Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Limitations and Discipline Are Not the Enemy of Freedom: They Make It Possible

On Sunday I shared Chesterton's reflection on why a world with no limits is not romantic or wonderful, but formless and dull. People commonly think that to realize their ideal satisfaction, they need to be free of all limits. Tim Keller has observed with concern that the only heroic narrative we have left in our culture today is the theme of the individual breaking free from all traditions and external constraints in order to find his or her true identity. (Video here with Keller and Russell Moore analyzing the modern sense of identity.) Is that freedom? Only if you use the word in its most generic sense. Having no limitations placed on you means you are "free" from limitations being placed on you. But are you free to be yourself?

The truth is that in order to become anything, you need something to shape and define you. Freedom from all limitations means freedom from all definition. It's formlessness. Being completely spontaneous and unbound from moment to moment in any direction the mind desires may seem liberating, but it actually limits you in an entirely different way: it keeps you from becoming anything more than a formless creature following one instinct after another. The freedom we actually want is better understood as fully experiencing the fulfillment of a worthy desire. You could use the word “free” to describe both states, but in the one you are free to be nothing, without purpose or definition, and in the other you are free to experience something transcendent. That word is exactly what we are aiming for in our real desire for freedom: we don’t actually want to erase all limits, and be formless; we want to transcend limitations that hold us back from experiencing the extraordinary.

Here’s an example: Anyone who has tried to be a painter or a writer and given up on it has typically quit for the same reason: once that first burst of enthusiastic liberation at getting the thoughts down on the page or the colors and forms dashed onto the canvas has run its course, they discovered that the rest was real work. Starting to write is liberating. Trying to finish any writing so that it is actually clear, compelling, and concise is agony. Refining and editing and revising and reworking your words takes far longer than the rush of creativity. But only a very rare genius ever writes anything of great importance without seeing that process through. There is no getting around the fact that doing something really meaningful and powerful requires tremendous discipline and a relentless focus on one thing to the exclusion of other emotions and desires. If you jot down some thoughts one day, and then tomorrow you are preoccupied by others, and the next day you want to follow an entirely new train of thought, you might have some good blog posts. But you will never write a book or even an acceptable article for a magazine or journal.

Yet, if you read biographies or interviews of really significant artists or writers, you consistently see that they felt absolutely bound and constrained by the vision of what they were trying to create until they finally achieved it. The only way they found freedom and satisfaction was to limit and discipline themselves carefully enough to go all the way to the goal. Genuine freedom comes from focusing your life diligently on what is really valuable and worthy. Simply being “free” to follow your emotions and ideas wherever they lead you at any given moment may feel liberating, but it leaves you with even greater limitations. The person who refuses to restrain and discipline his or her desires ends up building nothing of significance, and is therefore limited by being mediocre and unformed. Only the person who restrains himself or herself with disciplined focus on a goal will know the freedom of running at top speed without gasping for breath, or flying an airplane, or scuba diving through a reef.
We often have the illusion that great athletes or artists are driven to their goals by tremendous passion, as if passion alone filled their sails and carried them surging forward to the prize. In reality, it is passion for a goal that drives them to dedicate themselves to incredible discipline. Many days they wake up and have no desire at all to do the day’s work toward that goal. Their passion motivates them to persevere, but it’s the disciplined perseverance that achieves their desire. We see the moments of glory when they perform and they look liberating, as if the person we’re watching has transcended limitations and boundaries. But if you watch the whole process from beginning to end you would see very careful limitations and boundaries maintained every day for months and years in order to have those moments of liberating freedom.

The application of this is that we should only want to be free of the wrong limits. The idea that we should reject all limits, including all religious and traditional norms and standards, results only in formlessness and mediocrity. It is a foolish attempt at self-expression that results ultimately in the self being vague and chaotic. In order to truly be yourself, you have to discover what is most worthy for you to become, and accept and maintain all the limits and boundaries that will help you achieve that. For the Christian, it is clear that the greatest glory and joy possible is to be formed into the image of Christ and to enter into the joy of God's presence forever. (Phil. 1:21-23; Romans 8:16-25; Psalm 16:11). Anything less is a shallow goal. So Paul says: "Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." (1 Timothy 4:7-8).

But to receive the rewards of pursuing God, you have to accept the limits that keep you from slipping in the opposite direction. You can't go both ways at the same time. "Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? ... For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification." (Romans 6:16, 19). Each leads you in a different direction. To experience the extraordinary, you must be mastered by the desire to know God. If you pursue anything else, you become a slave to that instead.  "They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved." (2 Peter 2:19).

If you try to find freedom in sin, sin will enslave you. (Romans 6:12; John 8:34). Sin never becomes the servant of your desires. It always grips hold of you and tries to become the master. Accept the limits that bring you eternal freedom, instead of the illusion of freedom that only enslaves you to mediocre passions.

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