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Unlocking the Chains of Freedom

By Trevor Atwood, pastor of City Church, Murfreesboro, TN

“The excess of liberty… seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”
-Plato, The Republic

“Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon the will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” – Edmund Burke, Letter to a Member of the National Assembly of France, 1791

“The first condition of freedom is its limitation. Make it absolute and it dies in chaos.”- Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History

“Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves.”- St. Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, 1 Peter 2:16 (CSB)

I know what you are thinking, “What do Plato and Edmond Burke have to teach me about embracing my limitations?” To figure that out you will have to come along for the journey. But to cut to the chase, in this article I’m going to try and get to the heart of why it is we have such a hard time embracing limitations. And I’m going to suggest our fundamental problem is a flawed view of freedom. That flawed view not only undercuts our ability to minister to our people; it actually leads us to live out the very patterns in our own lives that we are trying to lead others away from. The good news is that this flawed view is unraveling and as it does we have a tremendous opportunity for gospel ministry.

The American and French Revolution happened at nearly the same time in history. Both the Americans and the French would tell you that they were fighting for their freedom. But, there is a big difference in what they meant by “freedom”.

The Americans were known as reluctant revolutionaries. Even though they certainly were trying to get out from underneath the British king’s oppression, they weren’t so much rejecting authority, as trying to hold that authority to operating within its own standards. The founding fathers of America (a blend of Christians, deists, and naturalists) universally agreed that they needed government authority over them. Thomas Jefferson, himself a deist, admitted that Judeo-Christian morals were essential to having a well-governed, prosperous society. In short, they believed that freedom needed restraint.

The French Revolution operated on a different understanding of freedom. Their freedom was a desire to remove all authority- to get rid of power altogether. These revolutionaries wanted to level out the playing field and give power to the sovereign individual. The French weren’t reluctant about their revolution, so they became bloodthirsty. But neither of these revolutions happened in a single day. They built slowly: the result of ideas and philosophies.

The French revolution was built on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who famously begins his Social Contract with the line “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” By this, Rousseau was saying that humans are born in a pure state, and it is the fault of outside influences that restrain us, keeping us from our original free identity–our true selves. This is a negative view of freedom.

Freedom comes from removing things from the “original” me. In order to free the “real me”, I need to remove all outer constraints and let the inner person out. To come at it from a Disney angle: Elsa needs to “let it go”. Moana needs to stop letting her community define her. She needs to get out there and explore to really discover who she is.

But the American Revolution was more deeply influenced by the quotes you read at the beginning of this article. Plato said that the more negative freedom you have, the closer you are to slavery. Edmund Burke warned a member of the French National Assembly in the wake of the revolution, that without something to restrain them, the French people would become enslaved to their passions. Those quotes stand in stark contrast to Rousseau and the chaotic French Revolution, which paved the way for the bloody dictatorship of Napoleon.

So, where does God come down on freedom?

Jesus said that rest for our souls is found in taking up his yoke (teaching) (Matthew 11:28-29). It comes from receiving his words from outside of us. He said that life comes for those who deny themselves for his sake (Matt. 16:24-25). Peter said that freedom expresses itself in submission to serve God and others (1 Peter 2:15-17).

Over the last 250 years, America has moved away from this biblical understanding of freedom on which it was founded. It has instead embraced a French Revolution understanding of freedom.

This presents the 21st century American church with challenges, to be sure. But, to an even greater degree, it presents us with an opportunity. The scent of revival is in the air. Revival occurs when repentance spreads. Repentance happens when our plans for self-salvation fail us. The negative view of freedom is already failing.

Consider the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Throwing off sexual restraints promised a new kind of freedom. But is America flourishing sexually? Porn addictions, the long-term effects of no-fault divorce, and the #metoo movement have exposed “sexual liberty” as slavery.

Consider the advent of the Internet and smartphones. The Internet promised a way to give power to the little guy. Smart phones promised a rise of individual expression and self-crafted news feeds. Yet, like the serpent whispered to Eve, “You shall not surely die”- they were half-truths. While the internet has given a voice to individuals, those voices have been siloed and used to create large groups of consumers for Amazon to sell to. The smartphone has turned individuals into a set of data to package together and manipulate via advertising through intentionally addictive apps. Just take a look at the people in any grocery line or waiting room, heads bent over their phones, addictively bowing as a herd to the “freedom” of Big Data. Suicide rates skyrocketed in 2007, and have continued an upward trend to date. Also new that year? The iPhone.

The secular idea of freedom and salvation is failing. The counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ, once for all delivered by the apostles, carried out into the world by the wind of the Spirit on the breath of the church, will once again ring as “good news” to a world in chains.

Andy Crouch wrote in his book Culture Making, “The academic fallacy is that once you have understood something–analyzed and critiqued it — you have changed it…The only way to change culture is to create more of it.” So, while we could continue to analyze and critique gender fluidity, singularity, sex with robots, identity politics, social media use, the 2020 elections or some other pertinent cultural issues…

I think we’re all better served by addressing the culture that Christians and pastors can create together to better receive and minister to those enslaved by secular understanding of freedom.

Here are four biblically grounded, culture-creating, and cultivating actions that we should be doing right now.

  1. Spend energy quietly developing your inner life, instead of projecting an image.

When pastors spend their trying to appeal to the secular understanding of freedom, we end up posting on Facebook or Instagram about how exciting our services are. We try to convince people that if they come to church they will finally have the liberating experience they have been looking for. We can tend to make Jesus one of many exciting options in a world built on consumption.

But if your Facebook video is right under a girl twerking and right above a cat video in someone’s feed, you may well be reducing the gospel to that level. As Neil Postman notes in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the medium becomes the message. In a loud culture, more loud messaging does not disrupt. It does not stand out. In a loud culture of where self-expression is everywhere, it is quiet that disrupts. Humility becomes (and always is) attractive.

In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted by Satan to project an image of himself to the watching world- “Take a dive off the temple pinnacle, and somebody will surely post it Instagram. You’ll go viral when folks see the angels catch you. And, after all, it’s biblical (Psalm 91). It will reach a lot more people than just hanging out here in this desert can ever reach. Don’t you want to reach people, Jesus? Isn’t that what it’s all about?” Yet, Jesus constantly deferred viral fame. He pushed crowds away. His hour had not yet come. And that “hour” was not being lifted up as a celebrity, but being lifted up on a cross- deserted, denied, and dying.

Jesus spent 30 years in anonymity, began his ministry by walking away from the crowds for 40 days to face the temptation that we failed, and then spent the next three years focused on a cross. During that three years he withdrew from the crowds in order to properly engage them. He spent more time developing his inner life than crafting his image.

  • Pastor, why do you post videos of your own sermons?
  • Pastor, how have you intentionally moved away from celebrity and into wilderness?
  • Pastor, how are you developing your inner life?
  • How are you limiting your own freedom to project an image, and instead using that freedom to submit yourself to God and others?

2. Become a Non-anxious presence by practicing the presence of God.

Our current cultural moment is calling us be gods. We think we can be omnipresent and omniscient through texting or Facebook-stalking. Yet, as humans, we are unable to handle the pressure of Godhood. Instead, we have become anxious, depressed, and overworked.

In all this anxiety, people are looking for someone sober-minded. This is a biblical qualification of an elder given in 1 Timothy 3:3. People are looking for a non-anxious presence in the midst of turbulent times. Think of Jesus sleeping on the boat with his disciples in the middle of a storm. They were freaking out, but Jesus was resting.

Yet, so many of us pastors are FULL of anxiety. Some of us, more anxious than those we are called to serve, because we aren’t caring for the inner life. Pastors are called to be EMTs. Can you imagine have one of your limbs severed in a terrible car accident, then the ambulance shows up, the EMT approaches and all he says, “OH MY GOD! This is terrible! What are we going to do? This is terrible!”. Then he begins to vomit uncontrollably before he passes out. That doesn’t help–at all. A trained EMT shows up on the scene with calming words and a sober mind. One that doesn’t make promises he can’t keep, yet still reassures and goes to work to do the next, right, lifesaving thing.

As pastors, we can’t freak out. We must be a non-anxious presence in the midst of an anxious people chained to their broken self-salvation attempts. And that sober-minded presence can only happen if we ourselves are practicing the presence of God. Reading Scripture. Meditating on Scripture. Silence and solitude. Praying for more than lists of requests.

  • Pastor, when was the last time you sat for an hour without no earbuds in and no book in your hand and asked God to speak?
  • Pastor, how often do you meet with God that isn’t tied to meeting with your staff or a person you are leading.
  • Pastor, are you anxious? Are you the EMT or the patient?

3. Love people through their suffering, by showing up in person.

Suffering isn’t a distraction from ministry. It is the ministry. Suffering isn’t a set back in discipleship. It is discipleship. This means we need to be with people in suffering. This means we need to stop trying to pastor people on Facebook.

If we are embodied people, we have limitations, and those limitations need to recognized. People are craving embodied ministry in a disembodied world. You know what this means? You might not grow as rapidly as you hoped. But the people with whom you endure suffering will make deep commitments to the local, embodied church. They will make real commitments, covenants. And they will turn into a force for the Kingdom of God. The book of Acts follows the Gospels. Pentecost comes after the cross.

The negative view of freedom believes that suffering itself is a sin. That the fastest way out of suffering, the most immediate fix, is always the best. It has no patience for outside forces restraining its self-expression. This idea tempts us to walk away from the “hard cases” and embrace the “low hanging fruit”. But Jesus calls us into suffering with him. He says that as we serve the least of these, we serve him.

To minister to an anxious people as they endure suffering, not only deepens our relationship with our Father, it helps those we minister to see a God who does not abandon them when they become “useless” to his cause.

  • Pastor, do you prioritize hospital visits?
  • Pastor, how quickly do you dismiss the hurting because they are a nuisance to you and slow down your church’s growth?

4. Become “Veterans of Creative Suffering.”Live cruciform.

Martin Luther King, Jr’s most famous speech is known by the phrase “I Have a Dream”. But to get that beautiful dream of racial harmony in America, he first set the expectation that the suffering was not over for those who shared his dream. He told people to go back into the very painful, violent, and degrading situations they faced in their cities. He called them “veterans of creative suffering”.

That is a beautifully paradoxical phrase. The revolution was going to come not from making their oppressors suffer, but from enduring suffering to the point that it creates a new culture. Sacrifice is hard to argue with. And it honors God.

Jesus’ entire life was pointed toward creative suffering–a cross that would liberate. In the Great Commission (Matt 28:20), before Jesus sends his disciples into the world to lay down their lives to make more disciples, he gives them a word of comfort. “All authority in heaven and earth have been given to me…and I am always with you.”

True freedom is not found in throwing off authority and expressing ourselves. True freedom is found in submitting to the only authority who suffered to create a people, and a world, and who did it for the purpose of being with us.

Our lives are forfeit to this God and to this cause. Therefore, no disciples will be made, no churches will flourish, without us, the pastors, following in the cruciform steps of our Master. The future of the church depends not on our social media strategies or cultural appeal, but on our willingness to become veterans of creative suffering.

This article is an excerpt from a collection of talks from our 2019 Summit Collaborative Retreat about what it looks like for us to run with pace, to build strength for long-term movement. You can download the entire book for free below.

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