By Jeff Brawner
Among the many things that have changed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks is that Americans seem less likely to take freedom for granted. Yet, even the most flag-waving, fireworks-cheering, Star-Spangled-Banner-singing patriot might be surprised to discover that he is not as free as he’d like to think. In a land known for its political and economic liberty, many people — many Christian people — have yet to taste real freedom.
There’s a dramatic difference between living in the “land of liberty” and knowing true spiritual freedom. The real thing can’t be spelled out in a constitution or passed into law by some legislative body. It is not a concept that originated in the minds of men or women. Freedom is God’s idea. Knowing and experiencing that freedom begins when we understand three essential concepts.
Living free is God’s plan for us.
There are more than 100 verses in the Bible that deal with the subject at hand. Consider just two of them.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, NIV).
“You, my brothers, were called to be free” (Galatians 5:13).
Notice that freedom is more than an option; it is a way of life to which we are called. We must never accept an enslaved life as our inevitable life because God’s plan is for us to experience an expanded life.
I am told that the process of training an elephant to live in captivity begins soon after birth when the trainer chains it securely to a tree. The baby will pull and pull on the chain until its energy is spent. Within a few days, the elephant concludes that pulling on the chain is useless and gives up trying. Once this conditioning process has taken place, the trainer can simply drop the loose end of the chain on the ground. The baby elephant will walk around it in circles, held fast by a fetter that isn’t attached to anything but a memory.
Like the baby elephant, it’s easy for us to become conditioned by our past experiences, hurts and hang-ups. Even though we’ve been cut loose from our past through Christ, it isn’t always easy to believe we’re free to move in new directions.
Freedom is our God-given calling, and it’s high time we stepped into it.
Living free is about purpose.
In his book A View From the Zoo, author Gary Richmond (who worked as a zookeeper before going into the ministry) recalls discovering a large cage full of red-tailed hawks in the zoo’s infirmary. The sad-looking creatures weren’t injured; they were being held as evidence in the trial of some poachers who had caught them illegally. Ironically, the criminals, out on bail, were as free as a bird while the birds (the victims of the crime) were in jail. Moved by a sense of justice as well as compassion, Gary decided to set the hawks free. He placed the cage outside, opened the door and left, expecting the birds to fly to freedom. Later, when he came back to retrieve the empty cage, he was shocked to see the feathered inmates still standing inside. Theorizing that all they needed was a little encouragement, Gary ran into the cage waving his arms and growling. The birds took to flight, but landed just a few feet away. It was suddenly very clear to Gary that all they wanted to do was get back into the cage.
In the wild, red-tailed hawks are majestic birds of prey. They soar through the air, braving the elements, evading predators, hunting relentlessly for mice and reptiles. That is their destiny, their God-given purpose. Captivity had changed all that for these birds. They had grown content to sit in the cage and wait to be fed.
The lesson Gary learned from his experience aptly sums up what the Bible teaches us about spiritual liberty: Freedom is the ability to fulfill the purpose for which you were created.
That’s what Paul was trying to teach the Galatian believers when he said, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows” (Galatians 5:13, The Message).
Because authentic, biblical freedom has more to do with God’s purpose for our lives than with our place or position in life, we can be free wherever we are. I remember speaking with a man who had found Christ while serving a term in federal prison. “Because I have Jesus Christ in my life,” he told me, “I’m as free in this prison as any of you who will walk out of here.” If you are pursuing your God-given purpose, you can be free no matter what your situation or circumstances happen to be.
Living free is about God’s prescription for us.
Before we can put what we have learned into practice, we need to discover how to experience the freedom God has given us. The Bible spells out a three-part prescription for liberty that must be taken as directed.
Part one: It’s a matter of whom we know.
“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36, NIV).
Freedom begins with a relationship with Jesus Christ. The kind of relationship we are talking about is far more than a casual acquaintance.
Imagine working for a boss who has little regard for ethics and even less regard for his employees. (For some, this may require very little imagination!) He is stingy, demeaning, dishonest and verbally abusive. When he is not lying or cheating, he’s expecting you to do it for him.
Suddenly, news reaches your office that there has been a corporate takeover. The old boss has been bought out! The new boss changes everything, turning the company into an institution you can be proud of. As if that weren’t enough, he makes you his partner and guarantees you a generous income for life.
As you’re sitting in your office marveling at your good fortune, the old boss comes storming in and starts barking out orders. Do you obey him? Of course not. Do you punch him in the nose? Sure, it’s tempting, but he’s bigger than you are. The best course of action is to look him straight in the eye and calmly say, “Take it up with the new owner.”
Second Corinthians 5:17 promises that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” True Christian freedom grows out of our understanding that we are “under new management.”
Part two: It’s a matter of what we know.
“Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ ” (John 8:31,32).
The kind of “knowing” described in the Bible involves much more than simply being aware of a fact. Actually, it has two profound meanings. The first involves comprehending truth.
“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18,19).
Obviously, we have a lot to learn about all that God has for us. In order to learn it, the “eyes” of our hearts must be enlightened. If you look beyond the allegorical use of body parts in the passage, the bottom line becomes clear: we need to depend on God to expand our minds.
The second meaning of “know” involves the action of internalizing and living out truth. This is where the rubber meets the road. The Western mind thinks of “knowing” in terms of something being committed to or recalled from memory. In Hebrew, the concept of knowing is directly related to doing. It is not a matter of appreciating or admiring truth; it is a matter of applying truth.
Part three: It’s a matter of whether we grow.
Gary Richmond’s red-tailed hawks had a choice to make. Instead of looking to the sky and flying off to fulfill their God-given purpose, they settled for the comfort of the cage. Each of us must make a similar choice. Will we take off or stay put? I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Hebrews 6:1-3 in The Message:
“So come on, let’s leave the preschool fingerpainting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on ‘salvation by self-help’ and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment. God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!”
It may seem better to stick with an old life that is miserable but familiar than to risk a future you can’t see, taste or touch. After all, taking to the sky can be scary. But imagine the sense of fulfillment that results from becoming the person God created you to be. There’s nothing holding you back. You are cleared for takeoff!
Next time: “Winning over worry”
Jeff Brawner is senior pastor of Bonita Valley Community Church (Assemblies of God) in Bonita, Calif.
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