A Sermon on Freedom, Opportunity and the Disciplines

This is the sermon I spoke on Sunday, the first analogy in italics is what I did at the beginning of the message to illustrate the point.

This month we are talking about rhythms in our lives. Violent rhythms, healthy ones, God-ordained ones like the sabbath. This is an interesting topic, because these rhythms determine so much about the types of people we are and they determine the types of people we become. Darryl had a big part in helping me write this message, so thanks to him for setting me on this course.

Have Val come up and play anything she wants on the piano, anything at all. As Val plays something beautiful, let her sit down and thank her. Now ask Steve to come up, and tell him he can play anything at all on the piano. Anything. Taunt him a little while he’s up there trying to stutter through something, tell him he has complete freedom to do whatever he wants, that we aren’t imposing on his freedom whatsoever.

There is something odd happening here. How come, when given the same kind of freedom, Steve and Val give us two completely different results? Val is using her freedom wisely; playing us beautiful songs and actually giving us something we want to listen to. Steve on the other hand, who had the same amount of freedom, couldn’t play anything for us at all. In fact, he sucked. He completely abused his freedom and didn’t use it properly at all.

Unless of course, what we are talking about here is not freedom at all. Either there is something wrong with Steve, or maybe we need a different understanding of what freedom really is? What I would like to suggest that there is a large difference between freedom and opportunity. In this illustration with Steve and Val playing the piano, I gave them both equal opportunity to play us something worthwhile on the piano. However, only Val really had the freedom to play it. So what was different between Val and Steve that gave Val freedom but none to Steve?

We live in a time and place in the world where we celebrate freedom. We all love it and we all remind ourselves daily that we are free. We celebrate the fact that we can belong to any religious group, get a job that we want, make as much money as we want and speak about whatever we want. It is at the very core of our identity not only as Christians but also as Canadians. Our country is driven by a charter of rights and freedoms. This idea of freedom is so crucial to our being, the the idea of not being free (ie. communism) is an abomination to us. How dare someone strip humanity of their basic right to be free!

Of course the idea of freedom takes on different aspects depending on who you talk to. Ron and I met a guy in Las Vegas who was completely sold on the idea that he is a free man, and he is free to carry a firearm (or three) with him wherever he goes. Others have the belief that because they are free then they can decide if they have an abortion or not. Others believe that their freedom gives them the right to free health care. The list goes on.

However, there is something that is odd about this kind of freedom. There are tell-tale signs that this may not be true freedom; like if your freedom only exists because it imposes on someone else and steals their freedom away from them or if eventually your freedom leads to the destruction of freedom then it might not be freedom. Like in the example with Val and Steve, I think that we assume these ideas of freedom onto our lives that don’t necessarily define freedom, but rather opportunity.

For instance, I grew up with the opportunity to be an American Gladiator. In fact, I would watch the TV show and I looked at it and I was convinced that I could be a gladiator. However, I never really had the freedom to become one, and I never would have become one. This isn’t because I didn’t have the opportunity. If I would have taken specific intentional steps to tone my muscles, get in shape, have my hair done and become very cocky, then the odds are I probably could have eventually ended up on the show. But because I never setup my life in a way that would truly make me free to do that, I will never be on American Gladiators.

Or another example. We are free to eat what we want, when we want it. Absolutely. The how come someone that ends up living by this freedom looks like this? Is this really a picture of someone who is free?

isthisfree

So we know now that true freedom isn’t just something that arrives one day. Something else is going on. What needs to happen for freedom to truly take hold is for one to be disciplined and formed into freedom. The only way Val is free to play the piano for us is because this is a result of years of practice, discipline and Val being formed into being a musician. The only way I would have ever become an American Gladiator is if I spent the years necessary training. This is true in absolutely every circumstance where someone desires freedom to do or be something.

Now let’s move this over into our Christian lives and this idea that we are free in Christ and see what happens.

Q: As a Christian, what kind of freedom are we promised?

“Freedom in Christ” is a cliche that we throw around constantly to denote some type of mental state that we receive from being brought into a relationship with Christ. It is a difficult statement though because as we can see that our understanding of freedom is a bit skewed. I would say that most Christians live in a “opportunity of Christ” rather than a “freedom in Christ.” If this is true, this means that a lot of us are living false lives; lying to ourselves about our freedom to make us feel better. We end up gaining our value from what is possible rather than from what is promised. We think we are free, but really what we are participating in only causes us to be less free. This is the life we live as an adbusters image shows us.

i am free.jpeg

I think we all would agree that a statement like this is pretty ironic. This isn’t really freedom. Freedom looks different and is different.

The church in general offers a massive opportunity to become a Christian. Think about it. The entire idea of the alter call is an invitation to an opportunity of a life time. All you have to do is say this one prayer and well you get to go to heaven when you die and experience freedom in Christ. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. That may be taking advantage of an opportunity to make yourself feel better for a few days, but it certainly has nothing to do with truly experiencing freedom in Christ.

Paul understood this when he was writing to the Romans, here is a clip from what he said in Romans 6.

Romans 6:15-23 (MSG)
So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!

I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing-not caring about others, not caring about God-the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?

As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.

But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.

Now, as Christians, we are aware of our freedom. Freedom is there, lurking around the corner, but it isn’t just something that you have one day and don’t have the next. Paul’s life is an example to that, even in Roman’s. We see him encouraging people to live in their freedom and he acknowledges the struggle. He doesn’t however say that it is just something that lands on your lap as soon as you jump at the opportunity in a moment of strength.

Freedom can only come through being shaped and disciplined. The christian church has recognized this and has a history of learning to practice this type of freedom that Jesus and Paul talk about. Throughout history the church has picked up habits to try and bring the church closer to embracing and experiencing the freedom that is promised to them. One of the key things that Christians over the centuries have practiced have been spiritual disciplines. Every discipline helps take the Christian to a different understanding of freedom. Richard Foster is one of the most respected authors out there on the disciplines and here is what he says about the subject.

“Every discipline has its corresponding freedom. If I have schooled myself in the art of rhetoric, I am free to deliver a moving speech when the occasion requires it…The purpose of the disciplines is freedom. Our aim is the freedom, not the discipline. The moment we make the discipline our central focus, we turn it into law and lose the corresponding freedom.”
Foster (110)

So let’s look at a few of the disciplines and see what’s going on.

Fasting = Freedom from being controlled by our desire

“Fasting helps us keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them. Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be enslaved by anything.”
(1 Cor. 6:12)

Submission = Freedom from being controlling
“What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get your own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondage in human society today. People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished…They will act as if their very life hangs on the issue…In the discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it. Frankly, most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are.”
Richard Foster
Simplicity = Freedom from anxiety.
“As Jesus made clear in our central passage, freedom from anxiety is one of the inward evidences of seeking first the kingdom of God. The inward reality of simplicity involves a life of joyful unconcern for possessions. Neither the greedy nor the miserly know this liberty. It has nothing to do with abundance of possessions or their lack. It is an inward spirit of trust. The sheer fact that a person is living without things is no guarantee that he or she is living in simplicity…Conversely, wealth does not bring freedom from anxiety. Kierkegaard writes, “…riches and abundance come hypocritically clad in sheep’s clothing pretending to be security against anxieties and they become then the object of anxiety…they secure a man against anxieties just about as well as the wolf which is put to tending the sheep secures them…against the wolf.”
Richard Foster
So let’s take some time right now and discuss what other kinds of freedom we are talking about by practicing certain disciplines. Richard Foster gives us more of these disciplines.
mediation
prayer
study
solitude
service
confession
worship
guidance
celebration

So the question really does lie with us. If we want to be free and live lives of freedom. If we truly want to experience this life of freedom that we are promised then we can’t just decide to do it one day; we must start practicing and disciplining ourselves so that we may live this kind of life. I would argue that if you are not intentionally practicing a specific discipline, than you are probably not living out it’s corresponding freedom.

Sin of course gives the illusion of freedom. It shows you all the opportunities in the world and teases you with them. Erwin McManus puts it this way.

“Yes the things we choose in our freedom soon hold us as their prisoners. So much so that we choose freely what we later find ourselves trapped within. Your passions can create the exhilaration of freedom while leading you straight into a dark and merciless dungeon. Not all free acts lead to freedom. In fact if you’re not careful, the choices you freely make may cost you a life of genuine freedom. This is why the Bible talks about human experience in terms of being slaves to sin. One of the odd characteristics of sin is that it is a free act that enslaves you. Sin creates the illusion of freedom. In the end it fools us into seeking freedom from God rather than finding freedom in God.”
– Erwin McManus

We can see this with how Canadians spend their money. The Canadian national household debt as just recently reached an all-time high of 1.3 trillion dollars. This doesn’t sound like a statistics of a free country. 1.3 trillion dollars owing is not a symbol of freedom but rather something else. Parents now celebrate their freedoms as couples. Women can now work, and often you will see families with both parents working. This of course is seen as a celebrated freedom. Yet with some of the statistics surrounding family life and TV, it seems to me that there isn’t much freedom in this lifestyle at all. The average amount of time that a child spends in front of a TV is almost 1500 hours a year, where the average amount of time they will spend in school is only 900 hours a year. Or the fact that the number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children is less than four minutes but the number of minutes per week that the average child watches television is 1,680. Are these statistics of free families? Technology offers us things that the world could not comprehend 20 years ago; many would call this freedom. However when you find out that the amount of outdoor and creative play time for children has dropped over 90 percent in the last half of century, it is obvious that these freedoms may not be leading to as much freedom as we hoped.

It is difficult to leave you with a challenge after a message like this. Any challenge I leave you with will come off across as leaving you with an opportunity to try something new, but it could easily fall by the wayside as quickly as you picked it up. To be honest, there is no formula on how you make disciplines work. You either do them or you don’t. Most of us choose the latter.

We have a culture based on jumping all over every opportunity that presents itself and celebrating the fact that we have opportunity to be anything and have anything. In the same breath, we live in a culture that is very unsatisfied and constantly looking to find new so called freedoms to participate in. We jump at every opportunity that presents itself, we want instant satisfaction and we have no concept of waiting. Our culture has a disease in that we are no longer as a culture able to create freedom, rather we end up consuming opportunities. Andy Crouch, in talking about the consumeristic culture that we live in explains it this way, which I’ll explain and end the message on this. (Here is the link to his entire message)

Let’s say I just find out that there is a new album for sale by U2. Within moments I can do online, download the album, and be listening to it within seconds. The gap between desire and satisfaction of that desire is barely existent. Our satisfaction almost starts instantly. I’m actually more gratified in my download than I am in listening to the album, in many of our cases this is the same with purchasing something. We are more gratified at the checkout than we are actually using the product. As I’m listening to the new CD my satisfaction grows even more. It looks something like this.

pvsp1

But like any CD (or anything else I’ve ever bought) the satisfaction eventually starts to wear off. As you listen to the CD the third, fifth or even tenth time the satisfaction begins to lose it’s weight.

pvsp2

This is of course our normal pattern for consumer goods and us buying things. Of course it’s just the initial satisfaction that any marketer needs you to experience, because this is the beauty of out consumeristic tendencies. If you experience the initial satisfaction, that’s all that is needed for the wheel to keep on spinning, because they got their money. Of course, our goal is to be satisfied. We use our so called freedoms in doing whatever it takes to always stay satisfied at all times.

pvsp3

Crouch keeps going

Now, as long as you have the money to keep making those purchases, this pattern works. You stay satisfied at a very high level, constantly enthralled by the newest and greatest. And you keep a bunch of companies in business. And indeed, there is something elemental about this pattern: it is, after all, the pattern of one of the most basic human experiences, hunger. We eat, are satisfied, grow hungry, and eat again. The genius of consumer culture is to extend this basic human experience to almost every corner of our lives: the cars we drive, the television we watch, the Web sites we visit. Call it the pattern of purchases. In a consumer economy, this is the template for more and more of our discretionary money and time: satisfaction sustained by frequent purchases. All it really requires of us is money.

Rarely though, does this pattern actually bring real freedom. Rather it probably starts to look a bit more like this.

pvsp4

This of course is the pattern of addiction. One does something that initially was great and offers a great amount of satisfaction. Wanting to repeat the feeling, the user participates in the same experience again; but something is a bit off, it’s not as powerful and it probably wears off more quickly, which of course pushes the person to jump into it again. The satisfaction keeps going down and down and eventually starts to go into the negative. The actions that were once bringing the most satisfaction are now depressing and the opposite of satisfying.

pvsp5

Andy Crouch puts it this way.

In the long run, with the most addictive substances and behaviors, the satisfaction from each additional unit is actually negative – unsatisfying and destructive – yet the user is so entrenched in the pattern, still clinging to the memory of those first euphoric hits, that he or she is unable to escape. With the worst addictions, apart from the grace of God, the pattern always and only ends in the premature death of the user, caught in a downward spiral that began with beautiful bliss.

This example is a destructive pattern of trying to satisfy yourself without properly understanding how freedom really works. It just doesn’t last. These so called free acts to not lead to eventual freedom but they lead to being imprisoned.

Like we have discussed earlier, there is a better way to truly experience satisfaction and freedom. We can bring it back to the example of Val on the piano. When Val first began playing the piano, I am sure, like any of us, it was horrible. Wrong notes, too loud, bad timing….I’m sure it was all there. There is very little satisfaction in starting to learn how to play the piano. I would say for many, there is almost no satisfaction, it’s almost the opposite. This is how my parents raised me in music. The understanding was there that I would not enjoy it at first, but they kept pushing me and pushing me, but for the time being there was negative satisfaction.

pvsp6But if one, like Val, keeps up at it and keeps practicing and pushing through, over time, as she starts to sit down at the piano, it starts to become more satisfying (for her and the people that have to listen).

As you keep practicing you slowly start to learn the art of the instrument and you can actually start playing songs and they sound like the song. You start to become more and more satisfied with your participation. Here is the crazy part about this part of the graph, as Crouch points out, this graph keeps going up for a very very long time, and it may never go down. Even if Val stops playing piano for a while and picks it back up again, she will enjoy it. Playing her own instrument and creating her own music is a freedom that she never had before and now it is one of the most satisfying parts of her life.

pvsp7This is what disciplines and practice bring into your life. It is a life that was never there before. This is the difference between purchasing something to make you happy and practicing something to bring you satisfaction. You can buy a CD but all the hard work of creating has already been done for you. Spend hours and years pouring your life into how to play the piano and then finally be able to re-create or even create some of your own music and it is a completely different experience.

And this points to an even more significant difference between purchases and practices. Practices, done consistently over time, expand our own capacities in fundamental and irreversible ways. Practice the violin for an hour a day, for twenty years, and at the end you will be able to do things, to create things, you were completely unable to do and create before. Listen to recorded violin music for the same amount of time, and while you may by the end have a pretty complete mental grasp of the violin repertoire, you will be just as helpless with an actual violin as you were twenty years earlier. When we purchase, we are simply freeloading off the capacities some other person has developed, and our own capacities change very little or, most often, not at all. But when we practice, we change.

So this is what I want to leave you with today. I want to be a community of Christians who do not heed to every purchase that presents itself to us and to every opportunity that arises just because we can. I want to be a community who chooses real freedom; a freedom that takes sweat and blood to experience. I want to be a community that runs deep because we are rooted in practices that help us become who we are talking about. So I challenge you to start living a life of practice and discipline so that you may truly experience the freedom that God has in place for you. It will suck at first and it will not be enjoyable but it is the only true path to real freedom.

4 Comments

  • wow…you’ve got some discipline to lay all that out.
    very well done. Hearing it it person on Sunday and reading it each shed a new light on the subject.
    funny, i was considering all this, in my own personal way, just this week. In the area of a bad habit called smoking…
    i thought, i’m justified, i’m an adult, i can,… yet i know i simply shouldn’t. I dare not buy two packs at a time for i know i will just smoke more…just because i can doesn’t mean i should….
    other than the smoking…i’m an absolute saint ya’ know….hahahahahahahahahahahah ….oo…that was funny!!!
    thanks for sharin’ Nat
    thanks for listening

  • poor Val……..she plays beautifully on Sunday and her daughter, Sarah, gets all the credit…..

  • Well-said!

Join the Discussion