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Free to Do What?
July 2, 1989

GALATIANS 5:1, 13-25

"You were called to be free," wrote Paul to the Christians in Galatia, 5:13. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free," 5:1. Freedom is very important to us Americans. On Tuesday we celebrate our freedom from British tyranny. We Americans know what it is to be free, and we want to be free, but we as a nation are confused about what it means to be free. We think we want to be free to do as we like, when we like and where we like, as children long to be free from parental supervision. But, does freedom mean we are free to do what we want?

On a rainy day, when he couldnít go outside, the little boy became quite bored. He asked his mother, "What can I do now?" She made some suggestions, but nothing interested him, so she, in exasperation said, "All right, do what you want to do." "But," he whined, "I donít want to do what I want to do."

Freedom is more complicated than doing what we want to do. In fact, society could not function if everybody did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Anyway, much of the time they donít want to do what they want to do.

Letís look at Paulís idea of freedom. What does it mean to be set free by Christ? In Galatians 5:1, Paul warns us about becoming slaves. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Paul points out two ways in which we can be enslaved. The preceding chapters in Galatians deal with the Christianís relationship to the Jewish law. Trying to follow legalistic religious rules is slavery, he says. Obeying laws and rules is not Godís way of salvation for humankind. We are called to be free. The essence of freedom is self-control rather than control by external forces.

There is a lot of furor today about whether we are free to burn the Unites States flag. There is talk about a constitutional amendment rescinding the freedom to burn the flag. I find it interesting that there is no talk of a constitutional amendment against burning the cross. After all, burning crosses on peopleís lawns is an American tradition! Controlling freedom of speech and expression by law is a sobering matter. On the other hand, because of my training, feelings, and values, I personally could not burn the flag, nor the cross. Because of self-control, not external control, I am not free to burn the flag.

Besides legalism, another form of slavery and bondage, according to Paul, is the control of our own desires, doing what we want when we want, because we refuse to discipline ourselves. The essence of freedom is self-control rather than control by external or internal forces. Some people are enslaved by drugs, alcohol, sexual drives, peer pressure, greed, selfishness. "You," Paul wrote, "are called to be free."

Christ sets us free from bondage. Eric Hoffer wrote, "The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do." According to Charles Kingsley, "There are two freedoms, the false where one is free to do as he likes, and the true where he is free to do as he ought."

In James Baldwinís play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, the frustration of the young black man boils over, "See, when a white man is a good white man, heís good because he wants you to be good. Well, sometimes I just might want to be bad. I got as much right to be bad as anybody else." (The young man is speaking for a considerable number of Americans, youths and adults, isnít he.) The black pastor replies, "No, you donít. No, you donít have a right to be bad." Surprised, the young man asks, "Why not?" The pastor answers, "Because you know better."

And, we might add, you are free not to be bad not only because you know better, but because Christ has set you free, free to be good. Christ calls you to the church where you are supported and nurtured by Christian friends, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. "Live by the Spirit," wrote Paul, "and you will not gratify the desires of your sinful nature." When you live by the Spirit, you are free not to do the acts of sinful human nature: (5:19-21) "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like."

A Beetle Bailey comic strip showed a group of Army recruits about to graduate from Basic Training. They have been assembled in the post theater to receive their diplomas. The commander announces, "And now for a few words from the chaplain." The chaplain walks up to the podium and says, "Be good!" Then he walks off stage. We chuckle, but the chaplain summed up freedom: you are free to be good.

Christ sets us free from slavery to our sinful natures, and Christ sets us free to serve one another in love. 5:13 "You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love." When Christ sets you free, and you live by the Spirit, 5:22-23, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

Jesus was free. Jesus was free from control by the religious and government authorities. Jesus refused to submit; he was free. As a result, Jesus was free to die, free to give up his life for us and for the world. Out of love for people, and love of freedom, Jesus lay down his life.

Christ sets us free. Free to do what? Not license to do what we want when we want, but free not to indulge our sinful natures; free to do what is right; free to be whom God created you to be; free to love one another in gentleness, patience, kindness, joy and peace.

ã 1989 Douglas I. Norris