather than being allowed to choose to love him, that would not be love. It would be duty, it would be bindingly obligatory, it would be dull and colourless. I have tried to cause my heart to love warmly, because I was loved and felt I it right to love in return. I have tried to be friends with people who were needy for love, grasping at friendship and affection. These relationships are not healthy. They frustrate and wound both people. When the Bible says we love because God first loved us, it does not mean that we feel we are expected to love God because he loved us. It means we are overwhelmed—awed by his love for us. We are humbled by his love and we want to return it, we want him to be loved, too! This real love appears similar to loving out of duty, but the difference is in the heart. We gladly lay down our lives, give of our time and heart with no trace of resentment or drudgery.
Freedom is not unrestrained frolic and revelry, as our culture often thinks. That is the definition of wantonness. In fact, wantonness is said to be, “resistant to control, willful; a discordant sound.”2 I shudder at this definition, because it accurately describes my heart at times. I resist focus and parameters in my heart and in my words. I am willful and selfish. The older I get, the more I find how self-absorbed I am. That makes for a discordant strain in God’s harmony. Like Melchor in The Silmarillion, or the little farandolae in A Wind in the Door, I sing my own song, thinking that it is better to be myself than to be part of the mighty chorus, the rooted, life-giving farandolae. I want to do my own thing rather than being confined by doing what others want. And in some ways, that is good. I shouldn’t go along with the crowd of our culture. But I am a member of the body of Christ, not only an individual. It is freedom to live with, to serve with, to give myself for Jesus—and he says I do that by being part of his body. Being a part of Christ does not mean losing my individual self. Rather, my individuality is complemented by the inclusion in something—Someone—bigger. I do not make music by singing my own song, I make discord. When I sing with the host of heaven and the saints, we shake the universe with the song of Illúvitar, of Aslan (names for Yahweh himself)—the mighty chorus vibrating life and creativity and joy into every atom and galaxy.
All this time I have been grasping at wantonness, lack of restraint. I have not been yearning for freedom after all, I have been craving self indulgence:
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction” (Prov 29:18 NIV).
Or as the ESV says, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”
Prophetic vision and the instruction of wisdom are our parameters; they are the complete thought bound in a sentence, the melody of the symphony. This wisdom and vision come from Christ through his prophets, apostles, and teachers. I have rarely discovered these people leading a church, but I have shared many a meal with them around a table, exchanged letters and calls with them, read their books, and lived and worked alongside them.
Freedom is not license to do as one pleases—that is wantonness. Yet it is not a binding cord, either. Freedom is not a chain, it is a channel. A river that overflows its banks is out of control, damaging property, sometimes killing people. People who cast off restraint are said to run wild, often doing much more harm than a surging river or stampeding [uncontrolled] herd. “That which we restrain we keep within limits; that which we restrict we keep within certain definite limits; that which we repress we try to put out of existence.”3 When I try to cast off restraint, I am not pursuing freedom. When I seek God’s wisdom, it represses sin in me, crucifying my flesh so that I might be fully alive to Christ in my spirit. When I seek God’s vision, when I heed wisdom’s instruction and allow it to guide me in right paths, then—and only then—am I free.
- Jenkins, John Stilwell, quoting John C Calhoun in his “Speech on the Direct Tax” in The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun (Public Domain)
- “Wanton” www.etymonline.com © 2001-2017 Douglas Harper
- Century Dictionary, 1902 (Public Domain)