Owning your freedom

July 7th, 2021

A few weeks before our wedding, I admitted to Joy that I was terrified. This was not a case of the pre-wedding jitters. Many people worry about whether or not they’re marrying the right person.

But something else entirely had me in its grip. I was realizing that I am radically free to nurture or destroy our relationship. Nothing could compel me or stop me but me.

Here’s how I explained it to Joy that day. The philosopher Sartre asks us to imagine a man hiking along a cliff with no guardrail. His heart is pounding. His palms are sweaty, and his mouth is dry. It’s a long way down.

His anxiety is going through the roof. And while most of us would assume that he is afraid of falling, Sartre discerns something deeper. At the edge of that precipice, the man discovers his own freedom. Nothing prevents him from jumping.

He can choose. Neither the so-called will to live nor the circumstances of his life force him to step back from the ledge. To borrow a phrase from Sartre, he is condemned to be free. He will choose to leap or not to leap.

If you’re familiar with the existentialists, you may know that radical freedom is one of their central themes. But you may not realize that it happens to be one of Jesus’s basic teachings.

Specifically, we will choose to love or not to love. Our circumstances neither force us nor prevent us from doing so. And it is our deep commitment to love that will keep us going no matter what.

Jesus is painfully honest. Life is an imperfect gift. Wonderful and wretched things happen. “It is what it is.” Only, that’s not where he stops. He basically says, “It is what it is. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

Hope begins by squarely facing reality: It is what it is. But we are capable of doing more than merely acknowledging, passively accepting, or blindly reacting to the contours and dynamics of the world we inhabit. This is where the implied “now what” of Jesus comes in for us. We have the radical freedom to choose to love.

Jesus makes our freedom to choose love especially clear in one of his most counterintuitive teachings: love your enemy. Again and again, we will encounter people who use coercion, violence, and domination to make a better place for themselves in the world at the expense of others.

It’s tempting, maybe even appropriate by some people’s estimate, to hit back. Fight fire with fire.

By contrast, Jesus teaches us to inhabit this planet in a fundamentally different way. We can refuse to be enemies even, and especially with those who insist on seeing us as their enemy. Instead, we can choose to actualize our true selves as the image of God, as the “children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45).

God is love. So when we love, it is God’s love pouring into us, saturating us, and overflowing from within us.

That’s how the living God is present with us and in us. Receiving love and freely choosing to give that love away make life worth living, giving us the “why” to keep going in the world as it actually is.

Nothing can prevent us from choosing to love. We are radically free to do so. Conversely, nothing compels us to love. We must choose to live for love, to make love the driving force of our lives.

Independence Day celebrates freedom. We hold barbecues, sing patriotic songs, and watch fireworks. And Jesus bids us do something else as well.

Jesus presses us to challenge ourselves with this question: “On what am I staking my life?” It could be love. Or power. Or prestige. Or possessions. Jesus is urging us to be honest about the “why” of our lives and whether or not this “why” will sustain us in even our darkest hour.

This essay is adapted from my latest book, Looking for God in Messy Places.

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