An article in Christianity Today Magazine caught my attention. Excerpted from his forthcoming book, What Good is God?, author Philip Yancey discusses his speaking and listening tour throughout several countries in the Middle East in 2009 (1). Part of his listening included hearing how the “Christian” West was viewed by those living in predominantly Islamic countries. Time and again, he heard a familiar refrain: freedom in the West was equated with decadence. Yancey writes, “Much of the misgiving…for the West stems from our strong emphasis on freedom…where freedom so often leads to decadence.” (2)
Of course, Yancey would quickly acknowledge that the freedom we enjoy in the West is often taken for granted. In general, we are free to do and to be whatever we want. We move unhindered towards the achievement of our own personal freedoms and objectives, without worrying about impediment or coercive control from outside forces. Certainly, the freedom to move about countries and across state borders effortlessly is a gift enjoyed by many in the Western world. We have the freedom to worship, unhindered by government intervention. Many who have financial abundance are able to access freedoms that only money can buy. We are free to think as we want, speak what we want, and do what we want. In comparison with people in places where freedoms are curtailed, we have the freedom to…. fill in the blank with endless possibilities.
But taking an honest look at how freedom is exercised in the Western world means turning a careful ear to this critique from those looking in from the outside. The belief that individual freedom to do, be, or say whatever we want is often cut off and isolated any thoughtfulness towards community consequences or responsibility. Sadly, freedom is rarely viewed as an opportunity to serve others.
The apostle Paul raised this issue as he wrote to the early Christians at Corinth. In discussing matters of personal freedom he exhorted these early Christians that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his or her own good, but that of his or her neighbor….whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:23, 24, 31). In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul applies the gift of freedom to a sense of corporate responsibility: “You were called to freedom; only do not turn your freedom into and opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 3:13-14).
Paul’s definition of freedom for love and service seems to fly in the face of understanding freedom as doing whatever one wants to do, individually. And while deploring the restriction or oppression of human freedom as evidenced in totalitarian regimes and systems, might it also be prudent to deplore the unchecked, unthinking, and often self-centered understanding of freedom that occupies many Western societies and systems. We are called to freedom, freedom for others–and not simply as the individualistic pursuit of self-interest. Rightly understood, freedom is grounded in love for the sake of one another.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Philip Yancey, “A Living Stream in the Desert,” Christianity Today, November 2010, 30-34.
(2) Ibid., 32.
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