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True Freedom

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

The Statue of Liberty has always been a symbol of hope for millions and millions of immigrants who have come to this country, often fleeing poverty, oppression and the harsh realities of their homeland. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me, for I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” We children of immigrants understand these words better than most and should always thank God!!!

Why did Lady Liberty encourage many of our own ancestors, instilling a burning ray of hope in them? Because she symbolizes one of the great values of life itself – the value of liberty and freedom! It is precisely these blessings of liberty and freedom that we Americans celebrated yesterday on the 4th of July. And yet, as we lift up and celebrate the blessings of freedom, we should always pause and meditate upon the meaning of freedom. What is freedom? What is the best way to enjoy freedom? What is the ultimate purpose of freedom?

Although we live in a so-called “free country,” does our freedom mean we are free to do whatever we like? Obviously not! We have laws that all citizens must obey – laws that limit people in certain ways, yet laws which hopefully enhance our freedom and experience of life.

Try to imagine what life would be like with unrestricted freedom. Absolute freedom, where one can do whatever he/she chooses, is not freedom at all, but anarchy and chaos! When people misuse their freedom to do whatever they like, even when it infringes on the freedom of another, the end result is slavery to one’s passions and desires.

I experienced such unrestricted freedom, which turned into anarchy, when I lived in Albania in 1997. People rose up in arms against the government because of an economic “ponzi” pyramid scheme that robbed most people of their life savings. Common people began raiding the army storage houses, and then selling anything from Kalashnikov machine guns to hand grenades on the streets for a couple dollars. The police and army disappeared, and everyone had unrestricted freedom. What was the result of no laws – absolute anarchy and madness! People looted shops, robbed one another, and made life a living hell for countless victims. And such freedom-turned-to-anarchy surely is not unique to Albania. Here in our own country we witness the same anarchy from time to time, whenever a power outage darkens a major city and people freely act out their passions and desires.

So true freedom is not liberty to do whatever one chooses. Freedom may mean liberation from an oppressor, or may mean the absence of coercion in making a choice or action in certain circumstances, but it does not imply the absence of limits and guidelines.

This is why someone once said, “Along with the Statue of Liberty in the harbor of NY on the East Coast, we need another statue in the harbor of San Francisco on the West Coast. We need the Statue of Responsibility. With liberty comes responsibility. With true freedom comes a willingness to follow certain guidelines and rules that allow you to enjoy your freedom in a fuller way.

The Christian Faith preaches this understanding of freedom! Jesus Christ desires to set each one of us free from any bondage that may enslave us. Yet such authentic freedom comes with responsibility, with a readiness to follow certain commandments.

We were created in the image and likeness of God, which means we were created as free creatures. We have the freedom to choose: to believe in God or not; to follow His commandments in our lives or not; to love or to hate; to do good or to do evil; to see the good around us, or to complain about the evil surrounding us.

God has given us the freedom to choose in every decision we make. Such a gift of freedom is closely connected to God’s greatest gift of love. True love cannot have coercion in it. To love someone means to give them the freedom to choose whether they want to love you back or no.

So each one of us was created free. Yet with our freedom we have choices, and with choices we can misuse our freedom and become enslaved to certain passions, to certain habits, to certain temptations, and to certain sins. And as we hear from Saint Paul’s writings, “The wages of sin is death.” So the misuse of freedom leads to death.

The danger to misuse one’s freedom can be seen numerous times in the Old Testament. For example, the central story of the Old Testament is about freedom – describing the freedom of the Israelites after 400 years of slavery and their Passover into the Promised Land. What is interesting, however, is that as soon as God frees the Israelites from their bondage, Moses leads the people to Mt. Sinai to meet Him and to make a choice. Will they use their freedom to accept a covenant with God, or will they use their freedom to indulge their sinful desires?

The Lord shows them clearly that if they want to enjoy their freedom, then they need to follow His Commandments. The Law of Moses which they received was a guide to help them protect their freedom. God basically says, “Obey my law and you will truly be free, because you will be living as you were created to live!” He knows what is best for us since He is our Creator. Doesn’t it make sense to responsibly follow His Commandments?!?

In the Old Testament we see an important pattern from Slavery to Freedom, from Freedom to Covenant, from Covenant to Responsibility, and from Responsibility to Obedience. Only in this pattern can we truly experience and live true freedom!

In the New Testament, we see a similar pattern in the teachings of our Lord. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promises many blessings to his followers: they will taste the kingdom of heaven, and they will experience an abundant life of love, joy, mercy, peace and grace. After He promises the blessings, however, he talks about the responsibility. We must love one another. We must forgive even our enemies. We must pray, fast, and offer alms to the poor. And we must do unto others as we want them to do unto us. We must strive to become perfect as our father in heaven is perfect!

The freedom to live life as God meant it to be lived, as God created us to live, living under His blessing, can never come without responsibility. Responsibility helps one to live freely, just as discipline helps one experience true freedom.

Responsibility, discipline and obedience go hand-in-hand with freedom. Saint Paul even tells us that we have been set free from sin, but with our freedom we should become slaves of righteousness. He challenges us to yield ourselves to holiness and sanctification. He tells us to use our freedom to obey God! He even tells us to use our freedom to become slaves of one another, because through our consciously deciding to sacrifice self, we discover our true nature of divine love, which is the fruit of wisely using our freedom.

Remember this as we celebrate the 4th of July this weekend, Independence Day for our country. This country prides itself on liberty and freedom, yet we are in danger of losing our true freedom precisely because we have forgotten the connection between freedom and responsibility, between freedom and obedience to a higher law. Too many people clamor for unrestricted freedom in absolutely foolish ways, thus enslaving themselves to bane desires and unrestricted passions.

Saint Paisios the Athonite offers these words: “It is not freedom when we say everything is permitted. This is slavery.”

Let us pause today and remind ourselves about the nature of true freedom. Are we interested in experiencing the freedom for which our Creator created us? Do we want to experience freedom in its fullest? If we say yes, then we must be ready to accept the responsibility, discipline and obedience that come along with true freedom. Then we must be ready to use our freedom to become slaves of righteousness, slaves of holiness, slaves in loving one another with the Divine Love of God.