One of my favorite movies is Braveheart. Who could forget that stirring speech made by Mel Gibson, playing Scottish hero William Wallace, as he motivates his troops at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with the cry: “They may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!”
Freedom is a powerful idea and probably our culture’s supreme value. People want to believe they are free to choose their ethics, beliefs, values, and more. Our culture proclaims that choice is good, the more of it the better, and anything that restricts it is bad. And that’s a problem when it comes to God—surely, the protest goes, God is anti-freedom. Don’t I have to choose between my personal autonomy and a belief in God?
Well, that depends how you define “freedom”. And defining it as “the absence of any constraints” is a bad way to begin, because no such version of freedom exists. For example, I want to be free to eat endless Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. I also want to be free to run a mile in six minutes. Those two desires conflict—I cannot choose them both and thus I am forced to decide which freedom is the most important and sacrifice accordingly.
This shows us something important: real freedom is not the absence of constraints but the right constraints. Furthermore, if I indulge my Creme Egg eating fixation, I will quickly discover my body has limits, as my waistline grows and my mile times drop. My choice has crashed into reality.
One of my hobbies is drone flying. The instructions that came with my eye-wateringly expensive flying camera warn about not flying it in enclosed spaces, such as woods. A few months ago, I made the mistake of ignoring that constraint, took it flying in a nearby forest, and bounced it off a tree, almost destroying it. If we use something the wrong way, we can damage it. So, what about us as humans: what were we designed for? Fascinating question, isn’t it?
There’s yet a further problem with defining freedom as “personal autonomy”: it destroys relationships. To be in a relationship requires you to make commitments and to sacrifice certain freedoms. When I got married, 18 years ago, I discovered staying out late at the pub without telling my wife, or spending hundreds of pounds on new gadgets without talking to her first, did not go down well. Now I was in a new kind of relationship, that required giving up some freedom—but with that sacrifice came commitment and love and new kinds of freedoms.
But there is one last problem with playing off “freedom” against “God” and it’s that the objection overlooks something: namely that nobody is free because everybody is serving something. If it isn’t God, then it’ll be your career, or your grades, or your bank balance, or your sex life, or a particular hobby. As David Foster Wallace, the Pulitzer Prize nominated novelist remarked:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you … Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Worship these other things, give up your freedom to them and they will crucify you inside with self-loathing. In contrast, at the heart of the Christian faith, Jesus was crucified for you.
If you follow Jesus, yes there will be constraints, but they will be the right constraints, the ones designed by a God who knows you and loves you. And a God who, in Jesus, made the first move, giving up his independence when he went to the cross, so that you may know the loving relationship for which you were intended. As Gal 5:1 puts it: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
This article is republished with permission from the author.
Dr. Andy Bannister is a popular speaker, author, and broadcaster. Andy is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and an Adjunct Speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Andy speaks and teaches regularly throughout the UK, Canada, the USA, and the wider world on issues relating to faith, culture, politics, and society. Andy holds a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and has published books both on Islam and atheism.
David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009) 100-110.
I’m drawing here from Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016) esp. chapter 5.