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Free To Do What?
July 2, 1995

GALATIANS 5:1, 13-25

The hymn, Let My People Go, tells us what freedom meant for the slaves in Egypt who were freed by Moses. The song, written by American slaves, expresses their anguish and their longing for freedom. What does freedom mean to us today? As a nation, we are confused about freedom. Does freedom mean we are free to do as we like, when we like, and where we like? Free time to go and do what I want? Enough money to buy for myself whatever I please? Too often we define freedom as the space and the permission to be utterly consumed by self-concern. And, isn't this our national problem? How can a country function if everybody does what they want to do when they want to do it?

The confusion about freedom extends into the interpretation of the Bill of Rights. When are we free and when are we not free? As a nation, don't we sometimes bend over backwards guaranteeing freedom for some, and in the process deny freedom for others?

Where is the line between freedom of the press and a person's privacy? Where is the line between the freedom to print or televise so-called news, and the right of an individual to defend him/herself and maintain a good reputation?

Where is the line between the freedom to disseminate pornography, and the right of a child to enjoy his/her childhood without being sexually exploited? The cover story of Time magazine is a horror story of how pornography is now coming into homes through the computer, as well as the TV.

Where is the line between the freedom to own and carry weapons and the right of citizens to live in relative safety?

Where is the line between the freedom of a gang to display their symbols, and the right of a property owner to keep his/her property clean, and the right of citizens to not have to look at graffiti?

During Bible School this past week, we had to ask ourselves, where is the line between the freedom of a child to show disrespect, and the right of a teacher to be treated with respect? Where is the line between the freedom of a child to say whatever he/she wants, and the right of other children to participate in a church class where he/she is not called names or hit?

As a nation, we are having difficulty drawing the line between free and not free; the line between an individual's freedom and the safety and well-being of the community. But, as Christians we have an answer. The Bible tells us clearly. In our lesson today, Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia, who evidently were struggling with some of these same issues. Paul wrote, Galatians 5:13, For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Freedom in Christ does not mean the freedom to do what we want, when we want, and say what we feel to whomever and wherever we want.

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. On a rainy day, when he couldn't 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 in exasperation she said, "All right, do what you want to do." "But," he whined, "I don't want to do what I want to do." He's also not free to do what he sometimes wants to do.

In the preceding chapters in Galatians, Paul makes the point that Christians are free from the Jewish law. Following legalistic rules and laws is slavery. Obeying laws and rules is not God's way of salvation for humankind. We are called to be free. The essence of freedom is self-control rather than control by external forces. Paul also makes the point that we can be enslaved to the desires of the flesh. Christ frees us from the necessity of external control, and Christ frees us from the works of the flesh: jealousy, anger, quarrels, envy, drunkenness, carousing, etc.

Christ sets us free, free from external controls, free not to indulge our sinful natures. Christ sets us free to do what? Paul continues, 5:13-14, Through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is the answer! There is where the line is drawn between individual freedom and the well-being of the community. As a Christian, I love my neighbor as myself. Christian freedom begins with a good feeling about myself. I have self-respect, I have an appreciation of my uniqueness, my talents, my goodness because God made me, Jesus loves me, and the Holy Spirit powers me. Therefore, I treat others as I would like to be treated, with respect and appreciation. Jesus gave us what we call the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Therefore, I am not free to hurt my neighbor, insult my neighbor, steal from my neighbor, say or print or televise hurtful, harmful, untrue or half-true things about my neighbor. I am not free to destroy or deface my neighbor's property. Why? Because I don't want anyone harming my family, my property, or me. I am not free to display or engage in public sexual behavior that hurts children. Why? Because Jesus taught us to be not only concerned about children, but responsible to children, responsible to neighbors. I am free to be responsible. I am free to be good.

In James Baldwin's play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, the frustration of a young man boils over, "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, isn't he. " I am free to be bad!" they say.) The pastor replies, "No, you don't. No, you don't have a right to be bad." Surprised, the young man asks, "Why not?" The pastor answers, "Because you know better."

In Christ we are free from being bad, not because of external controls, but because of inner controls. In Christ we are free not to indulge our sinful natures. In Christ we are free to live by the Spirit with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In Christ we are free not to hurt or harm our neighbors. We are free to love our neighbors as ourselves.

© 1995 Douglas I. Norris