Seminary students are wonderful. I rejoice in being able to teach them. They wash out the soul of this old, cynical preacher.
Seminary students, however, have a tendency to feel quite sure about almost everything. I sometimes say to them, “Hey guys, you haven’t sinned big enough or lived long enough even to have an opinion on that subject!”
Well, I’ve sinned big enough, and I’ve lived long enough to write a book like this one—and also to serve as the negative illustration of most of the principles taught herein. (Did you ever think that your sole purpose in life was to provide an illustration for others on how not to do it?) This is probably the only book I’ve ever written in which I am a true expert.
What follows may sound negative; but relax, it will seem like watching family movies. When we watch family movies, we identify with those on the screen because they are us. Even the simplest things sound funny. It is my hope that by naming the demons in our family, those spirits will lose their power and we will be free.
So, are you ready? OK, here goes:
Some really wonderful people have lied to us.
They didn’t mean to lie to us. (I know, because I’ve told some whoppers myself.) In fact, they had godly intentions and altruistic motivations. They didn’t even know they lied. They wanted us to be more holy, more obedient, and more pious. They wanted us to have a clear and strong witness in the world. They hoped we would become lights on a hill.
But frankly, the light has gone dim, the day is far spent, and we are still religious, afraid, guilty, and bound.
Have you ever thought (but, of course, never said aloud) that somebody lied to you about being a Christian? Have you been a Christian for a long time and found that the promises given to you when you first “joined the club” have not come true? Even worse, you are required to act as if they have? Have you ever felt that someone changed the dictionary meanings for words like freedom (“Being free,” they say, “means only that you’re free to be good”), grace (“Grace is wonderful—but you shouldn’t take advantage of it”), and forgiveness (“It’s nice to be forgiven, but feeling sorry isn’t enough”)?
Bill Hendricks, in his very good book Exit Interviews, speaks about the impossible expectations on believers. He writes:
Add it all up, and it’s a crushing burden—absolutely staggering!
Yet never have people been less able to live up to those expectations, biblically based though they may be. For one thing, we are not a morally or spiritually robust generation. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to live up to the high ideals with which we’re challenged. But the fact is, we can’t. They are so high and so many, and we are not only weak but in many cases wounded as well.
The standard response to this fact is that, of course, we’re weak as human beings, but with Christ’s strength we can do “all things.” With all due respect to that point of view, let me state plainly that it’s not going to happen that way. People are not going to become super-saints. They’re going to live less than ideal lives, and lots of times they’re going to fail. They’re certainly not going to live up to anywhere near the heightened expectations of well-intentioned Christian teaching.1
I know whereof he speaks, because when I left the pastorate, the wheels had begun to fall off my wagon. Nobody knew it or even suspected it . . . but I knew.
I was recording five broadcasts a week; writing a book a year; traveling and speaking a hundred and fifty days a year; serving as an adjunct seminary professor; trying to be a good father, husband, and caring pastor; and, all the while, working at being a reasonably faithful Christian. And with all of the humility I can muster, I must say that I did all of those things quite well . . . and they were killing me.
Today I’m still doing many of those things—but now I’m doing them with a freedom and joy I never knew before. In this book I’m going to tell you why and how.
Martin Luther said that we must preach the good news to each other lest we become discouraged. That’s what this book is about.
Jesus said we would know the truth and would be free indeed.
Let’s see if he was right.
During the 2000 Democratic convention, someone commented that many of the views of the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman, seemed not too distant from those of George W. Bush, the Republican nominee for president. Lieberman laughed. “That’s like saying there is no difference between a taxidermist and a veterinarian, because in both cases you get your dog back.”
Do you sometimes find a disconnect between what is supposed to be true and what really is? I do. Over the next few chapters, I want to talk about an area where that disconnect has grown probably as large as in any other area of the Christian life. The subject is freedom—and why we’re not free.
You’ve heard that Christ has made you free. You may have told others of your freedom. And you probably use the concept of freedom in your witness to those who don’t yet know Christ. Sometimes, however, I fear that we define freedom in a way that restricts and binds more than it frees.
A lot of what we call freedom isn’t real freedom at all. Furthermore, the similarity between real freedom and the freedom experienced by many Christians is the difference between the taxidermist and the veterinarian; while you do get your dog back, one collects dust while the other jumps, slobbers, and barks.
In a talk show that some friends and I broadcast for a number of months, we created a character named Edna and her husband, Orlo. (We got the idea from the late Jeff Carlson of WBCL in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a station that sometimes allows us to “steal” its ideas.) Edna and Orlo lived in a trailer and drove around the country, with Edna reporting on what they saw along the way. They also had a pet dog, Sparky, who had died. Instead of giving the dog a proper burial, they had Orlo’s brother, a taxidermist, stuff him. So, wherever Edna and Orlo went, they took Sparky with them. In fact, Sparky became the hood ornament on their trailer.
I fear that much of the freedom Christians proclaim has the feel of a stuffed dog riding along as a hood ornament. It looks nice and is reminiscent of something once alive and vibrant, but it has become only a semblance of the real thing. The words and the connotations of those words—the outside—say one thing, but the reality and the substance—the inside—say quite another.
When Jesus used the word free (as in, “the truth will make you free”), he employed a term that means “liberation from bondage.” In other words, the Greek word for free means “free.” (Incidentally, the Hebrew word for free means “free” as well.) If you’re looking for a dictionary definition, free means an “exemption or liberation from the control of some other person or some arbitrary power.”
It ought to be that simple. If Jesus said we’re free, we ought to accept his declaration at face value and run with it. It ought to help us define ourselves. But it doesn’t. Christians will do almost anything to get away from the simple meaning of the word and the wonderful experience of freedom.
Something about freedom scares us to death. We continue in our bondage—and that is a major tragedy. It is a tragedy because Christ went to so much trouble to set us free. It is a tragedy because there is so much more to being a Christian than obeying rules, doing religious things, and being “nice.” And it is a tragedy because our heritage is freedom . . . and we’ve sold it for a mess of pottage.
Taxidermists have their methods, and not all ply their trade in the same way. The same is true of the way we mummify our liberty. Let me show you some of the ways we have “stuffed the dog” of freedom.
Many of us say, “As Christians, of course we’re free—but that doesn’t mean we’re free to do whatever we want.” But if we aren’t free to do what we want, then we aren’t really free. Or, if we are, it is a weird sort of freedom. Later I’m going to address some things that have to do with what we want, but for now I want to take the kicker away.
The Bible is quite radical; most of us don’t understand just how radical it is. For instance, Paul writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”1 Again Paul writes, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”2
I have a friend who occasionally doesn’t attend church. Sometimes she doesn’t have a quiet time and doesn’t pray or read the Bible for a while. She will say, “It has become such a ritual and so empty of meaning, I just decided not to do religious stuff for a few days.”
I like to kid her about her paganism; but others, I suspect, are just plain shocked. You know the type. They say, “How could you! After all that Jesus has done for you?” Or worse, they say, “If you aren’t obedient to God, he won’t bless you.” If they feel really upset with my friend’s freedom, they might even suggest that, if she doesn’t get her act together, something really bad will happen to her. They love to quote Hebrews 12:6 about how God chastens those he loves. They are implying that, if you don’t go to church or if you miss your devotional time or if you don’t read the Bible for too long, God will break your legs.
Do you know what she does? She laughs. That drives them up a wall.
Some reveal their flight from freedom in the comment, “Of course we’re free, but that doesn’t mean we’re free to sin. It means we’re free not to sin.”
That sounds so very spiritual, and I believe there is something to it. In fact, I have the freedom to do some really good things I could never do before. I love more than I did, I am kinder than I was, and I sin less than I did. In one sense, doing wrong brings horrible bondage, while being free to live God’s way brings genuine freedom.
Still, if that freedom doesn’t include the freedom not to obey, then it isn’t real freedom. Remember, Paul said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”3 He didn’t want them to, but they could. Why? They were free.
A Christian does have an advantage over those who aren’t Christians. Not only do we know the truth about what God wants us to do, he provides the power to do it. If we don’t have the freedom not to do what he wants, however, we have redefined the word freedom.
Sometimes we destroy freedom by saying, “We must be careful of this freedom thing. People will take advantage of it.”
To them, I want to say, “What are you talking about, ‘take advantage of freedom’ by being free? Are you crazy? That’s not freedom; that’s a new kind of bondage.”
I have a friend who, before he became a Christian, used foul language. He married a woman who didn’t know such words, and he taught her how to curse. Shortly after they married, my wife and I had dinner with them. My friend took me aside and said, “Steve, don’t go doing your Jesus thing at dinner. I like my wife just the way she is, and I don’t want you to try to change her.”
Years later my friend became a Christian and found himself bothered by the language of his still nonbelieving wife. He told her, “Honey, I know I taught you to talk that way, but would you watch your language?” She didn’t understand what had happened and decided she could talk the way she wanted. And, yes, I restrained myself from reminding my friend that the problem could have been “fixed” years before if he had only let me do my “Jesus thing.”
With a little spin, we do the same thing to new Christians. We teach them that they are free, but may God have mercy on their souls if they try to utilize what we taught them.
I remember a “mature” Christian admonishing a new Christian for dancing. “Can you imagine Jesus dancing?” asked the older lady.
“No,” replied the new Christian, “I can’t.” Then, quite thoughtfully, she smiled and added, “I can’t imagine him going to church, driving a car, or playing an organ either.”
I’m sure the “mature” Christian straightened her out, but it ought to have been the other way around.
In yet another way, we give freedom with one hand and take it away with the other. We like to tell believers that they are free—but if they utilize their freedom, they will hurt their witness.
A favorite verse usually goes with such counsel: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”4
Without checking what the verse really means, the robbers of freedom make it into a horrible and condemning weapon. A misuse of that verse has caused more bondage than you can possibly imagine. We have taken away from Christians everything they could possibly enjoy because, in their enjoyment, they might hurt their witness.
The context of that verse deals with sacrifices to idols in a pagan society. Following the sacrifice, men took the meat to the downtown market and sold it. (What? Did you think the idols ate it?) Christians sometimes bought that meat, and the issue became whether or not a Christian could buy the meat and cook it on the backyard barbecue. Paul said that a Christian could freely do so. But because some uptight Christians (please note that he did not speak of unbelievers) might take offense, it would probably be better to have a salad rather than to give a brother or sister heartburn—even though the Christian remained free and the idols remained nothing. Even in light of this possibility, Paul refused to make a rule about total abstinence. He merely urged us to act wisely and considerately around fellow Christians.
I smoke a pipe. I also sometimes speak at very conservative gatherings of Christians. Do you think that, if I were the plenary speaker for the graduation banquet at Bob Jones University, I would yank out my pipe? No. But because I just told you that I smoke a pipe, some places will never invite me to come there and speak. And even if they did invite me, it would still be inappropriate for me to light up. Why? Not because we should never offend our brothers and sisters in Christ (we teach in our Born Free seminar that you ought to live your life with such freedom and joy that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation). It would be inappropriate because God says I should never act in such an unloving way that I might encourage members of my family to fall into sin through my example.
Suppose some fresh-faced underclassman saw me smoke my pipe, and although he still thought it wrong, he decided to give it a whirl anyway. In that case I have encouraged him to violate his conscience—to sin—through my expression of freedom. Paul does not teach us to refrain from the mere possibility of offending uptight brethren; he offended Christians left and right. And Jesus did so more than Paul.
(There is also the practical side about how smoking my pipe might affect the reception of my speech, to say nothing about my health.)
Let me ask you something: Do you know a single pagan who stayed away from Christ because a Christian did not act as holy and as sanctified as he or she ought to have acted? I know they will say we’re hypocrites—but usually that is just a smoke screen. The truth is, what repeatedly kills our witness is pretense, not freedom.
It would be so refreshing to say to our unbelieving friends, “I really mess up sometimes, but let me tell you something really good: God is still quite fond of me. Wouldn’t it be great if you belonged to a God like that?” If we were that honest, the world would beat a path to our door.
The late Clarence Jordan, who in 1942 founded Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia, was also an accomplished Greek scholar. When he first moved to Americus, the Christian community heard of his Ph.D. in Greek and invited him to speak at a number of churches. I heard Dr. Jordan say that once they found out what he “really believed,” the invitations dried up.
I strongly stand on what the Bible says about freedom, and while it may offend you, I can’t change what the Bible says without leaving a smudge on the page. So, on the basis of what the Bible teaches, let me give you a radical statement:
You are really and truly and completely free.
There is no kicker. There is no if, and, or but. You are free. You can do it right or wrong. You can obey or disobey. You can run from Christ or run to Christ. You can choose to become a faithful Christian or an unfaithful Christian. You can cry, cuss, and spit, or laugh, sing, and dance. You can read a novel or the Bible. You can watch television or pray. You’re free . . . really free.
Abraham Lincoln went to a slave market. There he noted a young, beautiful African-American woman being auctioned off to the highest offer. He bid on her and won. He could see the anger in the young woman’s eyes and could imagine what she was thinking, Another white man who will buy me, use me, and then discard me.
As Lincoln walked off with his “property,” he turned to the woman and said, “You’re free.”
“Yeah. What does that mean?” she replied.
“It means that you’re free.”
“Does that mean I can say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes,” replied Lincoln, smiling, “it means you can say whatever you want to say.”
“Does it mean,” she asked incredulously, “that I can be whatever I want to be?”
“Yes, you can be whatever you want to be.”
“Does it mean,” the young woman said hesitantly, “that I can go wherever I want to go?”
“Yes, it means you are free and can go wherever you want to go.”
“Then,” said the young woman with tears welling up in her eyes, “I think I’ll go with you.”
That is what God has done for us. It is what the Christian faith is all about. We have been bought with a price, the price of God’s own Son. We now have a new master, one who, once he paid the price, set us free.
If you’ve made it this far, I suspect you have some questions. So let’s tackle them one at a time.
Does being free mean that, if I don’t do what God says, he will still love me? Yes, that is exactly what it means. You might get hurt and regret what you’ve done, but you can do it and he won’t stop loving you. You won’t lose your salvation, and you won’t get kicked out of the kingdom.
Does being free mean that God is pleased with whatever I do, no matter what it is? Of course not. Later in this book, we’re going to talk about the law; but for now, let me give you a preview. God feels pleased when we do what he asks of us; but, because of the imputed righteousness of Christ,5 he won’t be angry with you nor will he ever condemn you.
Does being free mean that when Christians are really upset with me, God isn’t? Yes.
Does being free mean that his love and grace are without condition . . . totally? Yes, that’s exactly what it means.
What if I do something bad? Would God still bless me and answer my prayers? Yes, he will. What God does or does not do in your life rarely has anything to do with how good you are. Your teacher acts like that, not your God. In fact, I preached some of my best sermons when I was doing some bad stuff. God wanted to show me something very important. He demonstrated that his fondness for me depended on his love and the cross of Christ, not on my earning it.
Certainly there is something to be said for divine earthly retribution (you do bad stuff and bad stuff will happen to you) and divine earthly compensation (you do good stuff and good stuff will happen to you). That is the way the world generally works. God’s laws shape the way the world operates. We do not break God’s laws; we simply get broken by them.
If you are an unbeliever, let me give you some advice. Even if you don’t believe there is a God, do what the Bible says God wants you to do. You will be a lot happier, have more peace, and possibly make more money than you do right now. Why will things probably work out this way? Because the Bible tells us the way things really are.
For the most part, however, those who preach a direct correlation between your goodness or obedience and God’s blessing simply haven’t read Psalms or looked around. I know obedient Christians who suffer in poverty and whose ministries have failed. And I know rich, peaceful pagans who are having a lot of fun.
The psalmist speaks to a reality that only the superficial will ignore:
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. . . . All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.6
Now the psalmist—and the entire Bible—has a lot more to say about the issue, but for now, let me repeat what I said before: If you are not faithful, God will not withdraw his blessing from you nor turn his back on you. God loves you and will bless you without condition, without reservation, and without equivocation.
You are free!
If you feel no attraction to a God who loves you without condition, then there is something wrong with you. I respond with love to those who love me. If someone likes me, I generally like him or her back. On the other hand, if someone is always judging, dishonoring, and criticizing me, then I want to get as far away as I can. But love? That’s different.
There is something very attractive about love. It feels attractive to the same degree to which I am loved. Not only do I feel attracted to someone who loves me, I find myself wanting to please that person.
I was not the best student in the large high school I attended. In fact, I graduated fourth from the bottom in my class. But let me tell you about a teacher who cried when she gave me a low grade on a test. It really surprised me because I generally considered teachers the enemy.
This teacher returned our test papers and asked me to wait after class for mine. I figured I was in really big trouble. After everyone had left, she handed me my paper with a big F marked on it.
“Stephen,” she said, “you can do a whole lot better than this.”
And then she started weeping.
I didn’t know what to say or how to react. So I quietly left the classroom. Do you know something? I made an A on the next test. I didn’t make that A because I had grown smarter or because I bought into academic excellence. I’m not that smart and, at that age, didn’t care an ounce about academic excellence. I made an A because a teacher loved me enough to shed tears over my failure.
When Paul wrote to the church at Rome, he stood amazed at the rejection of God’s love. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience,” he writes, “not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”7
That is what God’s goodness has done to me. It has created in my heart a great desire to please the one who loves me, knowing that, if I don’t please him or even have the desire to please him, he will remain quite fond of me.
Sometimes I don’t do it right. At times I get tired of being “religious” and don’t do it. Other times I get so rebellious that even my mother, if she were still alive, would think about disowning me. But, dear friend, you have never met a man who wants to please God more than I do. The more I experience his love and grace, the more I want to please him.
For the rest of this chapter, I want to talk about those who would take away your freedom. Of course, Satan wants to do this, but in this area, he works mostly through other Christians.
I once heard Sidlow Baxter say that whenever Satan gets to Christians, eight out of ten times, he does so through other Christians. Some people in the family of God will require things of you that God never required, will tell you that God is angry when he isn’t, and will make you feel ashamed and guilty when you shouldn’t feel ashamed and guilty.
It is important to remember I’m talking about my own family. I have robbed other Christians of their heritage of freedom so many times that I blush. But we have to talk—all of us. We need to get the first thing—the gospel—straight, or we are going to kill off one another. I’m trying to stop the carnage, and I don’t want you to keep shooting either.
I once served as a character witness for a man who had done some really bad things. He was guilty as sin. His story appeared in the newspapers, got major play on all the television stations, and became the talk of the town. This man asked me to stand with him, and—this is a confession, in case you didn’t notice—I thought about telling him of my frantic schedule and how I just couldn’t do it. After all, I have a public media ministry, salaries to pay, and an image to maintain. So I had decided to buy out of this one . . . until the Holy Spirit and my daughter, Robin, got together and forced me to stand with my friend.
My friend was a member of a Pentecostal church. (A Pentecostal is really different from a Presbyterian. You might say a Pentecostal violates all the rules the Presbyterians make.)
At any rate, I found myself in the courthouse parking lot, talking with a number of members of my friend’s Pentecostal church. They were surprised to see a Presbyterian in such a setting. I didn’t tell them I had almost stayed home. What I did tell them was this: “I’m a Presbyterian, and we believe in a doctrine called ‘radical and pervasive depravity.’ If we find any depravity, however, we kick you out.” Those dear brothers and sisters laughed because they thought I was joking. And I was . . . sort of.
New Christians come to our family, excited about their newfound freedom and joy. Then we tell the new Christians that while Jesus gave them something wonderful, they need to know a few things. Then we put a saddle on that horse and ride it until death. When the new Christians try to get out from under the burden of rules, regulations, and righteousness, we shame them into continuing.
That makes me angry. It makes me angry when I’ve done it to others, and it makes me angry when I see others doing it to me or to my brothers and sisters in Christ.
It made Jesus angry too. He said of them, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”8
We’ve all played this freedom-robber role, and therefore none of us can judge others. In fact, I believe that we show our depravity less by the bad stuff we do than by our reversion to Pharisaism. It isn’t our sin that is so bad (Jesus fixed that on the cross), but our stiffness. There’s something about religion that can make you cold, critical, and mean. It’s a tendency we have to fight all the time. I sometimes blush when I think of how often I have rained on a brother’s or sister’s parade.
Freedom has the power to take away, destroy, break down, and frighten. And it is this very power that we fear. While some of what follows may seem a bit harsh, please know that I’m not preaching. I am doing my best not to be self-righteous about the self-righteous. I don’t want to be a Pharisee about Pharisees.
Freedom threatens religious people because it takes away their leverage and makes it more difficult for them to maintain control. They might want to maintain control for the right reasons, but they’re still trying to be in control.
Jesus was not big into control. He said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”9
One view in the church (and I still struggle with it) says that Christians have a tendency to be wild, and if we don’t do something to maintain control, they will . . . well, get out of control.
One time, Abraham Lincoln was plowing behind a mule that had a horsefly on its rump. Lincoln’s brother came along and flicked off the biting insect. “What did you do that for?” demanded Lincoln. “That was the only thing that made him go.”
Sometimes we think that the only thing that will make a Christian “go” is a bit of fear and guilt. Of course, Jesus has forgiven their sins—but how can we possibly tell them? They’ll take it way too far, for sure.
Freedom also threatens religious people because it takes away their power. Yet even if we want to maintain power for the right reasons, it is still power and can rob us of freedom.
“But we do need authority,” we object. “Without legitimate authority, discipline, and a proper chain of command, anarchy ensues, and everything for which Christ died will come crashing down around our feet.”
Jesus wasn’t terribly happy with such a view. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them,” he said. “It shall not be so among you.”10
Freedom Destroys Smugness
Freedom scares religious folks to death because a lot of ego goes into being right and “righteous.” If we aren’t right and good, how do we differ from those other Christians who always get it wrong?
It always amazes me how irritated those of us who are right and righteous become when we get around those who think they are right and righteous. I don’t have to be other people’s mother, but I certainly want to be. And I think, If I give them freedom to be what God wants them to be, where will I be? So, I don’t give them freedom.
Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.”11
Self-righteousness is one of the most addicting things in the world. You’ll find it rampant in Hollywood, in the halls of Congress on both sides of the aisles, in the books that try to politicize us, and in the arrogance that every crime brings to those who read about it in the newspapers or see it on television. You will find it on every street corner and in every home. But the one place you should have trouble finding it is in the church, where the bad people are supposed to find love.
Let me tell you something important. The abortionists make me so angry that sometimes I can hardly control it. The pornographers and purveyors of filth ought to be put in jail and the key thrown away. Racists and exploiters, those who hurt the innocent and the poor, irritate me to the point of revolutionary fervor. I hate how churches rob people of their freedom. I hate the liberals who pretend to believe but don’t, and have, as a result, damaged the Christian faith. I want them all gone.
And, yes, I’m making a point, but it isn’t the one you probably think.
It felt good to write all that. Something in me, a smug self-righteousness, causes me to feel wonderful when I condemn others.
I don’t drink alcoholic beverages, and so I have a great sermon on abstinence. In fact, if you heard me preach it, you would feel quite impressed with its power and conviction. I can’t preach it, however. Jesus simply won’t let me. He let me know that I liked the sermon too much.
We all have sermons we like too much.
The thought of freedom displeases a lot of Christians because they think we must maintain a clear demarcation between us and them. In order to maintain that demarcation, we must have discipline and conformity. After all, what would happen if we couldn’t tell the difference between the good guys and bad guys? If we don’t stop talking about this freedom thing, we will get lost in the crowd and lose our witness.
Maybe. And then again, maybe not.
Jesus seemed to suggest that mustard seeds and leaven often go unnoticed, and furthermore, in the end, God will sort it all out.12
I have a friend on dialysis. Three times a week he has to go to a dialysis center to cleanse his blood. That process keeps him alive. I asked my friend what he did when he was traveling. He told me that he just skipped the procedures.
“Can you do that?” I asked.
“Oh yes, and I do fine,” he replied with a laugh. “The problem is that the people at the center say it’s risky. I think, however, that it’s more risky to their bottom line than it is to my health. I pay them seven hundred dollars for each treatment, and the risky thing to them is that when I miss, they don’t get their money.”
Some of us in control may redefine freedom for the right reasons, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with another agenda. If we allow followers to live free, we risk a lot. I think, however, it puts more at risk our agenda of power and control and our need to be right and righteous, than it does those who need protection from the “dangers” of freedom.
We often find it easy and tempting to blame our loss of freedom on others when, in fact, we simply don’t want to be free. Freedom scares us because we don’t trust ourselves.
We find it comforting to have others decide for us. If we’re free, we could be wrong—and we don’t want to be wrong. That’s the essence of perfectionism: If I haven’t done it wrong, I’m still perfect; and even if I do it wrong when someone else told me to do it wrong, that takes away from their perfectionism, not mine.
Besides, living in a prison cell can bring real comfort. You may not like it a lot at first, but eventually you grow accustomed to the darkness. After all, the sunshine might hurt your eyes.
A friend of mine sent me a wonderful story from her local newspaper.13 It told about a priest, the Reverend Thomas J. Quinlan, a seventy-one-year-old “chain smoker with a voice like sandpaper” who seems to go out of his way to offend folks.
“He once rode down the center aisle of the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk on a police motorcycle for a Palm Sunday procession.” Another time he dressed like Superman during a worship service in order to make a point. They try to keep Quinlan in line, but he will have none of it. He doesn’t like “playing footsie with authority,” and he hates the trappings of power.
The funny thing about Reverend Quinlan is that the churches he serves keep growing. In fact, one church he served tripled both in attendance and giving. Everywhere Quinlan serves, the members of the church become involved in ministry. So, despite his funny ways, God is doing something through him in a wonderful and delightful way.
Last year Quinlan, who has struggled with alcoholism for many years, was arrested for drunk driving. He went to his congregation and confessed, telling them that he would leave willingly. But all along he had set them free and taught them well. Do you know what they said to him? “We don’t want you to leave; we want you to change.” Those dear folks, the reporter said, “loved him into sobriety.”
That’s it! They’ve got it.
I just wish he had been a Presbyterian.
When I first started using computers to write, I used Wordstar. Most of you have no idea that Wordstar was one of the first word-processing programs. It had no pull-down menus, and it was necessary to memorize a lot of keystrokes in order to make it work. For years it remained the only widely used word-processing program, and almost everyone had to learn it.
A tutorial program on Wordstar tried to help neophytes like me get over our fear of computers. The opening screen featured a little man standing there and smiling. The caption read: “I bet you think if you do the wrong thing, hit the wrong key, or make a mistake, you could blow up the computer?”
The next screen showed the same little man saying, “Go ahead. Hit any key and see what happens.” After you hit a key, a gigantic explosion glowed on the monitor. Moments later the same little man reappeared, smiling again and saying, “Just kidding!”
I love watching Christians become free; it’s one of the great things about the ministry God has given me. Sometimes I have a hard time convincing them, but I understand their hesitation.
Freedom can be a hard road to walk.
At times I feel like that little man in the Wordstar program. I say, “Bet you think if you were free, you would blow up everything. Bet you think if you were free, you would lose control and have no power. Bet you think if you were free, the work of God would stop—and he so needs your help.”
Go ahead. Be free the way Jesus told you.
You’ll be really glad.