Freedom Isn't What I Get To Do
One more skiing lesson on spiritual growth through love and limits
The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
To the Skiers…
This week is the last of a trio on 1 Corinthians and the lessons of cross-country skiing. Earlier, we saw how Paul, the spiritual ski instructor, teaches us to (1) Look ahead to where we want to go and (2) Be aware of each other’s surroundings as we look out for each other’s dangers.
For today, it was tempting to focus on Paul’s evangelizing mission: “To the skiers, I became a skier in order to win the skiers.” But I have too much imposter syndrome being at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, fumbling with the latch on my boots to begin the day’s wobble-glide journey while members of a local middle school team fly by. Scratching deeper, a third more important lesson of skiing appears in this middle chunk of 1 Corinthians: the freedom born of limits.
When you put on skis, you give up being able to do certain physical movements in exchange for other ones, becoming bound by the physics of the skis. You can’t easily turn around, you have to hop into a snow plow “pizza slice” stance to slow down, you have to scuttle uphill. You’re just not as free as walking around without giant sticks on your feet. You give up the ability to do any movement you want, but in return, you get a greater total freedom to glide over forested hills, living a little outside of time.
In a similar way, when we are “clothed in Christ”1—and surely a full wardrobe must include the “skis of Christ”—we embrace new limits. We accept the call to be bound by the “spiritual physics” of Christ. As a result, we accept the gift of greater, truer freedom.
What does that freedom look like? With no surprise, it’s about love.
As I heardsay, M. Scott Peck defined love as “The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth.” True spiritual freedom in Christ, then, is the liberation of our ability to love, the free-ing of our capacity for sacrificial love.
This is why Christian spiritual freedom always looks paradoxical and upside down. It’s found in limits.
False Freedoms and Phone Charging Mansions
This week, I’ve been reading an early copy of my friend Ashley Lande’s upcoming memoir (pre-order it! It’s so good!). It’s made me reinhabit my twenties. I was a “free spirit” for many of those years, a term I cringe to use, but still better than “hippie.” I took great pride in being an independent, authentic artist. I moved to Los Angeles shortly after college and lived for a decade as my own spiritual boss: psychonaut, stoner, and spiritually-syncretic meaning-maker. I wanted to work hard enough to manifest exactly who I really was, or at least who the best podcast gurus thought we were, no longer bound by the codes of my upbringing, a Phoenix of self-discovery from the ashes of suppression, bro. Like many others, I wanted freedom from religion—not legally speaking, just freedom from things like dogma, with the freedom to “choose my own religion.” In time, I came to believe I had become confused about freedom.
I’m not here to strawman the counterculture or pick on my friends who still vibe with this. The whole point of the 1960s and its descendants, which I so long admired, was to resist the falsehoods of “default world” Western culture. I still think that’s a good and holy thing. I might have missed Jerry Garcia, but I was grateful people were still around to point out the idolatries of society and refused to serve them anymore. Even though Christians were often a big target of this resistance, hippies will always have that desire in common with the true invisible Church.
At its best, I think this mindset helped me keep perspective. I once worked at the computer help desk of a hedge fund, and one day I was helping set up the internet at one of the CEO’s mansions. After putting a protective cloth over my shoes to be deemed worthy of walking through the breakfast room into the rest of the compound, I realized that most of the time they would use this house, they would just be on their screens all day anyway. Basically, a modern mansion is little more than a giant phone charger.
I don’t say this to pick on hedge fund owners (though who would be mad?). While I believe you only build a hedge fund if you are a spiritual slave to something else, just one more hopeless attempt to escape mortality, almost all of us are spiritual slaves to something else. We may not be wealthy like the “rich young man” in the gospels who can’t give up his wealth to follow Jesus,2 but what else may be our most prized “possession” instead? For starters, as David Garland says, “[Paul’s point is] the things connected with high status— rights and freedom— are the very things that those who have them recoil at surrendering.”3 In the same way we don’t really own a possession unless you are willing to let it go, we do the same with our power.
I am still grateful for the spiritual training of these hippie sensibilities that fostered resentment of high-status markers, even if I still became seduced by them. But one way I think where I and many of us went wrong is that we didn’t see what new idols we were building, or the old idols we were being recaptured by, while thinking our inner sensibilities made us immune to their corrupting influence, or thinking “freedom” included “freedom from responsibility.” As the tweeter Vivid Void said, “The tragic flaw of the Western New Age spiritual practitioner is that they privately experience responsibility as an intolerable psychic infliction, even as they outwardly seek the unspeakable burden of co-creating reality with the divine.”
We’re always going to be limited in thinking about freedom as long as we’re thinking of it in terms of, “What do I get to do?” In his letter, Paul does not want to relinquish his “rights,” but he also explains how thinking about freedom as “what I have the power and right to do” is a limited, false notion of freedom. This freedom does not actually give us spiritual growth, but in fact, often hinders it. We think we are being our own spiritual boss, but we are really just becoming slaves to ourselves—and we are tyrants.
Are we the idol?
The greater context of this section of Corinthians is Paul talking about whether we can eat “food for idols.” While the religious landscape of ancient Rome lends more complexity to this than I have time to explore here, we can easily think about the various fruits and foods of the idols we have. More and more, we are our own idol, but one we hate as much as adore, yearning to smash and melt ourselves down to make room for the newer, better version of our one true god. Andrew Root’s work on secular mysticisms points out the dominance of the pursuit of authenticity, “personal growth,” “self-help,” or any number of other attempts at self-transcendence. The guru I used to listen to all the time, Ram Dass, would try to forge principles of New Age individualist ethos into community frameworks by saying things like, “The best I can do for you is work on myself; the best you can do for me is work on yourself.”
It’s a bit of a bind, though, and I really don’t want to strawman. If you don’t believe in God, what else are we supposed to believe in besides ourselves and our experience? Isn’t the ego the enemy that needs to be examined? Isn’t what I’m criticizing here something that may only be noticed through self-examination? Doesn’t Jesus say to examine “the log in our eye”? Aren’t we to pursue a personal relationship with Christ? Aren’t there ways in which self-help stuff can actually help?
Yes, of course. The best idols are not bad, but good things that become our Whole Thing. And in a culture where this kind of individualism is an idol, we “eat its food” through a limited imagination of isolating ourselves to just work on ourselves, shirk mutual accountability, and think, “What’s in it for me and my growth?”
Christian freedom—meaning in Christ, not of Christianity per se—is full of responsibilities. To go back to Peck’s definition of love, God extends God’s self to love us into greater life. In recognizing this intrinsic, ever-flowing gift of love as the fabric of our waking days, we are called out and pulled out of ourselves to do likewise, pushing ourselves beyond our present capacities to love each other. Rather than a frictionless, avoidant mockery of compassion, sometimes loving each other means confronting one another, protecting each other and our communities from inner demons, outer idols, and hungry wolves in our midst.
Freedom in Christ, then, is the true liberation of the spirit into love, freeing up the spirit from self-centeredness to become self-sacrificial. I know I have so much farther to go in this form of discipleship. I know I fall so short. But the love of God in the fullness of grace re-extends itself to us again.
Jesus and Civil Rights
Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Mark 1:30-34, 39
We know that Jesus wants us all to be free. In our gospel reading for this final post-epiphany Sunday, we are shown more of his desire to liberate us from the bondage of death, disease, and spiritual evil.
And as the nation recognizes Black History Month, we remember how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s fought to obtain legal rights, concrete material freedoms, and right ancient injustices, and we also remember where we continue to fall short of America’s promises. In addition to remembering the fights for these freedoms, we also remember it as a time of tremendous spiritual freedom.
As we talked about with “spiritual warfare” last week, we know that Christ frees us from the powers of the world not only in the next life but also in this life, and this is essential to fighting evil. Likewise, when the Civil Rights Movement faced evil in its time, it was built on Black Americans refusing to deny their freedom in Christ, owning and believing and trusting God in a truer freedom than what was denied them. Perhaps most tremendously, they also called white society into greater spiritual freedom, confronting our darkest impulses and desires to hold on to our false freedoms.
If we really have freedom in Christ, we prove it by emptying ourselves, not by inflating ourselves, acquiring status, power, wealth, or even knowledge that “puffs up.”4 We are owned by what we can’t imagine giving up, including our most precious ideas. This is why Paul’s central paradox and teaching is becoming a “slave to Christ.” It is what makes us really free, the only way to be free from idols, the only resistance to all that vies for power over us, even the Church itself, allowing us to be souls freed up by and into love. A true love of responsibilities: being each other’s keeper.
…I Became a Skier
To bring it back to skiing, a skier can theoretically go anywhere, though anywhere could mean hitting a tree. I also have the technical freedom to spend every day skiing, but that’s not my call. But why do I enjoy it? What about it is liberating my spirit?
As my friend Ashley has said of our shared ex-influences like the guru Alan Watts, treating life as “just a game” can lead to nihilistic flippancy about the preciousness of life. In group settings, this enables a horrific casualness to evil. But I love games like any person, and I especially love playing and watching sports for their greater spiritual implications. To be a good sport means not only treating it as “just a game,” but simultaneously “more than a game.”
You might learn how to ski (or whatever warmer sport you prefer) to learn a new skill, for health, to connect with people. You might learn a team sport to practice how to love each other through adversity, to play with each other, celebrate each other, discover limits, heighten each other’s abilities. So as joking as it is to say, “To the skiers, I became a skier,” actually, yeah! It’s true! The best reason to ski is not for yourself but for each other. The best coaches in sports are not doing it for their own glory, but to help people grow in their physical and spiritual gifts as a community—to live for each other.
So while “religious freedom” often implies either freedom to practice religion or freedom from being imposed upon by religion, there’s yet a third entendre: the beautiful freedom that only emerges from the limits of living religion. And as this still-free-spirit knows, the devil could not be more in the details of discerning between healthy, freedom-giving religion and freedom-robbing religion.
Christian freedom at its best is accepting the limits of our skis, training in the “spiritual physics” of Christ. We thus sacrifice false freedoms to actualize a truer freedom, a freedom in the shape of the cross.
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Garland, David E.. 1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (p. 586). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
1 Cor 8:1