A FISH OUT OF WATER ISN’T FREE
Written by Doug Ponder on December 17, 2016
Does Christianity Make You Free?
Christianity is commonly criticized as being “oppressive” or “regressive” because it places limits on our freedom to believe or behave as we like. “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and so on. If we have to obey, then are we really free?
Past cultures generally understood that boundaries and limitations were intrinsic to all ways of life. (Even if they disagreed about which restrictions and constraints were good.) Yet today, the freedom to determine ‘what is right or wrong for me’ is considered one of the most basic human “rights” in our society. And that means Christianity seems like a straightjacket.
In our cultural climate any command seems like an imposition of unwanted authority. Part of the problem, of course, is that sinners like us never like being told what to do. Some things never change. But what has changed is the (problematic) way we now think about freedom.
Freedom Is Different Than You Think
Simply put, we tend to think that freedom is the absence of restrictions or boundaries. However, this is not an accurate or helpful definition. In fact, many times restrictions and boundaries are found on the path to freedom from various kinds of slavery.
For example, a person in the deepest throes of alcoholism or addiction to hard drugs has lost any meaningful sense of freedom to say “no” to another drink or another high. The freedom or power to say “no” only begins to reemerge for them when they live under new boundaries, restrictions, and constraints—even if placed on them against their will (e.g., court appointed rehab).
Or consider another example. Suppose that two people are falling from a plane. One is wearing a parachute, with all its straps and buckles and belts, while the other is free falling without a parachute of any kind. Sensing the weight of the parachute and the tightness of the straps, the first person will feel more constrained than the second. Meanwhile the second person, unencumbered by a heavy parachute pack, will feel freer than the first. But the second person is actually much less free: he is a slave to gravity, and he is at the mercy of the ground when his body slams into it.
One last example. A fish is made for the water, having gills that absorb oxygen from water and not from the air. This means a fish is only free (to eat, to swim, to live) if he remains inside the boundaries of his watery home. A fish out of water isn’t free—it’s dead.
All these examples make the same point: true freedom is not the absence of restrictions, boundaries, or constraints. In fact, restrictions, boundaries, and constraints actually work to preserve our humanity when they work in accordance with our nature.
Where to Go from Here
The crucial question is: which boundaries, restrictions, and constraints are good and right and true? The Christian answer is “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
God loves and then commands. Or, working back from the law to the love of God, he commands because he loves. Just as any good parent must tell their child “no” for the child’s own safety and development, God’s laws, commands, and designs are intended “for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). They are a gift to help us know right from wrong, to keep societies in check, and to illuminate our unceasing need for his love and forgiveness. (For when we fail to keep God’s commands, as we all do on a daily basis, the need for his saving grace is never clearer.)
Two Ways to Miss God’s Love
There are then two critical mistakes people make at this point. The first is to ignore God’s laws and commands because they challenge your authority and place boundaries on your freedom. But trying to live against the grain of God’s world never works well for anyone, since we really are made by God and for God. Rebellion against the wisdom and love of our Creator is thus an act of futility and a recipe for frustration, dejection, and death. A fish out of water isn’t free—it’s dead. We were made for the waters of God’s love. We cannot find true life apart from him.
The other critical mistake some people is thinking that since God’s laws are given in love, keeping them is the way to receive God’s love. But Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). He did not say, “If you want me to love you, then you better keep my commandments.” That’s because the love of God for us is not based on anything we are or do. It is based purely and entirely on who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus. His love flows freely from the cross to meet lawbreakers of every kind, offering forgiveness for all wrongs and freedom from slavery to sinful desires.
And this freedom is found, counterintuitively, in becoming a “slave of Christ.” Which is just another away of saying that we thought we were free when we did as we pleased, but we were actually slaves to our deadly desires. But now, by the power of the gospel of grace, we have been set free to follow Jesus. We obey him because we love him. And we love him because he first loved us. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for also that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised for their sake” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.