When I first started intentionally following Christ – or trying to, at least – one of the first things my best friend taught me about the Christian life was, “If it doesn’t bring freedom, it’s not from the Lord.” This sounded too good to be true to me, who had grown up in a high-stacks, accomplishment-is-paramount culture where kids not only had to be involved in every possible extra-curricular activity, but they had to be the best at each, too, all while maintaining a perfect GPA. This set peers up to be competitors rather than cooperators and scares kids into believing that if they don’t start achieving now, they’ll never amount to anything in life. Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park, which is named after a neighborhood next to the one I grew up in, sums it up – albeit with some strong language – nicely in his interview with Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Whatever you think about the movie as a whole, Matt Stone’s explanation of Littleton is true to my experience of it. And none of this helped my already debilitating social anxiety any.
Or my stress levels: I graduated from high school 29th out of 777 – and the only reason I remember this, even though it was ten years ago now, is because it was not in the top ten (being in the top ten percent wasn’t good enough). I was in the jazz band (which was hard to get into) but another girl in my class started a flute choir our senior year – one upped again. I was a National Honor Society Tutor but I wasn’t that strong in math – I only helped five students per week instead of the possible nine or ten. If I wasn’t busy after school one afternoon, I felt guilty for not doing enough. I’ve not grown out of this: “busy” is not only the new “fine;” it’s also the new way to measure self esteem.
The Church as a whole, it seems, has been swept up by this achievement-driven approach to life. Beyond simply measuring “growth” in numbers, the pressure to “do more for God” is in the air. This is probably not intentional on the Church’s part, but I’ve felt guilty for not serving “more,” being “more” involved. Many people have had the fear of hell seared into them if they don’t do good works. Because we’ll never know how much “more” or “enough” is, our motivation for serving and loving others becomes fear. But God’s heart isn’t a place you serve your way into, it’s a place you serve from, the knowledge that you are the Beloved child of God and part of the Body of Christ, knowledge that, as Henri Nouwen says, we have to get deep into our being, deeper than our intellects .
When John writes in 8:36, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed,” I also understood that to be free from sin. Only Christ can save, right, so this freedom Christ offers must be from sin, the propensity to sin and death. But it seems that Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:17, is taking about something else when he writes, “Now where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” In Romans 8:15, Paul is explicit about what he means: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'” This freedom is not just from sin – and not even just for good works – but for sonship and daughtership of Abba God. We are set free from bondage to decay in order to become children of the King – one of the bondages to decay is the striving to serve out of fear.
“It is for freedom we’re set free” Paul writes in Galatians 5:1. Christ freely laid down His life – no one took it from Him but He gave it up willingly (John 10:18). I want Christ’s freedom to mean my freedom, not my slavery. Being “slaves to Christ” (Ephesians 6:6) does not mean that we simply switch out masters – sin for salvation – once we accept His cleansing blood. It means that our fear is exchanged for love. There is no fear in love, “but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) – in other words, what good we do “for Christ” we do in Christ. We don’t do it to earn love and salvation; we do it out of love and salvation.
The “light burden/easy yoke” (Matthew 11:30) is the service and love that is free from fear. We are set free for the freedom that is not having to fear not doing or serving “enough” to earn love and salvation. It is for freedom we’re set free: the freedom of knowing we are God’s Beloved without having done a thing for it (there was no need, really: Christ died while we were yet sinners [Romans 5:8]). It is for freedom that we’re set free…and the rest of that verse: “…therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). The only “master” we are to have is love; the only “slaves” we are to be are to each other (Galatians 5:13). When we are all set free by the Son, such slavery is freedom indeed.