What the Apostle Paul Means by Freedom

The apostle’s view runs counter to that of most Americans.

 Two years ago when I published my study guide to the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I titled it Charter of Christian Freedom. I did so because Christians have long regarded Galatians as a powerful statement about the freedom Christ has conferred upon believers.

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The apostle’s point comes through most boldly in Galatians 5:1:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This verse is Paul’s gospel claim within the sphere of public debate. It could be printed on posters and mounted prominently in every church.

It is easy, however, to pervert Paul’s message if we do not take time to understand what he means by freedom. We especially do so when we Americans bring to Paul our own prevailing understanding of freedom.

The Common American Understanding of Freedom

When America issued its Declaration of Independence in 1776, it stated that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ever since Americans have made liberty one of their most cherished—if not the greatest–values.

But what does freedom mean to most Americans today? When I hear my fellow citizens talk about freedom, I get the sense that what freedom means for them is license to do whatever they please. No external compulsive power is able to tell us what to do or how to live.

Nothing—whether government regulation, social convention, institutional authority, or family pressure—blocks us from doing whatever we want to do. Our home is our individual castle which presides over our own world of individual sovereignty. This concept of freedom, I believe, lies at the core of a lot of libertarian as well as identity politics.

The problem is: How do you maintain a wholesome social order with this understanding of freedom? For this concept of freedom remains essentially ego-centric. What counts in the end is my ability to do what I please. The momentum behind such a concept of freedom is the drive to fulfill my own self-interest, my own well-being and prosperity.

The ego-centrism may not just be confined to individual persons. It can also characterize groups and societies as corporate individuals. And so we can find that ethnic or religious groups can make the advancement of their own well-being the primary focus of their energies. Likewise, nations can say all that really counts in international relations is each country following its own national self-interest.

Finding Our Way in Such a World of Freedom

 How do we negotiate our way in such a context of freedom? Usually by two options. One is competition. All free individuals are in competition with one another. In competition, conflict is resolved when one party wins and all others lose. It tends to be a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose.

It was the fundamental assumption of ancient Greek society, the society in which Paul’s readers and listeners had grown up. Greek city states presumed that strife (eris)– strife between states, between social classes, between individuals–was the natural condition of life.

Paul recognizes the perils of this understanding of freedom when he warns his readers:

If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:15).

 That was abundantly fulfilled in the history of ancient Greece. All the rival city states fought each other incessantly, as each individual state sought to achieve hegemony within the Greek world. In the process they weakened each other so much that when Macedonian imperial power invaded Greece, no city state could successfully resist such integrated power.

The other negotiating option is compromise. But to someone who prizes his or her self-interest above all other values, compromise can feel distasteful. I have to moderate my own desires and needs by accommodating to the desires and needs of others. That can feel like I am settling for second best, not the best. We find this distaste for compromise among many extremist groups today.

Paul’s Concept of Freedom

So what does Paul mean by freedom? I think we get at his concept of freedom in Galatians 5:13-14:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Freedom for Paul is the experience of being liberated or released from our dominating ego-centrism. It removes all the obstacles that keep us from being the people God created us to be, from living the life that God calls us to live. That life embraces two important tasks:

  • To recognize, develop, and use our God-given gifts, talents, and skills for God’s glory and for service to others, and
  • To give ourselves in love to others and to receive their love and service in return without impediment.

Paradoxically when we live into such love and service to others, we find ourselves becoming most fully the individuals that God created each of us to be uniquely. Our own personal fulfillment is the unexpected by-product of this paradoxical freedom.

Obstacles to Freedom

The obstacles that keep us from experiencing such freedom may be many. They can be:

  • Psychological hang-ups,
  • Social prejudice,
  • Family or societal expectations,
  • Paralyzing feelings of guilt or shame,
  • Distorted thinking,
  • Political or economic oppression,
  • Ethnic or religious discrimination,
  • Spiritual woundedness,
  • Physical diseases and disabilities.

Especially potent obstacles for Paul are spiritual forces at work in the world. Paul refers to them in passing in Galatians 4:3, when he speaks of “the elemental spirits of the world.” Elsewhere he will call them the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Today we might describe them as the systemic structures, mindsets, and expectations that govern the way the world operates.

They are so deadly to human freedom that Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:10-12:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Life can be full of obstacles that keep us from being the unique persons God calls us to be. That is what the work of God’s salvation is all about, setting us free from all these obstacles.  Salvation is all about liberation. That is clear from the Exodus story, which becomes the paradigm for all of God’s future works of salvation.

When we enter fully into this kind of freedom—the freedom for which Christ has set us free–we can be truly spontaneous in our way of living, for our whole being will be governed by the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. It is at the same time a responsible freedom. It takes seriously God’s call to respect the dignity and value of all others, including even the natural creation.

When we enter into this kind of freedom, we can finally live without a spiritual or psychological hang-up the counsel that St Augustine gave his congregation centuries ago:

Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt….*

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* St. Augustine, Seventh Homily on 1 John 4:4-12

Promise or Delusion?

How are we to take the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a new Jerusalem?

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Vision of the new Jerusalem, as envisioned by the French artist Gustave Doré, 1890

I’ve been reading my way through the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah. The prophets are full of denunciations of sin and forewarnings of divine judgment. But chapter 62 of Isaiah is very different. It is a magnificent vision of a new Jerusalem that God promises to create in the future.

It is a glowing vision. The prophet describes the restored city as a crown and diadem in the hand of God. The city will be renowned in the earth. Gentiles, who have oppressed the city, will now serve it. They will harvest the grain and grapes to feed the city’s residents, who will be called The Holy People.

The prophet in fact describes the city in the metaphor of a bride, decked out in all her jewels and finery. For the city will have been restored into a loving relationship with God, who is described in the metaphorical language of a bridegroom. The city that was once described as Forsaken and Desolate will now be called My Delight and Married.*

The passage is a beautiful note of consolation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon.** They need not despair. Their exile is not the last word from God. What lies ahead of them is a glorious future, when all their misery will be transformed into joy.

My spirit flares up when I read the passage, just as the prophet describes Zion’s vindication shining out like the dawn. It gives me a hopeful heart.

A question, however, lurks in the background of my thoughts. When is this future that the prophet so lovingly proclaims? How should I as the reader understand the timing of that future?

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There are various options for understanding the prophet’s words. When the prophet spoke these words, he may well have expected that the glorious restoration of Zion lay in the near future. That’s why his words could be such a consolation to the discouraged exiles.

Is he saying to the exiles: Buck up! This exile is not going to last long. You will soon return to Zion, but when you do, you will return to a glorious city that will reverse all the conditions of life that you are now experiencing.

If that is what the prophet assumed the inspired words meant when he spoke them, then he was wrong. Yes, Jews would return from exile under the Persian emperor Cyrus and rebuild the city.

But the city they rebuilt was a shabby provincial city that the wider world would have largely ignored. We know from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as from the prophetic books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi that life in this new Jerusalem was pretty precarious and demoralizing for a long time.

If this was the time frame that the prophet had in mind, then his words were not ultimately words of consolation, but words that fostered a great disappointment.

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But, of course, the prophet is never precise in identifying the timing he has in mind. For this reason, many Biblical scholars will argue that what the prophet is expressing is an eschatological vision. The Greek word eschaton means end, in the sense of terminal end. So eschatological has become an adjective that scholars apply to any talk about The End in the sense of the end of history.

The prophet then is describing a vision of Zion that will be realized when history comes to its grand and glorious conclusion. The eschaton will not only be the end as finis of history. It also represents the divine goal, the fulfillment, to which God has been ceaselessly working through all the complex forces of history. Yet it is an end whose locus will still be on the earth.

If this is how we are to read the vision, then its fulfillment has yet to come. Nothing so far that has happened in the history of Jerusalem has fulfilled the promise. The fulfillment lies yet ahead in an indeterminate future.

If we read the prophecy in this way, we understand that the prophet is holding out an existential consolation to the exiles in their present misery. But the consolation depends upon an indeterminate future date that may be far in the future beyond their own deaths and the deaths of their descendants. How well did this word console a people trapped in their daily struggle to survive in an alien land?

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A variation of this eschatological vision is the interpretation that what the prophet offers is a vision of heaven. Here is, yes, an eschatological vision, but the eschaton has been moved from the end of history to eternity. It is a description of life that will be fulfilled in eternity. This was a favored interpretation of medieval monks who looked forward longingly to that life after death that would be ours in Jerusalem the Golden, that is, heaven itself.***

In this interpretation the prophet’s words are words of consolation not just to the Jewish exiles in 6thcentury B.C. Babylon. They are inspiring words for all humanity. They open up to us a breath-taking cosmic vision. And so the prophet’s words remain an eternal divine promise. We can count on it because God is always faithful to his promises.

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 Or lastly we might read the prophet’s vision not as inspired expression but as just plain wishful thinking. He longs to speak a word of consolation to his dispirited compatriots. A vision of the glorious future of their ruined, devastated city might have seemed just what everyone needed. But is it grounded in any reality? Is it not just a cruel delusion?

I confess that I don’t know which of these options I find most persuasive. I like those that seem to nurture faith and confidence. Yet doubt creeps around the edges and raises pesky questions.

The Dance of Doubt and Faith

And isn’t that exactly the experience of a life of faith? We hear the promises of God spoken in Scripture. We take confidence in living because of those promises. And yet the circumstances of our lives as they unfold constantly call that confidence into question. Could all the promises we hear be in the end delusions?

Blaise Pascal famously described faith as taking a bet on God. I have placed my bet on God and his promises. But that does not mean that my faith ever completely silences the whispers of doubt. Doubt and faith dance together. And in the end we live by faith, not by certainty.

I’m curious how any of you my readers deal with  the questions that a passage like Isaiah 62 raise for me. If you would like to share your thoughts, I would welcome hearing from you.

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* The Hebrew words of My Delight and Married are the words Hephzibah and Beulah. Isaiah 62 is the source for what were once quite common names for women in the English-speaking world. I myself had an aunt who was named Beulah.

** I understand the prophet speaking in Isaiah 62 to not be the 8th century prophet under King Hezekiah, but an anonymous prophet, probably in Babylon, of the late 6th century B.C.

*** One of the most soaring descriptions of heaven as Jerusalem the Golden is found in the 12thcentury Latin poem De Contemptu Mundi  by the Cluniac monk Bernard. It reads:

Jerusalem the Golden,

With milk and honey blest,

Beneath thy contemplation

Sink heart and voice oppressed.

I know not, O I know not,

What social joys are there,

What radiancy of glory,

What light beyond compare!

The passage has inspired a number of Christian hymns that we regularly sing in church.