We are the freest people to ever walk this planet, at least in terms of opportunity. Our freedom is so great that, at times, it is almost a burden, an over-choice. We often find it difficult to commit ourselves to marriage, to a vocation, to a career, and to a friendship precisely because we are so free and have so many choices.
Freedom is a great gift. But it’s easily misused and easily becomes a destructive thing. We’ve all hurt others and ourselves through the misuse of our freedom.
But something doesn’t become bad just because it’s misused. Food remains a good thing, even when we over-eat. It’s the same with freedom. It remains always the greatest gift that God has given us, even though we don’t always use it maturely. Jesus came to bring us freedom. But it’s easy to lose that perspective and, today, it’s not uncommon to hear sincere, good-hearted, religious people speak out against freedom, as if it were an enemy, something that should be restricted in the name of God, church, and morality.
While that’s sincere, it’s also misguided. What’s needed today is not less freedom but more maturity. We don’t need to roll back freedom in the name of God and morality: we need raise the level of our maturity to match the level of our freedom. Simply put, we are often too immature to carry properly the great gift of freedom that God has given us. The answer to that is not to denigrate freedom in the name of God and morality, but to invite a deeper maturity so as to more properly honour the great gift that we have been given.
Our model here is Jesus, himself. Nobody has walked this earth as freely as he did. But he also had the maturity to carry such great freedom without ever misusing it. If we can believe the gospels, Jesus wasn’t afraid of anything – satan, temptation, tax-collectors, prostitutes, street people, rich people, poor people, church people, non-church people, moral people, and immoral people. He went into the singles’ bars of his time, but he didn’t sin.
And in that lies the challenge: To walk in freedom, but not compromise ourselves in doing so. Not an easy thing to do. There is always a double danger: On the one hand, we can be too timid and too frightened to use our freedom to take God’s presence and grace into places that are morally threatening, like Jesus did. That’s often where we, as church people, sell ourselves and our freedom short. We are so afraid of seemingly godless places that we simply stay away from them, fearing for our own safety. That’s sometimes a very prudent thing to do; it isn’t always an imitation of Jesus. He wasn’t afraid to go into godless places.
As well, there’s the opposite danger, namely, that we go into morally dangerous places and lose ourselves there. Like Jesus, we eat and drink with sinners, but, unlike him, we sin because we don’t have the maturity and moral strength to be in dangerous situations without falling.
But, dangers notwithstanding, the great challenge is to become mature enough to walk in the freedom of Jesus without compromising. Whenever we are able to do that, we become missionaries in the true sense, namely, we take God’s love and light into places that are devoid of them. But that’s not easy to do. We need models to help us.
Someone who can help mentor us on this, I believe, is Henri Nouwen. One of his great gifts was his honesty about his own moral and emotional struggles and the capacity to share that in a way that helps us in our own struggles.
Nouwen was searingly honest in admitting that he struggled. He shared that, even if you are sincere, prayerful, morally honest, and trying your best, it doesn’t mean that you won’t, at the same time, also be weak, complex, tempted, torn, discouraged, forever at war with certain parts of yourself, sinful, and subject to obsessions, addictions, and pathologies. Our desires are deep, complex, unyielding, wild horses, bent on their own path – and all of this co-exists with what’s healthy, good, and best in us. So it’s not easy to be whole, mature, and to walk into morally dangerous places and not sin.
Nouwen was so honest and humble about this that there were seasons in his life when he wouldn’t travel by himself, but always took along a companion, because he recognized that there are a lot more moral dangers travelling alone than there are when we have family, companions, and community along with us.
We aren’t all as mature and as strong as Jesus. Like Nouwen, we need to be honest and humble about our weaknesses, sometimes we simply don’t have the maturity to walk into dark places alone. We’re wise to take someone with us so that, in the strength given by family and community, our maturity can measure up to our freedom.