In May, my husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Marriage and freedom aren’t often talked about together. In fact, our culture often tells us that marriage is the opposite of freedom. But my experience has been that being in a committed, intimate relationship with someone is the definition of freedom. I am free because I am secure in our relationship. A security not based on rules or unrealistic expectations and not based on the fact that I have given myself the option to leave anytime it starts to not be fun. I am free because I am loved fully and unconditionally and that creates a safe space for me to be who I really am.
God our Father creates that same kind of safe space for us. The question is – are we willing to live there?
Through Christ, we have been set free. Today I want us to think about what it means not just to be free but also to live in freedom. It is possible to be free but to still live as if you aren’t. Paul wrote the book of Galatians to a church struggling with this distinction. They are dealing with the issues that come up when you attempt to integrate people from different cultures into one community. And of course everyone has an opinion about how to do that. They are hearing from Jews and Gentiles and even a group of agitators who are working behind the scenes to make this process even more difficult.
All of these people have been set free from the law’s restrictions and requirements but they are still trying to figure out what it looks like to live in freedom. The Jews especially are having a hard time believing they are really free. They are suspicious that if they fully relax into freedom the boom will eventually fall.
The issue at hand in Galatians chapter 5 is circumcision, and it is threatening to divide this new group of believers. Notice in our text how our ability or inability to live in freedom affects our community.
Consider Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1-15:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends,why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but 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.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Maybe a first step in learning to live free is to understand what freedom isn’t. We often think of freedom in two extremes.
Following the Rules Doing What I Want
Today, though, we are going to talk about the other end of the spectrum because that’s where the Galatians are struggling.
On the license side of the spectrum we think of freedom as getting to direct our own lives – like no one is the boss of you. When we tend towards this end of the spectrum we think that we are “free” to do whatever sounds good to us. But when we stay too long at this end of the spectrum our lives can become empty or damaged. Addiction starts at this end of the spectrum. We think, “I am free to drink or try drugs or look at pornography or eat what I want or buy as many pairs of shoes as I want.” Freedom taken to this point often leads to the opposite of freedom – bondage.
The Jewish Galatians who find themselves at this end of spectrum would swear up and down to you that they are free but they really aren’t. They are hanging on to their old baggage and trying to bring it into the “new” thing that God is doing.
At the legalism end we live by rules – rules that we have made up and rules we have let others impose on us. When we are living down here, we think we are making free choices but really our decisions are a result of the fear and shame we feel.
So, if we have bondage on either end of the spectrum, where do we find freedom?
Following the Rules FREEDOM Doing What I Want
True freedom is found in the middle. If we can find the tension point between living under rules and doing whatever pleases us at the moment, then we have found true freedom.
Let’s take a modern day issue and see if this spectrum works. Let’s think about a person struggling with lustful thoughts for example. One day they get serious about rooting out the things that trigger these thoughts and they are able to be honest and say that a particular television show that they watch consistently starts the lust cycle in them. They now have some options. They can continue to claim their “freedom” to watch whatever TV show they want. God loves them. He’s forgiven them. And they march happily off towards the license end of the spectrum.
The other option is to decide to not watch that TV show. But that doesn’t seem good enough. So they go into the living room and rip the TV out of the wall insuring no one in their home will ever watch TV again. Now they are feeling pretty holy and it strikes them that other people should be as worried about the dangers of TV watching as they are.
So they start talking about their new rules in their small group and begin to lift them up as a standard of holiness. By now they have firmly planted themselves in legalism.
Do you see how dangerous both of these options are not just to that person but to their entire community? The person who’s watching whatever they want on TV and bragging about their freedom is just tempting others who are at risk of being badly damaged to join them. And the person trapped in legalism is just dragging more and more people into the same trap by offering quick-fix holiness.
In the middle, freedom allows us to prayerfully discern what step the Spirit is instructing us to take and do that. We may share our experience with others, but not to require that they do what we are doing but rather to inspire them to seek freedom. Life in the tension of freedom is delicate.
Back in Galatia, the Jews are having a hard time letting go of the Law. They found the cross and freedom but in their fear and uncertainty they have run back to the bondage of rules. It is easy to do when the way ahead looks uncertain.
In our day, circumcision is performed routinely in the United States for many reasons. But in that biblical era it was not done unless you were an Israelite. They had been commanded for thousands of years to circumcise their baby boys. It was not just a tradition but a physical sign of the covenant God had made with them. Their obedience to that Law was what literally marked them as God’s chosen people.
After Christ at the time of the Galatian letter, the Israelites, though, have now been set free from this requirement. The Jewish leaders want to get excited about this but they are hesitant – they are used to living life waiting for the boom to fall. But Paul isn’t going to give up on them!
If you look again at Galatians 5:1, Paul was teaching that freedom many times comes in two stages: We are set free and then we have to learn to live free.
When we chose to enter into relationship with Jesus, he set us free – immediately and completely.
But Paul quickly reminds us that being set free doesn’t automatically lead to living like free people. He warns us to stand firm – let Jesus lead you to the spot in the middle of the spectrum and stand there. Don’t give your freedom away by walking in either direction.
Learning to live like a free person is a process especially if we have lived at the rules end of the spectrum for too long. Craig Haney is a professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Cruz who has studied the psychological effects of prison life. He found that when someone goes to prison they begin a transformation process that takes them from being in rebellion to being totally reliant on rules. They go from license to legalism on our spectrum. The structure of prison starts out feeling very rigid and inflexible for a new prisoner, but over time it becomes their normal. At this point they have lost the ability to live free.*
This transformation makes for a good prisoner but becomes a problem when the prisoner is released and expected to return to a normal life.
Listen to the words of a young man who has spent a lot of his life in and out of correctional facilities:
I have been in juvenile hall three times, did two years in the California Youth Authority, and have been to four different prisons since the age of 14, so I have encountered thousands of inmates. A common theme [I’ve seen] is a lack of control over their lives. Some people can’t control that little demon on their shoulder, so when no one is watching you constantly, like in prison, and you have all of the freedom of being on the “outside,” you miss the structure. I am accountable for every single thing I do in here and just the slightest slip-up can cost me my chance at freedom. I have a heightened sense of awareness now and I have no choice but to think about every action I make.**
Does that sound like freedom to you? The sad thing is, this young man is at great risk of failing when he leaves prison and doesn’t have someone telling him exactly what to do.
Professor Haney is working with governments to develop reintegration plans for prisoners who are being released. In order to transition successfully, they need to learn how to live free.
The Galatian church leaders needed a reintegration plan. They were taught to treat the Law as their prison guard. Instead of finding the freedom God intended the Law to bring, they manipulated and expanded it to the point where they didn’t have to make decisions. They monitored themselves and others for the “slightest slip-up” and administered swift punishment to those who did not comply. They didn’t give themselves or others room to follow God and respond to him as their shepherd. Good shepherds don’t hand out rule books or keep their sheep on leashes. They call to their sheep and the sheep listen and follow. But you have to be free to follow.
What’s the Big Deal about Circumcision?
We don’t talk a lot about circumcision in church. It’s not the most comfortable topic to discuss. But I’ve decided not to let that stop me this morning!
Thousands of babies are circumcised every day; but unlike the time of the Galatian epistle, it is done in the sterile environment of a hospital. Sometime before you leave the hospital with a new baby the nurse comes and collects him and returns him a few hours later – swaddled and sleeping. The new parents know what happened but they try not to think a lot about it. That at least was our experience for two of our three boys. One of our sons, though, was not circumcised in the hospital.
We had to take one of our sons to a Jewish pediatrician who was also trained as a mohel. On the day of our appointment, we arrived at the doctor’s office and it all seemed pretty normal. The nurse led us back to an examining room. The baby was asleep in his carrier. Then the doctor came in and talked us through the procedure. That’s when we got the idea that this was going to be bad. The doctor then took our eight-day old baby, strapped him to a board and asked my husband to hold the board down. At this point, Chris was standing at alert next to the examining table. The doctor very gently invited him to have a seat. In retrospect, yet another sign that this was going to be bad. I will spare you all of the terrible, terrible details – just imagine needles where you would never want them, clamps, really sharp circular knives, lots of blood and screaming (the baby and his parents). When it was over, the doctor gave us some instructions to care for the wound, wished us a cheery “Mazel Tov!” and left the room. We dressed the baby in a daze and stumbled out of the office like we had witnessed a war.
The question up for debate in the Galatian church was whether or not every Gentile adult male who came to Christ would have to undergo this procedure. Talk about a stumbling block! Aren’t you glad you don’t have to include that requirement when you talk to your friends about Jesus? Would the church have grown to include the whole world with the weight of circumcision hanging around its neck?
Signs of Bondage
These leaders had not found their way into the sweet spot of freedom yet. So Paul began to point out to them signs that they are still living in bondage.
The first sign that they are not living free is the sense of obligation that they are experiencing.
Look at verse three: Paul speaks directly to the Gentiles in the group and warns them, “if you allow yourselves to be dragged out of freedom and into bondage then you will have to follow the whole Law. That’s when it becomes obligation. Then you will no longer be living a Spirit-led life – responding to his movement and direction. You will be attached to a dead rule book – checking boxes that choke out any love relationship that you have with God. You will begin going through the motions because you have to, not because you get to or you want to.”
Do that for too long and you will end up feeling alienated from Christ. When we are attempting to strive for our worthiness we will feel ourselves slip further and further from God because we will never measure up. When we are trying to earn our own salvation by keeping rules it is like we have turned our back on the cross and are walking towards bondage.
And verse 15 shows us that a community held in bondage is a dysfunctional one.
This group of believers is attacking one another and in danger of destroying each other and their community. Why? Because I am often not content to beat myself up in isolation. The law I hold myself to I also hold you to. Nothing irritates a person in bondage more than someone who is truly free. It is driving the Jews nuts that the Gentiles are having an easier time finding freedom.
Instead Paul says, look at what freedom has to offer!
Signs of Freedom
In verses 5-6 we see words that make rule keepers nervous – faith, wait and hope. True formation happens from the inside out. If we are simply keeping rules that is not true formation. Think back to what the young prisoner said earlier. If he has to rely on prison’s structure to keep him on track has he really been transformed? If we have been transformed on the inside, we can set the rule book on the shelf and let the Spirit lead.
True, internal formation takes time – that’s where the waiting comes in. It takes faith to wait while the Spirit works. It takes hope to anticipate what we will be like when we are done because sometimes, like any renovation project, it looks worse before it gets better. But this is where freedom is found!
Love is another word that has tripped up religious rule keepers in every generation. We worry that if we love someone just as they are today the person will never change. So we withhold our acceptance until you are following the rules like we are. Until we have dragged you right into legalism. The Jewish leaders were happy to have the Gentiles join them but only after they had conformed to their idea of what it meant to love God.
But when we are free – we are free to love. We are free to be patient with others while their internal formation is happening.
Finally, freedom knows the difference between obedience and rule keeping. Remember, we do not want to drift from freedom towards license and start doing whatever we want to do. That’s just walking away from Jesus in another direction.
But now I am not following rules in order to be a good rule keeper. I am following Jesus and learning to be responsive to the directions he gives. That is the difference between obedience and rule keeping.
If my goal is to keep the rules, my attention will be on the rule book. If my goal is to follow Jesus, my attention will be on Jesus. That is where the freedom is!
I want to close by telling you an old Indian story about a farmer who brought a dozen pigeons to sell at a bazaar. He didn’t have a cage. So, he tied a string around one foot of each bird. The other end of the string he tied to a stick stuck in the ground. The pigeons spent their day tethered to this post walking around and around. Most of the day had gone by when a man came along and asked how much the pigeons cost and then said to the farmer, “I want to buy them all.” The farmer was elated. After the money was exchanged the man said “now I want you to set them all free.” The farmer looked surprised and the man said again, “please…cut the strings and set them all free.” So, the farmer cut the strings.
The farmer and the man obviously expected the birds to immediately fly away now that they were free but instead they continued marching around and around in a circle. Finally the men tried to shoo the birds away. But even then the birds flew just a few feet away and resumed their marching around a post that wasn’t even there. Free, unbound, released, yet going around in circles as if still tied.
Being set free and living free are two separate things. But the good news is, you are not a pigeon! We can learn to live in freedom. We must learn to live in freedom. Only in freedom do we find the abundant life where God’s will is done and his kingdom is built.
The first step is asking the Spirit to reveal where you are not free. What place in you is still living in bondage? Ask God to show you. This spectrum makes it look all cut and dried, but it is very subtle. The difference between legalism, license and freedom is sometimes as small as our intention. We must have the Spirit showing us where we are not free. And then follow God to freedom as he leads you.
*The source for this material was a December 2001 paper written by Craig Haney, PhD titled “The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment”. It was written as part of the “From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities project.”
**This is a quote from a man named David Monroe who is an inmate at San Quentin and was taken from an article on ca.askmen.com.