How does faith reshape our appetite for freedom?
Freedom has been a human ambition from Adam and Eve onward. It’s ironic, given our deep reliance on others: in being birthed and raised; in learning; in work, family, and daily needs; and in our final interment. There is a healthy impulse to leave home to enter into adult life, but a distorted form of independence follows Adam’s fallen desire to be like God. Jesus confronted this when he said, “for apart from me you can do nothing…” We need him as creatures, relying on our creator and sustainer. As spiritual souls who need Christ’s Spirit, life, and love.
God created Adam as a relational gardener, with Eve as his partner. But in his fall Adam rejected God’s words, quenched the Spirit, and brought about a curse on the earth. In his rebellious freedom from God he became a vine without a trellis; naked and ashamed; self-focused, and isolated. And he blamed both God and his wife for his collapse.
Jesus, fulfilling the promise of Genesis 3:15, brought God’s restoration. As both God’s Son and as true man Jesus was fully reliant on the Father and fully engaged with the Spirit. In sharing his life through the Spirit he restores us by new creation into what Adam discarded by his unfaith.
This broad context invites us to see faith as a return to life with God. By faith we’re set free from sinful enslavements. Our addictions lose their grip through an inward metamorphosis—of being raised to stand upright in Christ. The tempter promised freedom, but he actually deceived, crippled, and devoured souls. Faith, in turn, allows us to grow into what we were made to be. We get to engage our place as beloved children and Christ’s bride. We grow to be Christlike.
Idolatrous individualism opposes such faith with the willful fiction of self-sufficiency. Even though humans actually live as mutually reliant threads in a social fabric. Our deeply enmeshed lives expose selfish ambitions as impractical. We agree, for instance, to stand in line when we buy our food. We give away secrets when we apply for loans. And we share deep intimacies in marriage. Society, in other words, prospers through interdependence.
Independence also employs a middle form of faithlessness. Religious activities and political parties can give faithless souls a form of religion without actual substance. Either strong political identities, or socially contrived alternatives to god, can provide practical independence from the true God. So, while authentic faith displays selfless love, an avid individualist can still find socially accepted forms of selfishness by using artificial religion-like structures.
One bold example of semi-religious devotion in the last century was Ayn Rand’s “selfism.” Rand, a brilliant soul, elevated intelligence to be an ultimate virtue—an implied form of deity. She then labeled less able people as “parasites” who were expected to rely on elite intellectuals for their directions in life. The project failed when elites fought with each other, and “parasites” rejected their assigned roles.
Friedrich Nietzsche was an even earlier figure who set out “will-to-power” as an antireligious pathway for society. In his view the most forceful personalities win the day. Hitler embraced this, but it failed when Allied armies blocked him. And millions died in the argument. Yet self-made gods and new versions of “freedom” still prosper as the natural fruit of an ambition to be “free.”
Let’s return to the imagery of a trellis. By God’s design everyone needs inner “soul-structures” for upright growth. God made us in his image as spiritual and loving beings, with values and desires to shape our actions. But after the fall Paul spoke of two heads in humanity: of Adam and Jesus. Both men were once tested by the tempter. Satan invited them to embrace “good” choices. Yet his options were outside the ways and words of the Father. So while Adam and Eve embraced—“ate”—a forbidden fruit, Jesus rejected three tests by holding fast to God’s words.
Paul had this contrast in mind in Romans 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” He treated the Son’s overt dependence on the Father as the pathway to human restoration.
With this contrast in view we reach a key moment: Jesus came to destroy Satan’s work. As Peter told the temple rulers after Christ’s resurrection, “you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” [Acts 3:35]. For the people of faith Jesus swallowed death. So the church, his bride, depends on him for eternal life. Martin Luther spoke of this as “the great exchange” of marriage. Jesus, the bridegroom, takes on his bride’s sins and gives her his holiness.
Now let’s consider true freedom, and dismiss Satan’s distorted claims. The God of the Bible reveals his own plural oneness: the “let us” of triune unity determined to “make man in our image.” Man was bonded by the Spirit pouring out the Father-and-Son love into faithful hearts. God’s purpose is for us to be free within his creation purposes. To be what we’re made to be.
And against God’s freedom Satan seeks to define humans in his own image, as autonomous agents. His aim is to be a singular force, wholly independent, and over the ages many have embraced this. Aristotle, for one, used it in viewing God as the “unmoved Mover.” When the true, triune God, exists in his overflowing communion of love.
A lightbulb offers us a modern and simple analogy as we think of purpose and freedom. A bulb is meant to light rooms. Yet it needs a live electric socket to work. And we have our own purpose. In the Bible we read, “God is love” [1 Jn 4:19]. So anyone who truly “knows” God will live with and by his love. So, just as a shining lightbulb is doing its “good work,” so a human who receives God’s love will be fulfilled by sharing that love with others.
In Galatians 5:22-23 we have more features of this life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” And as we repent of Adam’s “freedom,” we enjoy the eternal “glory” Jesus promises all his followers [John 17:24]. These are “the good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [Ephesians 2:10]. As our appetite for faith grows, the freedom of trusting love prospers.