Perhaps the greatest failure of the modern church has been its inability to portray the biblical view of freedom or liberation. America takes for granted that we are born free, with every right to choose our way of life as we please. Christianity takes for granted that we are born enslaved, with our only hope in the liberating power of the gospel. Scripture is full of exaltations of pure joy, unshakable freedom, and certain victory. Yet its portrayal is often that of superficial cliches, if not anti-humanistic boredom and death. God is described biblically as liberator from Egypt and source of all goodness; God is often considered by us as our Cosmic Killjoy. G.K. Chesterton puts it well,
"The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. . . . But in the modern philosophy the case is the opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within."
What ought a Christian do about this fundamental discord? The "modern philosophy" that Chesterton cites takes its form today in the unassailable maxim, "You do you." It is one thing to expose the philosophical impotence of such a maxim -- since it cannot be applied universally to anyone doing actual harm or evil; what I find more intriguing is its inherent despair and slavery.
Contemporary discussions around "rights" and "freedoms" -- however crucial and important in a political context -- lead us to become selfish and enslaved to our own small gods. "You gotta serve somebody," as Dylan said, whether it's idols with clay feet, feelings by which we define ourselves, or anything else of our own making. If our only standard is personal choice, how do we know it will benefit anyone; whether it's good, bad or ugly; if we will choose the same tomorrow? I have the freedom to leap from my 2nd story office, but I don't have the freedom to fly from it, and exercising that knowledge is to become aware of what it means to be human. Christianity sees total self-determination as inevitably leading to slavery and death. Either that is total nonsense (since it is the God of our society), or we need a total re-calibration of our view of freedom and slavery.
I don't actually want the freedom to do whatever I want; I want the ability to do what God wants. I want to love what God loves and hate what God hates. If I am constantly left with the freedom to self-determine, I will be enslaved to my passions and whatever happens to appear attractive to me. On the other hand, if I appreciate that Christ has freed me from having to find satisfaction and life in my own self-actualization, then giving myself to loving God and loving neighbor will become more and more attainable and attractive.
Of course, the American view of freedom emerged from the political context, where it is appropriate and where it has achieved great good. I'm not advocating for a theocracy or a return to a premodern political nation! The problem is that this political freedom has infected all of life. We need to learn how to distinguish political freedom from spiritual freedom.
Chesterton's quote not only asserts the inner despair of modern life, he also claims that within the "ethical abnegations" of Christianity lies "pagan freedom." In other words, underneath "Thou shall not commit adultery" lies the context for "thou shall have the best sex possible." Therein lies the freedom that only comes within proper boundaries. We have become unable in our society to have great sex because we have made it meaningless and casual. We have become unable to give our lives up for a great cause because we have made the great cause holding on to our lives for our own sake. Only in Christ's words, "if you lose your life for my sake and the gospel's sake will you save it" can we find the source for boundless and fearless freedom. Our life is not our own. That is the only freedom we should cherish.