Okay, we’re Americans. It seems so clear that surely we must know what freedom is, what it means to have liberty. But I really don’t think we have much of a clue and it is killing our society from the inside out. Now this death is not new to the American scene. It’s not new to humanity. In fact, it goes right back to our first parents.
We equate choosing with freedom. That is a freedom in a very limited sense. That kind of freedom get “used up” pretty quickly. The more choices I make, the fewer options there are for me. For example, when I chose to go to seminary in hopes of becoming a priest I willfully gave up many other possibilities. Or again, when I got married I closed the door to becoming a monk. Every choice we make ultimate narrows our options and that doesn't seem like freedom as we usually define it.
One of the difficult components of this sort of freedom is that we are simply picking and choosing, which ends up being a slavery of its own. We’ve all experienced the pain that the slavery of having to choose creates. Haven’t we all had times of angst when we just can decide which course to follow? Choices seem so easy when it’s between a right and a wrong, but what if the choice is between a good and a better good? or a bad and a worse? The later sort of choice can be anguishing to make, but unfortunately necessary. Of course we seem conditioned to always want to choose pleasure over pain. It seems so obvious. But far too often the choice of pleasure reveals itself later as only a different face of pain. Haven’t we all overeaten occasionally? The Thanksgiving Day dinner looks soooo good. And we eat far more than we should and then we feel awful and unable to move. The pleasure becomes pain.
There must be something else. We know that God gave us a free will, but we have just pointed out that picking and choosing limits our freedom rather than increasing it. So what is real freedom that cannot be limited or caught in the pleasure/pain cycle that Saint Maximus the Confessor writes about?
Real freedom and liberty is to be able to move to what completely fulfills me and does not diminish me. What is that then? The answer is the same the one to the question: “What must I do to be saved?” Salvation is becoming a person who is free from dominance of sinful passions, who is filled with the Holy Spirit, of Love himself. It is being what God has truly created me to be. This ought not to be confused with what our passions tell us we are (for example, I am a homosexual, or I am “just that way”—whatever that might be).
Our self-definition must be greater than what we do or what we are impassioned about. It must be our very essence. We are created “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9) We are created in the Image of God, or more accurately, we are images of the Son of God, who is the Image of the Father. True freedom is to freely move to God without hindrance or obstacle, either exterior or interior. That we might have to pause to choose stops our movement, and therefore limits our real freedom of being.
So what does this mean in our daily lives? Well a couple of things. We don’t give anything of real value to our children by giving them lots of options and choices and entertainments. In fact we are enslaving them far more than we ourselves were enslaved. They are taught to choose pleasure and ease, hoping to find satiety only to find that they are more hungry and empty than when they started. We not only learn to limit choices given our children, but to move their hearts to the only thing that will truly fulfill them. As Christian parents if we don’t do this, we are not acting like Christian parents.
It also means that I won’t get too worked up about adding choices for everyone and myself. We write ridiculous laws all of the time in the desperate attempt to give freedom (all the while we are actually taking it away). After all if we passed a law that would allow fish to breathe air, it wouldn’t add one jot or tittle to him being a fish. We should be quick to eliminate things that take away from us our real freedom of moving towards God in all that we do. We should also be quick to move to protect those same freedoms for others.
There are several things that come to mind. Do we add to people’s freedom by creating laws that let them buy homes they cannot afford? Heavens no! We create a dreadful economic problem that we might not see the end of for many years to come. We haven’t help the poor or ourselves. What about the freedom of a woman to choose her reproductive life? She is certainly free, but we believe her choice comes about nine months sooner than a birth. Once there’s a conception, we have to think of a child’s right to live and become a full human being created in the image of God. Availability to abortion does not increase freedom at all. It enslaves the woman and kills a child. And the gentleman responsible (I use the term very loosely) should also experience the loss of some of his ‘freedom’ because of his choice too. I wouldn’t dream of putting the blame for a bad decision solely on one of the two persons involved.
But at the most fundamental and primitive level this means that I must constantly choose to bear the image of God as he has given it me. I must constantly conform my life to the Scriptures (and reading them regularly is absolutely necessary). I must take advantage of the rules of the Church that help me conform my life to the pattern of Christ, because these rules allow me to just live the life of Christ. The less I have to choose, especially in the realm of the Christian life, the more free I am. The more I become a person that joyfully basks in the light of Christ. I become one in whom salvation—true healthfulness of body and soul—lives.