Hemmed in By Freedom

True freedom feels like relief.

Stephanie Phillips / 6.16.22

Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope… (Zech 9:12)

The year I graduated from high school and entered, according to popular theory anyway, adulthood, was about the time I embarked on my own case study of freedom by moving out of my childhood home and into a college dorm, living among peers instead of with my parents. Navigating, for the first time of my life, the exponential growth of options available to me: sleeping when I wanted (not enough), eating what I wanted (too much), drinking what I wanted (way too much), dating whom I wanted (no comment). This was the same year Mel Gibson dressed as William Wallace and bellowed “FREEDOM!” through some blue-and-white face paint from atop a horse in the Scottish countryside. Prescient, Mel.

Since that time, freedom has taken several iterations: from pounding beers at night and sleeping in the next morning to moving from Alabama to New York to going to the bathroom without my children following me. It’s a concept I’ve been dwelling on especially the last few years, as my family has moved from the United States to Australia and we’re now dual citizens of countries that, I think it’s safe to say, perceive the idea differently. 

Freedom is tricky. To the Christian, it’s elemental. But what does it mean?

I submit that, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, that word doesn’t mean what I think it means, or at least what I thought it meant most of my life. For much of my formative years my focus steadily remained on everything I was free to do–on my individual rights: to drive without my parents, to stay up late, to drink alcohol, to vote. Now that I’m older, I fall into this same mindset when I grasp for the right to go to bed early, to read a book uninterrupted, to order takeout when I just can’t even. As a citizen of a nation that champions individual rights, I might be forgiven for thinking they alone make up freedom.

But wait! I’m the citizen of another country too! A country that champions the idea of mateship, a tenet of Australian character that The Australian National Dictionary defines as “the bond between equal partners or close friends; comradeship; comradeship as an ideal.” Which, to me, sounds to be pretty much the opposite of individualism? 

But wait again! I’m the citizen, finally, of something else entirely, something that transcends earthly countries and ideals: the kingdom of God. What does freedom mean there?

One thing I’m coming to realize with age is how much of freedom involves being free from things — what I’m free from doing. At times this liberation process would look at home in an episode of Stranger Things; that is to say, it’s not pretty. When I remained single for longer than I’d planned and moved to New York, I was freed from the idea that faith is an achievement-based transaction. When I finally met my husband (in New York) and we got married, I was freed from an existence in which my own demand for order solely propped up my sanity. When I became a mother, I was freed from … sleep? But also — from slavery to the idea that I had to create and mold the perfect children and be their perfect mother. Whoo boy, that pipe dream ended quick as I emotionally pole-vaulted into the worlds of postpartum depression and medicated anxiety and neurodivergence and disability and became aware of all the freedoms other, marginalized groups don’t have. Namely, the freedom to move about the world in safety while being totally themselves. 

Spiritually speaking, I’ve been freed from a life of having to prove myself and my worth. From having to earn my salvation. From the imperative and into the indicative. From the prescriptive into the descriptive. From church attendance, Bible-reading, or prayer being self-righteous acts of self-salvation (and becoming, instead, opportunities to receive grace and mercy). 

Last week, my younger son qualified for a local school cross country event, and he was nervous. He’d never competed here before and was surrounded by people who had. He was also not helped by the fact that he’s a people-pleaser and a perfectionist (he comes by it honestly; you’re welcome, son). I recalled the difference between Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: how one ran to justify his existence and, the other, to feel God’s pleasure. When my son and I arrived to the track, we heard another dad in his son’s ear screeching that he was a winner — a WINNER! I winced, looked down at Will, and told him that the only thing I wanted him to do was to have fun. Neither the other kid nor mine “won” the race, but one of them was smiling at the end of it as he headed toward McDonald’s. 

We believe in a God who, in his freest moment, hung on a cross. And I’m struck by how freedom, to me, is more and more revealed to be intertwined with sacrifice. For so much of my life I have regarded myself as a solitary unit rather than part of a greater whole. Freedom looked like whatever reduced the mystery in my life down to certainty, even as, week after week, I ate bread, drank wine, and spoke liturgy — sacraments full of mystery. Freedom looked like comfort until I was discomfited by grace into relationships defined by love. “The people of God are always going to be uneasily situated,” writes Fleming Rutledge. Is this freedom? 

Ultimately, yes. Because, I think, true freedom feels like relief: relief from having to protect ourselves, to exonerate ourselves, to prove ourselves, to justify ourselves. “I am not the Judge,” wrote Karl Barth. “Jesus Christ is the Judge. The matter is taken out of my hands. And that means liberation.” Freedom feels like relief, and it looks, I think, very much like love.

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