“Never take your word of truth from my mouth,
for I have put my hope in your laws.
I will always obey your law,
for ever and ever.
I will walk about in freedom,
for I have sought out your precepts..”
-Psalm 119:43-45 (NIV)
For a church in an urban area, we have a pretty good-sized front lawn. So when the weather is good, kids like to play out there. The problem is we have a small, crowded parking lot, and one of the streets at the intersection where the church is located is pretty busy. So the parents tend to set limits for their kids.
When my son Josh was a kid his limits were the sidewalks and the parking lot. He was allowed to run around all he wanted on the grass. But he was told not to cross the sidewalks onto the parkway that borders the street. And he was told not to go into the parking lot.
Now again, the grassy area he was allowed play in is large. There was plenty of space there for him to run in. He could hide behind the sign. He could crawl into the bushes and play in the dirt. It wasn’t like he was tied to a stake in the ground; there was plenty of room for him and all the other kids at church to play any game they could imagine.
And the restrictions, of course, were for his own good. He didn’t always believe it, but my only motive in telling him he had to stay between the sidewalks was his safety. He was too little to play any closer to the street. The fact that he might not always have recognized the danger didn’t make the danger any less real.
All Josh wanted was freedom. Too bad his old man was such a tyrant. As he saw it, I was impinging on his liberty to go where he wanted and do what he wanted. So sometimes he tested the limits. He would run right up to the edge of the sidewalk and look back at me over his shoulder, waiting for my response. Sometimes he’d get daring and put a foot on the concrete. And sometimes he even crossed his boundaries.
Here’s the thing, though: He was really freer following his father’s rules than breaking them. I gave him plenty of room. You should have seen him running around happily in the wide-open space I’d given him, without a care in the world. But as soon as he started testing the boundaries, his demeanor changed. Suddenly, he was thinking about where he’s stepping, instead of running around freely. He was looking around warily for me, trying to gauge how much trouble he was going to be in. He’d get increasingly anxious. You could see the tension rising in him. And, whether he knew it or not, he was in danger when he crossed the boundaries.
Freedom? Hardly. But he just couldn’t seem to understand that his limits were actually giving him more liberty. Wonder why not? Where could he get the idea that freedom means an absence of limitations?
We Americans love our freedom. But, from our country’s birth, we’ve understood freedom to mean the absence of rules. No absentee monarch can take our money as taxes. No person or organization can silence the press. If I object to something, no one can force me to keep my objections to myself. No one can force me to adhere to a particular religion, or any religion.
And so we’ve pulled around ourselves like warm, cozy pajamas a thousand different individual freedoms -- understood as a thousand different things no one can keep us from doing or make us do. For the average American, freedom means being able to do whatever I want, with whomever I want, whenever I want, with a minimum of interference from legal or moral authorities. And it means that everyone else must not only tolerate it, but also approve of my doing it. For us, freedom has meant clustering at the boundaries God has set, fascinated with the forbidden territory beyond.
“I will walk about in freedom,” said the psalmist, “for I have sought out your precepts.” The phrase translated “freedom” there is, literally, “wide-open spaces”. Doesn’t that sound strange to American ears: Freedom, not by escaping God’s commands, but by following them? How could that be? Is it really possible to walk in “wide-open spaces” while following the “narrow way”?
That we would even ask the question indicates how badly we’ve misunderstood freedom. Freedom isn’t the same as carte blanche. Freedom doesn’t mean anything goes. Freedom, for human beings, is complete trust in our Creator. That’s what the psalmist understood. That’s why God’s commandments brought to his mind, not narrow, constricted, rigid laws, but wide-open spaces of true freedom, marked out and protected by God and his laws.
To use a different image, those who obey God’s word “are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season without fail. Their leaves never wither, and in all they do, they prosper.” Of course, a tree is rooted in place. It can’t move. It’s stuck in one spot. It’s restricted. Limited. So how do you liberate a tree? Cut it loose? Uproot it, so it can do what it wants? Of course not. A tree is limited, but it’s free. Free to grow, bloom, and bear fruit. Free to live. To cut it loose is to kill it.
To use our freedoms as license to ignore God is to take an axe to our own roots. Our “enlightened” world has not outgrown the need for God. If you doubt that, look at what we’ve done to ourselves by insisting on individual freedom at the expense of God’s word. We have not fared well when we’ve wandered away from the wide-open spaces our Father has given us the freedom to roam. When we’ve crossed the boundaries, disaster has without fail been the result.
So thank God for your freedoms as an American. But thank him even more for the wide-open spaces that he has marked out for you with his word. Live in freedom, yes, but don’t delude yourself. True freedom is only found in trusting and obeying your Father. You’ll never outgrow that need.
Enjoy the wide-open spaces of God. They’ll take you an eternity to explore.