“Behaviour in pursuit of an unrecognised goal does not feel like a choice” ~ Larry Crabb
If I’m doing things I do not want to do, am I free? How can anyone be happy while they aren’t free?
The apostle Paul described it this way:
“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”1 - Romans 7:14-20
We will always remain enslaved by our need for unconditional love until that need is satisfied. If that need is not met, we will try to meet it through other people. And because they are unable to give us what we truly desire, we will be driven along “by our hopes and fears” enslaved to an unseen power, that makes us less than we want to be, and know we ought to be. The only thing that can set us free and enable us to do what we want to do, and what we know we ought to do, is unconditional love;2 a love that sets us free and makes us able to freely love others.
To be truly free I must become what I was meant to be. To be truly free, I must become a real man—someone like Christ.
Now you may believe that God loves you, but feel you cannot love some people. I cannot, by an act of the will, make myself feel a particular way towards some people, but I can choose to trust and obey the one who is described as love—the God who made me. And through this trust, come to love both God and people. We need to love, just as much as we need to be loved. But we cannot love, until we know we are loved.
“We love because he first loved us.” - 1 John 4:19
Our greatest needs are emotional.3 If you love someone enough, you will die to save their life—if that is the only way you can save them.4
If God was evil he would not ask us to love, care for, and forgive each other. (He would want us to hate each other and fight among ourselves.) If he was evil he would not ask us to trust and obey Jesus. If he was indifferent he would not care what we do, and would not hate all the things which destroy people, or destroy intimacy and trust between people. (These things are what the Bible calls sin.) God hates our sins because he loves us. He is a good Father.5 Good fathers want their children to be happy.
Good parents want their children to enjoy themselves, but they are also pleased when their son or daughter is honest, kind, and fair. They are pleased when their child is brave and does what is right, even if it means not going along with all the other kids, because they don’t just want their child to be happy in the short term, they want their child to be happy in the long term. (Good parents know that good character is essential to a child's long term happiness.)
The good find pleasure in giving others pleasure (legitimate pleasure of course); the very wicked take pleasure in seeing others suffer—especially when it is from their own hand. Doing God’s will gives a godly man or woman joy. Doing his will also makes us less self-centred and more grateful.6 But finding joy in what we do is only half the story. We long for something more—intimacy.
What’s the difference between a squirrel that runs straight up to a man, climbs on his shoulders, eats from his hands, and then goes to sleep on his lap, and a wild squirrel who won’t go near him? Trust. Trust enables that squirrel to experience a kind of pleasure that a wild squirrel does not know. Trust gives that squirrel joy and causes it to behave very differently to a wild squirrel.
So it is with us when we know how good God is. The more we know that God loves us, the more we will trust him, and the more he will be our joy and strength.7 (I belong to God, and so do you. He made us and he loves us. He will never give up on any of us. See here.)
Now some people think that God must not love us because he asks us to do things we do not want to do (like forgive people we would rather not forgive), or because he does not always give us what we want. But if a person really loves you they might ask you to do some difficult things, and they may not give you what you want.8
If you love an alcoholic, and he asks you to buy him a drink, will you? If you really care about your friend, you won’t buy that drink, even though you want him to be happy. If all he’s thinking about is his immediate happiness, he might think you don't care about him because you won’t give him what he wants.
Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it. ~ George MacDonald
It follows that it is easy to get what is best if I desire what is best. (For an in-depth look at what it means to desire and have what is best read Castle Warlock.) Many people are not happy even when they get what they want; they are not happy because what they desire is not the thing that can bring them true happiness.
When we are truly free, we will want what is best. We will want what God wants. The best gifts God can give us are to make us like Christ: honest, fair, brave and kind; and give us intimacy with himself. He wants to make our hearts free and our wills strong.
God loves us and wants us to know what is best.
The highest form of self-service is to trust and obey Jesus. In doing this we find joy in loving others and loving God. MacDonald was right when he said, "Love makes everything lovely." Jesus valued intimacy with his Father above all else. He knew he could only enjoy intimacy with his Father while he trusted and obeyed him.9 God's will is life.
Am I saying that I always do God’s will? No. I have a long way to go before God finishes making me. I don't always find as much joy in doing God’s will as Jesus did. Sometimes life can be very stressful; and if I’m not careful people will get the better of me. When I get angry or frustrated and desire to harm instead of help, I have to tell God I’m sorry and ask for his help. In other words, I’m growing to value my relationship with God above all else. I am slowly becoming like Christ. And because of this, I am no longer enslaved to many of the things that once enslaved me. God wants us to know the joy of doing what seems impossible. (Without God's help doing his will is impossible.) He wants us to overcome the world, instead of being overcome by it. The more a man is what a man was meant to be, the freer that man will be.
Like anything worth having, gaining freedom from sin will require real struggle. Sometimes it will be physically and emotionally demanding. (Fortunately God gives his Spirit to those who set their heart on obeying him. See Acts 5:32.) It is not natural to the weak willed to go the extra mile. It is not natural for a slave to sin to admit to being wrong and to ask God for help. But to all those who set their hearts on being intimate with God and so set about obeying Jesus, God will set free.
1. See also, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” in C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. Available here.
2. We have the same emotional needs as little children. We were made for love. Unfortunately, because of the pain we experience in life, many of us would rather deny our vulnerability, and pretend we do not need unconditional love; but in so doing, we become less sensitive to the needs of others and—less human. Some say it is ok to try and earn the love of others, and in reality almost everyone does. But the person who loves God above all others seeks only to please God, and does not seek to earn the love of any human being. They may, through seeking to please God earn the love others, but that is not their goal; that is merely a result of trusting and obeying Jesus. (For an example see Donal Grant by George MacDonald. Available here.)
3. And the deepest of all emotions—love—is spiritual.
4. People may seek power, pleasure, or meaning more than anything else but it is intimacy that we all truly desire. It is intimacy with God expressed as love towards people that empowers, pleases, and gives us the deepest possible meaning. This is life, and it is life to the full (see John 10:10).
5. Because God made us he calls us his children.
6. Without gratitude it is impossible to be happy. However, we must not pretend to be grateful if we are not. Those who call themselves Christians must resist the temptation to appear better than what they actually are. See Hypocrisy
7. God’s essence is perfect love, he knows what is best. For an in-depth discussion of how God’s perfect love is expressed in everything he does see The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott.
8. Only when we are perfect, and all things are made perfect, will we have all that our hearts desire.
9. Having what we most desire does not mean we have all the things we desire. We will not have all the things we desire until all things are made new.
But what about when we think we are suffering unjustly? How are we to cope then?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn recounted what a doctor told him while in a gulag:
“I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow” (The Gulag Archipelago).
None of us deserve special treatment. (“With acceptance comes peace.”) Only Jesus did not deserve to suffer.
Did Jesus find joy in his suffering? When he was crucified, he did not enjoy what was being done to him; but he did find joy in doing his Father's will. It is for the same reason that Paul could rejoice while in prison. God's will is liberty. See The Hope of the Gospel by George MacDonald. If you don’t know what God wants from you read the book of Luke. And then do the thing that is placed right in front of you.