Who Is Truly Free?

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Submitting to reality is the first step in finding freedom. This is why truth is so important! We are free to believe what we want, but we are not free to change reality.

One of the quickest ways to find out if someone is secular or Christian in their thinking is to ask how they define freedom. I often ask this to my students and the typical answer is, “Freedom means being able to do whatever you want without restrictions,” or something of that sort. In other words, freedom is having ultimate individual autonomy without being controlled by another. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant said the characteristic feature of modern man is the trust he places in his own reasoning as opposed to some external authority or tradition.

According to this definition, freedom is understood entirely as freedom from something. There is certainly something to be said for being free from tyrannical rulers or oppression. Those who have lived under communism knew the harsh reality of dictatorships. But is this all freedom entails? Ironically, it’s actually restriction of our time and talents that leads to genuine freedom.

If someone wants to be a good flute player, she must choose to practice for many hours. She must limit herself in order to be free to play the flute. Choosing to practice the flute puts a restriction on other things she may desire to do. If you have the natural aptitude, it takes time and discipline to release that potential. In other words, you cannot freely play the flute without limitations. That means restrictions actually set you free!

This does not mean we all have equal aptitudes. Some are better suited for sports and others for music (or something else). For someone with little athletic skills to spend hours training for basketball may be more restricting than liberating. In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller captures this point beautifully:

“Disciplines and restraints, then, liberate us only when they fit with the reality of our nature and capacities. A fish, because it absorbs oxygen from water rather than air, is only free if it is restricted and limited to water. If we put it in the grass, its freedom to move and even live is not enhanced, but destroyed. The fish dies if we do not honor the reality of its nature” (p. 46).

Submitting to reality, then, is the first step in finding freedom. This is why truth is so important! We are free to believe what we want, but we are not free to change reality. The fool bumps his head up against reality, whereas the wise person embraces it. This is why Jesus said you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).

And this is why the doctrine of creation is so bitterly opposed. If God created us then reality is purposeful. Just as there is a purpose for a pen, a car, or a building, there is a purpose for human beings. And we are only free when we find that purpose and live accordingly. There is a purpose for work, family, marriage, sex, and everything else in creation. We can choose to deny these purposes, but such choices come at a cost—they bring slavery, not freedom. The truly free person understands truth and has the capacity to live it out.

But if there is no God, then man decides truth. There is no purpose for the world and we can do whatever we feel like. If God does exist (as the external evidence and our hearts tell us), then we can only be free if we live according to His plan. This seems to be the question that it always boils down to: Is God the authority or are we?

Some of my skeptical friends like to refer to themselves as freethinkers. But, ironically, they are the least free. They reject the very source of their capacity to reason! So, who is truly free? It’s those who embrace the right restrictions and have the capacity to live it out. It’s those who embrace truth.

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