The paradox of Christian freedom

Editorial, October 2009

“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). St. Paul tells us that faith in Christ makes us free. In the contemporary world there is a universal demand for more freedom—personal, political and economic. Freedom, however, is a slogan word that has many different meanings. Today freedom is often understood in the sense of a lack of restraint, so that one is free to do whatever one wishes to do. That is a form of licentiousness, not true freedom. Freedom understood as licentiousness is a false freedom. Actually, it is not freedom at all, but rather it is slavery to one’s selfishness, passions and pride.

Christian freedom is something totally different. The Christian who submits himself to the law of love in Christ Jesus is the one who is truly free. Only God has absolute freedom because his will is identified with his being or substance. So God is essential freedom—he can do whatever he wills because he has absolute power over all things. But since God is also absolute truth and goodness, he can do only what is in accordance with his essence—everything he does is good. So God cannot deceive and he cannot do anything that is evil since that is contrary to his nature.

On the other hand, created freedom is limited and relative. But the more a created person (man or angel) approaches the goodness of God, the more he shares in the freedom of God. We have here what seems to be a paradox. Man wishes to be free, but the only way he can become truly free is by submitting himself to Christ by faith, hope and charity. St. Paul calls it the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). The saints who strive mightily to serve God in all things, whose whole being is centered on God, are human persons who are supremely free. Submission to the truth is what makes one free.

Sin is slavery because it is rooted in falsity, while the obedience of faith in love is based on truth and results in freedom. Sin is rebellion against God and glorification of self. Jesus expresses this truth in St. John’s Gospel (8:31-32), a text often quoted by Pope John Paul II: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” So the saint is free and the sinner is a slave.

There you have it from the mouth of God himself: it is the truth that makes one truly free. The ultimate reason for this is that we are creatures made in the image and likeness of God. Why did God make us? What is our destiny? God made us to know him, to love him and to serve him in this life and to be happy with him forever in the next life. So since we were made for God and for truth and for goodness, nothing short of God will really satisfy us. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). That is also why the eye is not filled with seeing and the ear is not filled with hearing. In other words, no created thing can satisfy the human heart. St. Augustine put his finger on it when he said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

I am reminding you of the nature of Christian freedom because we are bombarded daily with the false notion of freedom in matters such as “freedom of choice” regarding abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and other moral issues. The assumptions of the secular humanists, who deny the existence of God and see man as descended from the apes with no immortal soul, have taken a commanding position in our culture and are proclaimed incessantly in the media and in the public schools and universities.

In order not to be infected with these false ideas, it is essential that we know our faith well, that we know the truth, and that we recognize and reject error and falsehoods when we encounter them. This is another reason why every family should have handy a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It offers a detailed index, and there you will find the truth if you spend a little time looking for it.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.