What does “freedom” mean?
I recently asked a group of high school students this question. After some discussion and reflection, they agreed on this definition: “Freedom is being able to do what you want without restraint.” In other words, the free person does whatever he or she wants without any person or law standing in their way.
Let’s break this down a bit. Look at the first part of the definition: Is the person who does what he or she wants actually free?
What about the second part of the definition? Is freedom doing what you want without restraint? Think about it: Are you more free if you bang on piano keys randomly or if you follow an instructor whose discipline guides you? The answer is obvious. The instructor helps you restrain your actions so you can use a piano as it was meant to be used. Discipline and restraint are necessary for producing beautiful music. Freedom comes from submitting to the right restraint, not from resisting restraint. This is why boundaries are necessary for true freedom.
According to the Christian worldview, true freedom is not a matter of doing what you want without restraint, but cultivating the right wants and living in obedience to God’s will. In other words, freedom results when our wants align with God’s will.
Does that mean freedom comes through self-determination? No! If you try to be obedient through your own effort you will fail. In fact, if you try to follow God’s commands in your own power, you will probably fail miserably. The Christian worldview uniquely teaches that we are incapable of living the Christian life in our own power. Sin has rocked us to the core.
Romans 3:9-12,19-20 says:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” …
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (ESV)
The secret to the Christian life—and what separates Christianity from other religions—is found in grace. When we acknowledge our own brokenness and inability to live as God wants us to, He transforms our hearts and lives.
Our strength comes in acknowledging our weakness and failure and depending on God.
A personal God changes everything.
Now let’s put a spin on our original question about what it means to be free: Since a personal God exists, does that change how we understand freedom? Do you think believing in God would make an individual feel more or less free?
Maybe you think believing in God adds guilt in this life or judgment when you die. And maybe you think God’s existence would make no significant difference in someone feeling free—except for the weight of the consequences that result from poor choices.
But the existence of a personal God changes everything.
The world is not a cosmic accident but is purposefully fashioned by a Creator. And the first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that God is the Creator (Genesis 1:1). Just like a car that has been designed to operate a certain way—and is only “free” when used accordingly—humans have also been created for a greater purpose and experience freedom when they discover and live that purpose.
This raises the question: What do you think God made us for? What is our purpose?
Genesis 1:26-27 says:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (ESV)
Let’s take this a step further. Scripture often mentions God being known by the people He created.
“And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
– Leviticus 26:12, ESV
“But let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 9:24, ESV
“I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”
– Jeremiah 24:7, ESV
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. – 1 John 3:1, ESV
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. – 1 John 4:10, ESV
Made for relationship
Scripture reveals that God made us for relationship with Him and with others. Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and love others (Mark 12). True freedom exists in healthy, intimate relationships with both God and other people. Therefore, the free and abundant life Jesus offers us can only be experienced through these committed relationships, rooted and grown in God’s intended design.
Throughout the creation story in Genesis, God consistently called His creation “good.” Yet there is one thing God said is not good: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” (Genesis 2:18, ESV).
We know God created us to be in relationship with Him, and we know Adam needed Eve to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). But God also made humans to be in relationship with other human beings. We are not meant to live in isolation. We are made to live in families and communities with other people.
Since we are made for relationships, then we can only be free through commitment and faithfulness. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, we live in a world of endless options. From consumer products, to music, to streaming TV, you can seemingly have what you want, when you want it, how you want it, and with whomever you want. So, why not give up on difficult relationships? And in terms of marriage, why commit to one person for life? Why limit yourself?
There is a comfort in knowing someone always has your back, whether it is a spouse when you are older or a close friend right now. True faithfulness and commitment assure us that someone won’t leave us at the first sign of trouble and that we will work through problems together.
Let’s revisit our original question: What does it mean to be truly free?
God invites each one of us to the freedom that comes from committing our lives to His purpose for us and loving other people in relationship. This is the only path to experiencing the truly rich life Jesus invited us to live.
This post was adapted from Sean McDowell’s new teen Bible study, Chasing Love.