Two kinds of freedom

August 29, 2011

Ron Swanson, the funniest character on TV.

In yesterday’s sermon on Romans 9:14-24, which often raises difficult questions of human freedom versus God’s sovereignty (not that it should if we understand Paul’s argument), I was tempted to quote my favorite character from my favorite TV show, Ron Swanson of Parks & Recreation.

Swanson is manager of the parks department in a smallish Indiana city, who is also an outspoken libertarian. He once said that his dream is to privatize the parks department and let Chuck E. Cheese’s manage it. “You want want to swing on the swing set? Drop in a quarter.” One time Ron was arguing with someone about diet and fitness. He said, “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 lbs, and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so. To me that’s beautiful.”

This kind of freedom may be beautiful from a political point of view, but it’s deadly from a Christian point of view. Left to our own devices, this is clearly the kind of freedom that we have. As Paul argues elsewhere in Romans (for instance, chapter 7) this kind of freedom enslaves us. So maybe our hyper-Calvinist friends bent on saying that human beings aren’t really free are not entirely wrong. Because libertarian freedom—freedom of choice—is not true freedom.

True freedom, Christianly understood, is freedom to be what God created us to be. At times, however, this freedom may look a lot like slavery: a voluntary kind of slavery in which we submit our free wills to God, to be re-shaped and redirected. True freedom means choosing to be constrained. Think of how St. Paul himself can joyously proclaim our freedom in Christ and say, at the same time, that he is Christ’s slave.

A couple of years ago, I went to a musical that the students at my wife’s school were putting on. One of the students, a 16 year old girl, played a violin solo—and it was quite good. I complimented her after the show. I said, “You didn’t sound screechy at all.” I didn’t mean to damn her with faint praise, but, let’s face it, 16 year-old violinists sometimes sound screechy.

She told me that she aspires to be a professional violinist. She practices four hours a day, every day—and that she’s has been doing so for years! No wonder she didn’t sound screechy! In a way, this young woman has voluntarily made herself a slave to the violin—through time, discipline, hard work. She’s had to forego most activities and interests that her fellow teenagers enjoy.

But consider what this voluntary slavery means: It means that she is free to do the thing she loves most—to play the most beautiful music in the world. Would even the most challenging piece of music stand in the way of her doing the thing that she most enjoys? Imagine the joy that this kind of freedom brings her.

On a larger scale, this is the kind of freedom that God offers us through Christ. I want to know and experience this kind of freedom in all its fullness.

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