Truth Infused With Hope: Freedom vs. Autonomy
10/19/2018 4:09:06 AM
October 14, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:15-18; Genesis 3:1-9
Imagine two kids on the playground. One starts doing something the other doesn’t like. The second one says, “Hey, quit it!” The first retorts, “It’s a free country isn’t it?” This may be a playground level argument, and rather unsophisticated, but really it models many other, more mature conflict. Doesn’t freedom mean I can do what I want? In our clip from the Simpsons, Chief Wiggum says, “I say, ‘If it feels good do it.’” The doctor giggles and snaps Wiggum’s underwear. It feels good to the doctor. But Wiggum doesn’t like it, “Don’t snap my undies.” If it feels good, just do it leads to inevitable conflict when what feels good to one person doesn’t feel good to another!
Imagine now, another playground scene. This is taken from real life. Imagine a junior high school surrounded by a fence. Each time you drive by you see all the kids leaning against the fence, gazing out at the world. You drive by day after day seeing these kids leaning on the fence, and you feel bad for them, so you decide to do something about it. You talk to the school and bring it up with the school board and the decision is made to remove the fence over the weekend. The next week you drive by, expecting to see the kids reveling in their newfound freedom. Instead, you see all the kids far away from the road leaning against the school building! You thought they were sad being restricted by the fence. It turns out that they actually found the fence to be the support they needed to be comfortable! Now that the world can come closer, they retreat to the school building to find safety. They now lean against the only other support they can find.
There’s a powerful lesson in this true story about kids and their need for boundaries. There’s a similar need for all of us to have good boundaries. Yet our culture has decided there is no objective truth, no objective boundaries, that boundaries are not something “out there” giving me space in which to move, but boundaries have now been withdrawn to our own person. My boundaries are what I choose, and frankly only apply to my body. In removing objective boundaries that give clear space in which to move and clear demarcation of where it’s not ok to move, we have actually shrunk the zone of safety.
If you can do whatever you want up until the point of harming me, that makes a very narrow window of safety for me. And who gets to decide what it means to hurt me? What if your words hurt me? What if your economic policies hurt my job? And should I be the one to decide if you harmed me? Doesn’t that give me a degree of power that can also be abused?
Post Modernism says there is no objective truth. This means there is no objective standard for setting rules. We say “do what you want unless you hurt someone.” What does hurt mean? Do I get to decide what hurts you? Do you get to decide? What if your words hurt my feelings? What if your economic policy hurts my job? What if I decide I’m hurt even though it’s not reasonable?
Post Truth says maybe there is objective truth, but I don’t care. What matters is feeling and preference. No rules just feelings.
This is what has happened to our society. Is it any wonder that anxiety, depression, hopelessness and suicide are on the rise? The world is not a safe place any more. Having no rules does not lead to freedom but to fear! In the absence of objective truth and boundaries, what arbitrates between disagreements is power. If you and I have conflicting desires or preferences, who or what arbitrates? It isn’t truth! It’s power. If I’m weaker than you I have no objective standard of justice to which I can appeal. Might makes right.
Autonomy does not lead to freedom but to anarchy. We confuse autonomy and freedom. We think no rules means freedom! But that’s not the case. A lack of rules, lack of objective truth, everybody deciding for themselves what is right for them does not lead to freedom. It leads to fear of the strong who can enforce their view of morality, or enforce their desires and preferences. Maybe it’s the strength of the individual, maybe it’s the strength of the mob. But it’s those who have the strongest resources, the strongest voices the strongest influence who get to decide what is right and wrong even at my expense!
So if we have it so wrong about freedom, where does freedom actually come from? If freedom is not being able to do whatever I want, what does freedom look like?
In many ways, this is a question of Biblical proportion! We are going to look at two passages today, beginning with 2 Cor 3:15-18. By way of context: In the Old Testament, Moses went up on Mt Sinai to represent Israel entering into a Covenant with God. This is where he received the 10 Commandments which formed the foundation of the Religious LAW of Israel.
Having been in God’s presence on Mt Sinai, gazing at God’s glory, Moses came down and his face shone with light. This freaked people out! So he put a veil over his face while with the people, then took the veil off when he went back up the mountain to meet with God.
In our first text, Paul picks up on this idea of Moses veiling God’s glory shining in Moses’ face and says that the Jews of Paul’s day had their hearts veiled when they looked at the glory of Christ seen in the OLD Testament….(Read 2 Cor 3:15-18)
What It Says: Freedom
Paul is contrasting 2 ways to connect with God- through the Law and through Jesus. For Israel, in the Old Testament, connecting with God through the law was awesome! Jews saw lots of glory in the Law that allowed them to connect with God. It was a good thing! But the glory of connecting with God through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit blows the glory of connecting through the law out of the water!
Paul says “to this day, when Moses is read, a veil covers the hearts (minds, will, imagination) of Jews.” That is, they don’t see Christ in the OT. Turning to Jesus reveals the truth. In truth there is freedom.
The word for “turn” is the word for repenting. When we repent, when we turn the trajectory of our life so we are heading towards God, which means heading towards God through Jesus Christ, the veil is removed from our hearts. We see God, we see the truth. We see Him and his purpose for us- he purpose in making us.
Now, it’s worth noting that here Lord is a reference to God, not Jesus specifically. Paul is making an OT reference. Jews all agreed that God is Spirit. Where God’s Spirit is there is freedom. What does that mean when we turn to God through Jesus? The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us, in our hearts (feelings, minds, will, desires, preferences and imagination). This begins a transformation of us and it is through this indwelling of the Spirit that we behold God and his glory. This is where freedom is found.
Freedom, then, means being free to pursue your goals and purpose, not being able to do whatever you desire. Our God given purpose is to Know God and Glorify Him forever. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom- freedom to pursue our purpose of knowing God and glorifying him forever! This happens through our transformation which comes when we cooperate with the Holy Spirit to take steps towards being more like Christ.
Verse 18 says our hearts have the veil removed when we turn to Jesus. With unveiled faces we behold God (behold is a better translation than reflect) and are transformed. The word for transformed is the word from which we get the word metamorphosis! It means a change over time which comes from beholding God and his glory, in particular the glory revealed in Christ Jesus.
A few verses later, after a bad chapter break at Chapter 4, Paul says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. [2 Cor 4:6] As we behold God’s glory in the face of Jesus, God’s light shines in our hearts (mind, emotion, will, desires, preferences and imagination) – we are transformed and find the freedom that only comes in pursuing and attaining our God-given purpose from the beginning of Creation- to know God and glorify him forever! This is what happens when we turn from our sin to face God. This is made possible through Jesus. When we turn and behold Jesus, we see in his face the glory of God. We receive the Holy Spirit in our hearts and begin to be changed by that glory of God. That process moves us closer to our goal in life of knowing God and glorifying him forever.
What It Says: Autonomy
Now this doesn’t sound like what our world says freedom is does it? But if this is really what freedom means, what is all the confusion about? If this is freedom, why do we pursue autonomy so much? To get a grasp on that, consider Genesis 3:1-9.
Notice several things in this text: 1- the serpent’s craftiness. He asks, “Did God really say not to eat from ANY tree in the garden?” Nope. That’s not what God said! He presented a lie and then made it a negative. He presented “God said not to eat from any tree in the garden.” But he presented it, “Did God really say?”
2-Eve’s first mistake: she added to God’s law, God’s rule or command. God said do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve added “do not touch it!” Why is this an issue? First, she isn’t accurately representing what God said. But further, what were Adam and Eve doing in the garden? Adam and Eve’s God-given purpose and task was to tend the garden, including the tree of knowledge. Presumably they’d have to touch it to care for it! Just don’t eat the fruit! Eve is putting up an extra law around God’s law. She is putting an extra fence around the boundary God gave them. That’s not up to her. In doing so, she is implicitly saying that God’s boundary is not enough and she needs to add to it!
3- Notice the temptation the serpent presented: To be like God! “You will be like God” or you will be a rule unto yourself. That is, you will be AUTONOMOUS!
If Adam and Eve become like God, then what is God’s role in their relationship? He’s no longer their god, he is their equal. They are on par. He is no longer on the throne of their hearts, in charge of their lives, they are in charge of their lives. They sit on the throne of their own hearts. They think of themselves as equals with God! In fact, by disobeying God in order to attain equality with God they would not become his equals but his rivals!
4- See Eve’s second mistake: she looked at the fruit and evaluated it from the standpoint of God. What do I mean? If you look back a chapter and consider Genesis 2:9. God made the garden and all the trees and God saw that all the trees “Were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” Compare 3:6- Eve looked at the fruit and “saw that it was pleasing to the eye, good for food…. And good for obtaining wisdom.” Eve put herself in God’s place of evaluating the fruit, of looking at it and judging it as God had done when he created the garden.
Adam and Eve put themselves in the position of autonomy by evaluating the fruit and evaluating God’s law concerning it. In deliberately eating the fruit God said not to eat, they sat in a position of evaluation over God’s law and they evaluated that law as not worth following. They evaluated the promise of knowledge and being like God as of greater worth than God’s law and being obedient to him. They chose for themselves what is right and wrong! This is the essence of sin! Rebelling against God, choosing for ourselves which parts of God’s law to obey or not obey. Choosing to put ourselves in the position of God- the arbiter of right and wrong – and in so doing becoming rivals of God (at least in our own hearts if not rivals in power).
Autonomy is the heart of sin not freedom. Wanting to be our own law, wanting to choose everything for ourselves, maybe you can argue for that if we are all equals. It doesn’t seem to be working out very well in our society though. Autonomy might be ok if there is no God. But there is a God! And we are not equal with him! In creating us he has authority over us. So our attempts at autonomy are actually a rebellion against him. They are a violation of the appropriate relationship we should have with the King of Kings, with our Lord and Creator. We are committing treason when we seek autonomy instead of obedience to God. And this treason is at the heart of all of the problems of humanity stretching back all the way to the beginning!
What It Means
What, then, does all of this mean? It means we are pursuing the wrong thing! We are pursuing autonomy- being a law unto ourselves, when we should be pursuing freedom- freedom to achieve what we were designed and made to be- creatures created in the image of God! (That’s actually another mistake Adam and Eve made- The serpent said “you will be like God” when they already were like God- created in his image!)
We are pursuing autonomy when we should be pursuing freedom. One way to further describe this is that “freedom” is “freedom to” – that is, freedom to pursue our purposes and goals. Autonomy, on the other hand, is “freedom from” – that is, freedom from restriction. Freedom from rules, boundaries or having to hear “no.”
In our culture, the difference lies in where we find our purpose and goal. We want to “look within” to find these things, we say each person gets to choose their own purpose and goals. We have moved the authority of determining purpose to the individual and away from God. That’s what Eve did when she saw the fruit and evaluated it. She determined its purpose – to give her wisdom and make her like God!
This shows up very subtly in our everyday discussion. For instance, what do we tell children? “You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up!” You can marry whomever you want. You can work wherever
you want. You can live wherever you want. Spend your money on whatever you want, etc.
We confuse the autonomy of “Whatever you want” with freedom to pursue “What you were made to be.”
This causes all sorts of problems when we try to get along with others! I’ve mentioned this before, but think about why our marriages are breaking up at such a pace: Raise a person to be autonomous and how do they live? They do what they want; they spend their money on what they want; if they want a pet they get it; if they want to move they do; if they want to change jobs or work part time they do. They get up when they want, eat what they want when they want it, buy what they want and if they don’t have the money to buy it they put it on their credit card.
Then you get married! Suddenly you can’t do what you want. If you want to move or change jobs, it affects your spouse. If you want to spend money on what you want, it affects your spouse. You need to start working together when your whole life you’ve been taught the goal is to do what you want autonomously. No wonder we have no clue how to be partners! When you get married it suddenly affects someone when you get up or go to bed, what you eat and when you eat it, how you spend, where you live, where and how much you work.
And when we’ve rejected objective standards of right and wrong, made truth to be what you want it to be, who arbitrates when you have competing desires, preferences and needs in your marriage? Whoever can generate the most power! Suddenly marriage is a constant power struggle instead of a partnership! All in the name of autonomy masquerading as freedom.
What if we told children, “You can be whatever God calls you to be when you grow up”? How would that change how we grow up, how we live as adults, etc? What if we said, “You can be whatever gives God the most glory when you grow up,” or “Whatever you do when you grow up, give God the glory when you do it”?
This different way to teaching children counteracts autonomy and identifies freedom- doing what God made you to do – know him and glorify him forever! Maybe it’s too much to expect secular society to do this, but as Christians, wouldn’t that be a marvellously counter-cultural way to talk to our kids? It might even change how we think and live too!
What To Do
First, I hope this is eye opening. I hope you can start to see that autonomy is not freedom- that freedom from restriction (autonomy) is not the same as freedom to pursue. If this is eye opening for you, let this sit and marinate for a while. Start looking at how your own life reflects the pursuit of autonomy instead of freedom.
Second, ask yourself, “What is God’s goal for my life?” God wants you to know him – how are you getting to know God? God wants you to respond to knowing him by glorifying him. Another way to say it is to enjoy him forever! When you get to know God you enjoy him! He’s a pretty good God to know :D
This kind of freedom, freedom to pursue your purpose begins with repentance. It is in turning to Jesus that the veil is removed from our hearts and we see the truth. Where is your relationship with God? Have you ever surrendered to him? If you have, are you still travelling on a trajectory that takes you to him? Remember, repentance is not a one-time decision, it’s a lifestyle. To find true freedom means living a life of continually adjusting your trajectory to be headed straight to God.
Freedom grows as we behold God. That’s the really cool thing in Paul’s passage in 2 Cor 3. The verb for “transformed” is passive- that is, it’s something done to us by God. The active verb, what we do, is behold! (Remember, behold is a better translation than reflect.)
This means that the essence of Christian experience is not “try harder” but the secret of “beholding” God. How do we behold God? First, turn in his direction. You can’t see what’s behind you! Our eyes look forward
Second, when looking at God, how do you behold him? We behold him through worship, reading his word, learning about him, meditating on his word and prayer, but also serving others, learning to love others with a self-giving love! Our freedom is found in pursuing our purpose, part of which is glorifying God. One way that starts now is demonstrating his character of love, kindness and generosity to those around us, even those for whom we have little affection.
True freedom is found in pursuing our purpose-being transformed to be like Jesus so that we know God and glorify him forever! That’s the transformation the Spirit brings. First, we are turned to face God, then we behold God, then the Spirit transforms us to be like Him- like Jesus, and in that transformation we know God intimately and personally and our natural response is to be like Him and thus bring him glory.
That is freedom. That is the truth. That is the truth infused with hope that we each need to hear. Amen.
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