Three or four years ago, I first read Ron Dart’s excellent work Law & Covenant, which included the sobering and excellent point that a lot of our problems as human beings are the result of freedom. As a patriotic and red-blooded American, this was initially a rather bracing statement to hear. After all, Americans are generally prone to thinking of freedom as the solution to problems, but indeed freedom is often the cause of problems as well. Though this is a large subject, freedom, I thought it would be worthwhile to at least attempt to sketch the relationship between freedom as we mean it personally and politically along with the larger concerns of our love (in the agape sense) for others, considering that both freedom and love have universal applications and ironic connections.
Believers know that the Eternal is a God of love, and we speak often about the love He had for a world of rebellious sinners by giving His Son Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for our sins. We also know that the love of God does not preclude Him from being just towards those who refuse His mercy, for justice can only mean death for those who rebel against His rightful rule over the universe. Nevertheless, we also know the Eternal to be a God of both law and freedom. We read the Torah and recognize that God’s authority and jurisdiction extends into all aspects of human behavior and experience, be it the bedroom or the boardroom or the courtroom, and yet God has set before us life and death so that we choose for ourselves whether to follow God’s way and receive His blessings (physical and spiritual) or seek another way and find heartbreak and despair. All too often we, individually and collectively, choose judgment over mercy, choose death over life, choose misery over plenty, and yet God still gives us freedom to decide and extends his mercy to us calling on us to repent and change our ways.
The radical commitment of God to freedom is not hard to understand once we pay attention to God’s dealings with the world. Those of us who credit the Eternal with understanding the motives of the heart of His beings will understand that this would have allowed Him foreknowledge of the plotting of rebellious angels, and yet he allowed them to rebel anyway. Likewise, His apparent leaving Adam and Eve free to face the serpent in the garden was granting freedom to innocent beings to fall into sin against a being far more clever than they were. Likewise, God grants us considerable freedom in our day-to-day affairs, leading Him to suffer the slanders of being uncaring in the face of the disasters that naturally result when the evil and wicked have the freedom to work out the wicked and evil motives and plans of their dark hearts. To intervene into the affairs of others is to take away their freedom, and the Eternal values our own development of righteous character and responsibility so much that He lets us muddle through millennia of suffering and misery without stepping in to make things right, even as He is slandered for His inattention and lack of love in so doing.
We are not so committed to freedom as God is. Over and over again, the response of ordinary people to vice has been to remove freedom through law and regulation. The freedom of parents to deal with their children as they wished was taken away in the midst of shocking cases of abuse in the late Victorian period and since then. The freedom of businesses to behave as they wished with their employees and with the environment has steadily eroded in the face of exploitation and corruption. Freedoms to speak and bear arms are limited by our violence and the harshness of our words, and the insecurity of our rulers. And yet those same governments who use the vice of their citizens as the excuse to take away freedoms are only able to oppress others because God has graciously extended them freedom of action to test their hearts and motives and the time to repent before they face their just judgment, just as He grants to us all time to reflect and mend our ways and seek His mercy rather than striking us down as He could do if He wished.
There are a lot of ironies when it comes to freedom and love. Keeping up relationships requires a great deal of love and outgoing concern. The more we are concerned with our own personal freedoms, the less we are concerned with how those freedoms hurt others. We only have so much time and attention, and focus on ourselves will draw attention from others, as defiantly claiming rights will tend to lead us to be less sensitive to our responsibilities. Likewise, love requires us to recognize the freedom of others. Love is the choice we make because we are free to bestow our tenderness and affection and attention on other beings who are free to respond to it as they choose. They may choose to fear it and reject it, they may choose to ignore it or may not recognize it, or they can choose to accept it and return it graciously and tenderly. Love (speaking of agape) expresses outgoing concern and affection and devotion to others, freely chosen despite whatever we may actually feel, and recognizes that others, because they are free, respond according to their choices. Love does not absolve others of their responsibility which springs from their own freedom.
And it is for this reason that love and freedom are both responsible for a great deal of the suffering that is in this world, even though that suffering is noble and beneficial to us in the end. In order to love we must be free, and yet this love comes with responsibilities and effects on the lives of those around us (as well as ourselves). Yet people do not feel the love of their parents or children, their friends or lovers, and so that love seems wasted and futile, bringing sadness and grief to those who love because it is not felt by the recipients of that love. Because we are free, we are responsible for how we use that freedom, and accountable to the One who gave us that freedom. Ironically enough, in this world we would all be so much more free if we were more self-disciplined, if we could rule our tongues and keyboards and hearts with better skill, even if we would feel less free as a result of being so constrained. Life is full of irony, though.