Last week, an issue came up that hinged specifically on the definitions of words.
Do you know what clear thinking is? It’s like a clear picture, one that’s in focus. When you get a snapshot back from a holiday and look at it, if it wasn’t in focus it will appear blurry.
In the same fashion, if we want our thinking to be clear, it must be in focus. If there are words whose meanings are blurry to us, then the meanings they convey to others are going to be blurry as well. It’s hard to come to good conclusions if we are ambiguous about our topic.
Sometimes, clearing up a controversy or a confusing issue is just a matter of being careful how we define our words, or at least choosing a word with a very precise fashion. So, keep in mind that sometimes the crux of an issue depends on what you mean by the particular words you use.
Talking about precision in language, here’s something I recently read on the jacket of a book. The title of the book isn’t important but what was said on the jacket really caught my eye, relating to this question of precision in language. It uses the concept of freedom in what I think is a somewhat ambiguous way.
Here’s what it says: “Jesus didn’t come to make you holy, though holiness is good. Jesus didn’t come to sanctify you, though you ought to be involved in the process of sanctification. Jesus didn’t come to make you a good church member. He didn’t come to teach you and others to know him…”
Apparently this author thinks Jesus didn’t come to make you holy, to sanctify you, to make you a good church member, to know Him and teach others to know Him. He came for a different reason, alleges this author: “Jesus came to set you free…” is the real reason He came, “…to allow you to laugh, to allow you to be free of the prisons that even religion will put you in. Your heritage is freedom.”
Let me tell you why I was a bit frustrated and surprised to see this on the jacket of a Christian book, written by an author who (from what I could tell) not only has a good publisher, but seems to have good credentials. It struck me that he was confused on the idea of freedom.
Classically speaking, there are actually two types of freedom. One is freedom of permission, which is a kind of political freedom having to do with social and legal rights. In a more general sense, this could mean freedoms that are not only protected by law in society, but freedoms in which you are unrestricted by law.
Freedom in this sense means lack of restraint. When people think about being free, they think about doing whatever they want. They don’t think about anything encumbering them. I remember when I was a young man growing up in the sixties. To me, freedom was “doing your own thing,” the lack of restriction, the lack of obligation. That's the first kind of freedom.
I was watching a video recently called “Tom and Huck.” It’s a recent remake of “Tom Sawyer,” with the characters of Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher and the whole cast. When Tom Sawyer went to visit Huck Finn, Huck had a little getaway, a small cave by a creek, with trees above him, and a barrel in a tree where he could climb out and look over his domain, which was basically nothing but a corner of the woods. Of course, Tom thought this was great because Huck was experiencing what Tom thought was true freedom. And that’s the way Huck sees it, until the end of the story when he decides to return to civilization. Tom can’t figure out why, and Huck says, “Because it gets cold out here at night.”
But the initial idea Huck was conveying is, Gee, if you’re really free, you don’t have any restraints or responsibilities; you can do whatever you want to do. This is the most popular notion freedom today, the liberty to do whatever you please.
This was not the view of freedom the Founders had. Certainly there was a notion of pursuit of happiness, but they didn’t have this idea of autonomous freedom where the really desirable freedom is doing whatever you want to do. That's anarchy, not civilization.
The Founders had a different kind of freedom in mind, some might call it the freedom of personal integrity, or a developmental freedom, if you will. This is the ability of a mature person to act well as a unified self. In a sense, it’s a freedom to be all that we can be—the freedom of being educated and capable and expert in some areas—as opposed to being free to do what your passions lead you to do in the moment, and ultimately becoming nothing in the process.
Last year, one of my teachers was reflecting on a comment by Dorothy Hamill, the famous skater of an era gone by. Someone asked Hamill, “Didn't you miss your childhood?” They were presuming that she had her childhood stolen from her because of the rigors of practice to become a world-class skater. Dorothy Hamill then made a very interesting remark. She said, “How many people do you think would like to be where I am right now?” referring to her wealth, fame, and level of accomplishment.
Of course, it was a rhetorical question. Lots of people would like to be where Dorothy Hamill is now, but her point was that her accomplishments--and the rewards of those accomplishments--cost her something. In a sense, she purchased one kind of freedom by sacrificing another kind. This is a very important lesson in life.
The freedom to be a bum is the freedom to accomplish nothing whatsoever; to make no mark, to make no difference, to become nothing. That kind of freedom comes cheap, but in the end it's very costly. The freedom worth sacrificing for is the freedom to be something great and to do something meaningful. One could say that a Dorothy Hamill—or a concert pianist, or a theologian, or a clear thinker, or a sports hero or--you fill in the blank--has a tremendous amount of freedom gained because there was a season in which they were willing to surrender a cheaper freedom to be able to gain a skill which gave them a much deeper freedom.
This is why I’m troubled by the jacket of this book I mentioned earlier. It appeals to this cheap, inconsequential kind of freedom that many people pursue, this “freedom to be free” in some kind of vague, unclear sense. The author says, “Jesus didn’t come to make you holy,” but I think holiness is a kind of freedom. “Jesus didn’t come to sanctify you,” but isn’t sanctification a kind of freedom? “He didn’t come to teach you and others to know Him,” but isn’t knowing Him the route to freedom? So it’s odd to contrast those things against "real" freedom, which is…what? It’s not really clear to me.
No, Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The verse that comes before it, John 8:31, says: “If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
In other words, surrendering to proper discipline and authority—in this case, the Word of God—builds in you a genuine, deep and rich freedom. Much better than being a slave to the moment, right?
It seems that the best example we have of a free man, in the deepest sense of the word “freedom,” was Jesus Christ. Here is someone who had His humanity fully realized, no blemish of sin, perfectly fulfilling what He was created to be.
But it’s interesting that Jesus did not possess the kind of hedonistic freedom that most are actually referring to when they talk about being free. In one sense, His life was entirely His own and He gave it up freely, as He stated. But in another sense, He was completely given to the designs of the Father on His life. He was fully submitted to the Father in everything He did and, in the process of being fully surrendered to the Father, was able to accomplish things that fulfilled His purpose and transformed the world. He was a fully free man, in the best sense of the term, and a complete slave according to the cheaper version of freedom. He became a slave in the first sense to be free in the fullest sense.
Someone once said that only slaves can set others free. The only people who make a real difference are those who willfully enslave themselves to particular responsibilities, causes, or purposes, along with all the demands those things make on their lives. A bum with no demands on his life whatsoever, who has not submitted himself to any restraints or responsibilities, leaves no tracks in this world.
Think about the people who have had the greatest possibility for impact, people like the President of the United States. One could argue that his life is the least free because every minute of his life is planned out and accounted for. Yet, because of this slavery he’s free to be one of the most powerful men in the world.
This truth applies whether you’re Christian or not. If you really want to have the freedom to make a difference and leave a mark in this world—to change things for the better—then you have to be willing to surrender a cheap freedom, a hedonistic moment-by-moment freedom. You have to be willing to put your shoulder to the grindstone and put in the time—to do some reading and study, to give to other people, to become a slave of other people’s schedules in some sense—so that you can be free to accomplish great things.
If that’s true for anybody, it’s certainly true for the Christian, because there’s something greater and more valuable for him to be enslaved to. It’s a slavery that doesn't bring disaster and destruction, but life. The power of the Holy Spirit, not just your own power, is available for the task. You can take your loaves and fishes and Jesus can multiply them and feed the multitudes. That’s called leveraging, but it requires giving up those loaves and fishes, a surrendering of what you have. A slavery, of sorts.
That’s what dads do with families. Do you want to raise a good family? You have to be a slave to the family. You can’t be a good father and have cheap freedom; it just isn’t the way it works. For moms it’s the same way. For leaders of organizations, of Christian groups, it’s the same way.
Do you want to have the freedom to have an impact by writing an article or a book? You’ve got to sit down and do the study and write the dog-gone piece. It’s a lot of work, and you give up a lot of other things, but that’s the tradeoff.
Do you want to be free to make a big difference? Then you have to count the cost and decide what you want to surrender—what kind of low-order freedoms you want to let go—so that these greater and higher freedoms can be accomplished.