The highest freedom is found in obedience to God.Thomas Merton
What does Thomas Merton mean by this, that the highest freedom is found in obedience to God? It is something that I am pondering as we get ready to celebrate Independence Day in our country this weekend. Merton’s quote offers us a paradoxical truth, clearly, since we would not usually put freedom and obedience together. But obedience to God, Merton and many other Christian writers insist, is where the highest freedom lies.
Why? We can begin to understand this by remembering Jesus’ words in John 8, when he said that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).
Jesus, the Son of God, came to set us free from our captivity to sin, and how thankful we are for this gift. For if the Son makes us free, we will be free indeed. We are free from our captivity to sin. But what are we free for? That’s an important question! We are freed from sin in order to be reconciled to God, and to live in this loving relationship with God that Jesus came to bring to us all.
Jesus came to set us free from sin, but also to show us what that means. The way that Jesus lived his life shows us how the highest freedom can be found in obedience to God. When you think about it, there has never been anyone in human history with more freedom than Jesus. And it has nothing to do with where he lived, or when he lived. But it has everything to do with how he lived.
We don’t usually think about Jesus this way. But, really, who has ever had more freedom than Jesus? He lived his life free from many of the things that often entrap us. He was never bound by the need to please people. He wasn’t worried about how people would respond to his teachings. He wasn’t limited by social conventions. He felt free to spend time with whoever he wanted to. He went where he wanted. Did what he wanted. Said what he wanted. Without any regard for the consequences. Is there a more perfect expression of freedom than Jesus? I don’t believe so.
But think about what Jesus did with his freedom. First of all – and most importantly for us – he gave up that freedom for us. Even though he was in the form of God, Paul reminds us, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). Jesus gave up the freedom that comes with being the Son of God. He emptied himself of that for us, and became one of us. That is what he did with his freedom.
But he didn’t stop there. Once one of us, he devoted his earthly ministry to loving and serving us. His freedom always took the form of love, of giving himself away for us. Through love, he became our servant. Even washing his disciples’ feet, the work of a servant. He showed us what it means to use our freedom to love and to serve.
But Jesus did not stop even there. He did something else with his freedom. He showed us why the highest form of freedom is found in obedience to God. Jesus obeyed his heavenly Father, perfectly. He was tempted in every way, we are reminded in the Letter to the Hebrews, but without sin. He was not captive to sin. Sin had no control over him, no power over him. He was free to obey his heavenly Father. To do his Father’s will. He lived and taught us what it means that the highest freedom is found in obedience to God. And then, in obedience to his Father’s will, he died to set us free. And if the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed! Thanks be to God for this freedom! May we use our freedom in the same way that Jesus once did, not perfectly, of course, but faithfully. And always to the glory of God!