‘Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me’
We all want freedom, right? And freedom is precisely what Christianity offers. ‘It was for freedom that Christ has set us free’. Simple. So why don’t more people choose this path of liberation? And why do so many of us who have chosen it feel that we’re not really experiencing this full divine freedom that Christ offers?
Lessons from the OCD ward
I recently watched a TV documentary called OCD Ward. The ward is in Springfield Hospital in South London, where people with the most severe cases of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder come for treatment. Having lived with OCD myself since the age of about 5, and having got through a very severe bout about 20 years ago and now largely managing the condition without it affecting my daily life too much, I was very interested.
When these poor people were admitted (or self-admitted), they were absolutely trapped in and dominated by their condition. Some actually described experienced it as a prison or cage that they carried around with them everywhere; others personified it is as a horrible bully, even as an oppressive power of darkness. I can identify with these descriptions.
But what really fascinated me was that the path to freedom from OCD lay through the sufferer confronting their darkest fears and deepest revulsions. For example, one guy’s life was dominated by fear of contamination from urine (his own and others’). To overcome this, he had to do things like touch door handles and sit in seats that he believed were contaminated.
This may not sound so terrible to us, but for him it was like being asked to eat faeces or put his hand in a crocodile’s mouth. It felt impossibly difficult, like the worst torment. The psychotherapists and doctors who were helping him felt to him like cruel torturers, forcing him to face and do the things he feared and loathed most.
Ultimately he had to get to the point where he could actually hold a urine sample, and shake hands with someone who’d just touched a toilet seat. And then he was free – or at least well and truly on the path to freedom.
No short-cuts to the summit
And therein, I would guess, lies the answer to why so few of us choose the path of true freedom. It’s not easy, it’s not fun; it’s long hard unpleasant work – perhaps the hardest and most unpleasant we’ll ever undertake. The end result is wonderfully worth it, but the way to get there is no primrose path.
Most of us probably want (perhaps even expect) Christ’s freedom to be handed us on a plate. Jesus died for us, right? It’s all paid for and sorted, and we just sign up and enjoy the benefits, yes? No, I don’t believe so. Christ has opened the door for us, but no-one can walk the path of liberation on our behalf. We have to do it ourselves. We have to face our fears and our demons. We have to tackle and overcome our inner darkness, our lusts and greeds and hates and grudges that block our flourishing.
I enjoy hill-walking and most holidays we try to scale a medium-sized peak or two. It turns out that you can’t climb Snowdon or Scafell in a few minutes, nor can you take a short-cut to the summit – and there’d be little sense of satisfaction if you could. The path to the peak, the way to the wonderful panoramic view and the deep sense of achievement, is a long hard upward slog over rough ground; that’s the only way.
And of the course the same applies to most things in our lives. I recently heard myself telling my 7-year-old son, ‘The only way to make difficult things go away is to tackle them’ – a nugget of wisdom he probably didn’t appreciate, but one that I wish someone had taught me when I was little. I’ve been an avoider and a hider for much of my life, burying my head in the sand and hoping that problems, pains and difficulties will go away if I ignore them. But it seems that most problems have an annoying habit of getting worse when ignored, rather than better. Darn them.
Things that hold us
Now we may not all be OCD sufferers, but I suspect we do all have fears – and desires – that can trap us or hold us back. Most of us have things that we desperately cling to or that we fearfully cringe away from, and which stand in the way of our full flourishing as whole human beings.
When Christ instructed the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, I’m not sure he was laying down a rule for all people (though perhaps in the coming Kingdom there will be no private ownership). Rather I think Jesus was seeing the young man’s heart and understanding that this dear person who he loved was trapped by his riches and possessed by his possessions. For this man, the path to freedom lay through letting go of the wealth he had hoarded and which had become his security, his identity, his master and god. But this path was too hard for him, at least at that stage in his journey, and so he turned sadly away.
For some of us it will be money, for others the need for approval, for others the desire to cling on to a particular person or even to a particular grudge. To be free, we have to be fairly ruthless in uprooting these things – though the process can take years.
And similarly with our fears – agoraphobics may have to learn to face crowded or open spaces in order to be truly free; arachnophobics may have to get close to spiders, and aquaphobics may have to get into the water.
Please note that I’m not talking about ‘salvation by works’ – imagining that we can attain to complete freedom and wholeness by our own efforts alone. But we must play our part and co-operate in our redemption; we alone can walk the hard path of becoming free. Is this perhaps part of what Christ means by asking us to ‘take up our cross and follow him’?
I suspect that God also nudges and needles us on our journey to freedom, putting things in our path that we’d rather not have to deal with but which give us opportunities to confront and overcome our fears and issues. Last time I was asking whether God ever inflicts or ordains pain, and saying that I find it hard to accept that he would. But I do think that he often challenges us to face difficult and even painful things through which we can grow in freedom, in humanity, in compassion and capacity to love.
Also please note that being free from something is not quite the same as being free of it, in the sense of it being completely removed. If we’re addicted to something we may never be completely free of the temptation, the impulses and urges. But we may hope one day to be free from the addiction in the sense that we’ve overcome it and transcended it; that it no longer holds us and rules us.
Freedom to love
Now of course ‘freedom’, like ‘love’, is a widely misunderstood word, both in secular society and also sometimes in the church. We want (or think we want) freedom from restraints and responsibilities; freedom to do whatever we please whenever we please and with whomever we please.
But we all know that true freedom is not that. Freedom from restraints generally leads to addictions and all sorts of things that trap us further. Because it turns out that true freedom isn’t freedom from external things – laws, governments, rules, commitments, systems, prisons, etc. These things are irrelevant. Real freedom is freedom from the things within our own selves, within our own natures and characters, that hold us back from being all we could be.
So perhaps genuine freedom is best understood as the freedom to love, the freedom to give, and the freedom to be truly and fully the person you were always meant to be. I wouldn’t often look to contemporary worship songs for deep lyrical wisdom, but there’s a line I like in a Tim Hughes song: ‘Now I’m free to live, free to give, free to be, I’m free to love you’. I think that sums up the Christian idea of freedom fairly nicely.