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Discipleship Hour Notes

Who Am I? | Session Three

Posted by Nick Locke on

 

 ON THE ROAD AGAIN…

 There is a tendency in our culture to equate fullness with freedom, and freedom with leaving. ‘The road’ has become the iconic symbol of liberation. James Smith writes, “From On the Road to Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise, the road is a ribbon that winds away from convention, obligation, and the oppression of domesticity.” On the road there is space to breathe, “unhindered by walls and, more importantly, unconstrained by ‘their’ rules, out from the hovering, watchful eye of the Man and your mom and Mr. Wilson next door.” He adds, “If we worship the automobile it’s because it’s the glossy god that gives us our freedom.”[1]

This phenomena in our culture was highlighted by an article from The Onion entitled: “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.” There we read:

 CAMDEN, ME — Longtime acquaintances confirmed to reporters this week that local man Michael Husmer, an unambitious 29-year-old loser who leads an enjoyable and fulfilling life, still lives in his hometown and has no desire to leave.

 Claiming that the aimless slouch has never resided more than two hours from his parents and still hangs out with friends from high school, sources close to Husmer reported that the man, who has meaningful, lasting personal relationships and a healthy work-life balance, is an unmotivated washout who’s perfectly comfortable being a nobody for the rest of his life.

 “I’ve known Mike my whole life and he’s a good guy, but it’s pretty pathetic that he’s still living on the same street he grew up on and experiencing a deep sense of personal satisfaction,” childhood friend David Gorman said of the unaspiring, completely gratified do-nothing. “As soon as Mike graduated from college, he moved back home and started working at a local insurance firm. Now, he’s nearly 30 years old, living in the exact same town he was born in, working at the same small-time job, and is extremely contented in all aspects of his home and professional lives. It’s really sad.”[2]

 Robert Bellah and his team of sociologists have observed that Americans are quite enamored with the idea of ‘finding yourself,’ and it is thought that one can only do this on one’s own. In fact, this conception is one of the major things that people in our culture have in common. Bellah writes, “The idea we have of ourselves as individuals on our own, who earn everything we get, accept no handouts or gifts, and free ourselves from our families of origin turns out, ironically enough, to be one of the things that holds us together. Like other core elements of our culture, the ideal of a self-reliant individual leaving home is nurtured within our families, passed from parent to child through ties that bind us together in solitude as well as love.”[3]

 So young people are eager to get out on their own and onto the road. “It’s why getting your driver’s license is a coveted rite of passage, one of the only ones left in our culture.”[4] This is the only place, it is thought, that one can truly be oneself. It is the place of freedom, and therefore fulfillment.

 But is this picture accurate? Is the road really the place of freedom that we’ve made it out to be? Smith pokes a giant hole in this notion when he writes, “the road is already somebody else’s idea of where you should go. The highway is not a blank slate; it is a network of channels laid down where many others wore a path before. The irony is that even when you’re alone on the open road you’re following somebody.”[5] But even if we were truly trailblazing off into uncharted territory, moved solely by our own whims, is that an accurate view of what freedom is?

FREE OR FREE FALLIN’

Modern Western cultures have a tendency to define freedom primarily in negative terms. Freedom is the absence of constraint. “Freedom means, ‘Hands off, I’ve got this. I know what I want.’ I’ll know I’m free when I get to decide what’s good for me, when every choice is a blank check of opportunity and possibility.” It is the right “to be titillated, entertained, absorbed, all on one’s own terms.”[6]

This view of freedom was actually enshrined by the Supreme Court in the famous “Sweet Mystery of Life Statement” from the Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) ruling. In it, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared that "the heart of liberty" is to "define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe.” Notice here that “truth and meaning aren’t discovered but defined and created.”[7]

But is this view of freedom accurate, or even remotely helpful? Smith illustrates the point in this way: “When you’re swimming in a tiny aboveground pool at your cousin’s house and keep bumping up against the walls, you start wishing they weren’t there. But when, in your rambunctiousness, you succeed in knocking them down, you realize the pool didn’t get bigger: it just disappeared. You’re left in the soggy ruins.”[8] The elimination of boundaries for its own sake does not result in freedom, it merely leads to ruin.

In fact, freedom in the way that we typically conceive of it often leads to heartache. In Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, his main characters are ardently pursuing, you guessed it, freedom.[9] But this pursuit ultimately ends in self-pity. Franzen writes about his main character, Patty Berglund, “Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”[10]

Contrary to common conception, various psychological studies have demonstrated that more choice, in many circumstances, often leads to less satisfaction. Rebecca McLaughlin comments, “Our modern mantras teach us that freedom and happiness go hand in hand: just give us more choice and we will optimize! But extensive psychological data tells a different story. Some degree of freedom certainly enhances happiness, but too many options seem to deflate the balloon.”[11]

She describes encountering this idea through Harvard professor Dan Gilbert. He described a study in which subjects were allowed to choose a print from a selection of paintings. “Those who were told they could change their minds ended up less satisfied with their prints than those who made clear choices. This and many similar studies have shown that commitment, not unlimited choice, breeds happiness. Loosening commitment (e.g., telling the subjects they could come back any time in the next week and trade in their prints) decreases satisfaction, as does increasing choice beyond a certain point.”[12] Several other studies have demonstrated the same truth.[13]

DO YOU REALLY TRUST YOURSELF WITH YOURSELF?

 There is a deeper issue that causes us to be unsatisfied with our choices: the bondage of our wills. In his Confessions, Saint Augustine describes how he found himself imprisoned by his own choices. He said that, as a young man, he found himself in “servitude to passion.” He recalls being bound, “not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice.”[14] The “freedom” of the young Augustine was the “freedom” of an addict. In despair, he cries out to God, “Without you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?”[15]

 So often the things that we want are the worst things for us. This point was made powerfully in an article Cynthia Heimel wrote for the Village Voice back in the early 90’s. Over the years, she had come to know a lot of struggling actors and actresses who ‘made it’, they became famous. And according to her, that was one of the worst things that could have happened to them. She writes:

 "I pity [celebrities]. No, I do. [Celebrities] were once perfectly pleasant human beings . . . but now . . . their wrath is awful. . . . More than any of us, they wanted fame. They worked, they pushed. . . . The morning after . . . each of them became famous, they wanted to take an overdose . . . because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything okay, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and . . . happiness, had happened. And nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable… I think when God wants to play a really rotten practical joke on you, he grants your deepest wish."[16]

 So it is worth considering, “Do you really trust yourself with yourself?”[17]

 REAL FREEDOM = THE FREEDOM TO OBEY

 In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” In this verse, Paul addresses the nature of Christian freedom. He does this by quoting a slogan that was popular in the Corinthian church at the time. It is possible that this slogan was derived from some of Paul’s teachings, but they have clearly misunderstood the heart of what Paul was trying to say.

 Paul did speak a great deal about freedom. In Galatians 5:1 he wrote: “For freedom Christ has set us free”… He affirms time and  again, the wonderful reality of Christian liberty, we have been set free from the law, from sin, and from the power of death. Christians are free!

 The Christians in Corinth, however, appeared to have an unsophisticated view of freedom; they saw freedom merely as license to do whatever they pleased. Freedom was the absence of restrictions. But, as Tim Keller writes, “In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world produce greater power and scope for our abilities and a deeper joy and fulfillment.”[18]

We are creatures made in the image of God. As such, there is a reality to our nature that cannot and should not be ignored. God has designed us to live in accordance with his will. So, while we can say that the law no longer has power over us, it is no longer our judge because Jesus has fulfilled its requirements, we ignore God’s moral commands at our own peril. 

Though it may seem counterintuitive, true freedom comes through obedience. James Smith describes this as a paradox (or irony), especially for our culture which has been conditioned by “the myth of autonomy. who can imagine freedom only as freedom from…” According to Smith, true freedom “comes wrapped in the gift of constraint, the gift of the law, a command that calls us into being.” He continues:

“Such freedom doesn’t expand with the demolishing of boundaries or the evisceration of constraints; rather, it flourishes when a good will is channeled toward the Good by constraints that are gifts. That’s not the shape of a ho-hum life of rule-following; it’s an invitation to a life that is secure enough to risk, centered enough to be courageous, like the rails of a roller coaster that let you do loop after loop. It’s the grace that guards your being, the gift that gives you your self again.”[19]

 

[1] James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: a Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 59.

[2] “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown,” The Onion, October 18, 2017, https://local.theonion.com/unambitious-loser-with-happy-fulfilling-life-still-liv-1819575312.

[3] Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), Kindle, Chapter 3.

[4] Smith, 59.

[5] Ibid, 59-60.

[6] Ibid, 61.

[7] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), Kindle, Notes.

[8] Smith, 63.

[9] One review of this book insightfully comments, “‘Freedom’… a word that has been elevated throughout American history to near-theological status...” Sam Tanenhaus, “Peace and War,” The New York Times (The New York Times, August 19, 2010), https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/books/review/Tanenhaus-t.html.

[10] Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 181.

[11] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), Kindle, Chapter 8.

[12] Ibid.

[13] McLaughlin gives another illustration “At the trivial end of the spectrum…” She writes, “if someone is offered a large array of chocolates to choose from (say thirty, rather than six), he or she is less likely to choose or to be satisfied with the choice made.” Psychologist Barry Swhartz writes about this truth extensively in his book The Paradox of Choice. He discusses some of his findings in this podcast: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/91641-how-much-is-too-much.

[14] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998), 140.

[15] Ibid, 52.

[16] Reprinted in Cynthia Heimel, If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet? (New York: Grove, 1991), 13–14..

[17] Smith, 69.

[18] Keller, Kindle, Chapter 3.

[19] Smith, 70.

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