My friend S said something the other day that changed the game: “The opposite of afraid isn’t calm. It’s joyful.” She was telling me about a scary time in her life in which she realized that being calm is only the midpoint. True trust in God leads all the way to the other end of the spectrum – joy.
Historically though, joy has not been associated with the Christian life. Missionaries talk about suffering for Jesus. Lookers-on fear that if they became Christians, they couldn’t have fun anymore. Few pictures depict joyful-looking Jesuses.
Frankly, I get it. At first blush, the Bible seems to be loaded with rules. When you get saved, you give up your “freedom” to live life however you want in order to be given a Bible-sized list of rules. Don’t get drunk. Don’t have sex with someone you aren’t married to. Don’t hate your enemy, even the ones who hate you. Don’t eat the meat of animals with cloven hoofs. Come on.
Yet in John 8:36, the Bible famously declares, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (NLT). And 1 Timothy 2:6 says that Jesus “gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone.” If this “freedom” comes with so many rules, what kind of freedom is it really?
To say Jesus gives us “freedom from sin” feels disingenuous. Romans 3:23 says everyone has sinned. I don’t know about you, but I, a “free” Christian, still sin an awful lot. Besides, to a skeptic, freedom from sin 1) doesn’t matter, and/or 2) isn’t desirable. And yet: Jesus wouldn’t die to secure something for us that wasn’t desirable. So there must be more to it.
Here is what I believe: Jesus purchased us freedom from certain destruction. Sin destroys. Whether sexual sin, monetary sin, relational sin, or one of the “seven deadly sins,” engaging in it causes us to lose relationships, peace, health, trust in others, money, and so forth. Any addict or recovering addict will readily admit the truth of that statement. Try going through life as I did, expecting food – food! – to fill your emptiness. It doesn’t. It costs you energy, health, money, time, and dignity. Or perhaps try to fill yourself with frenetic energy, staying busy, worried, and stressed all the time. Try pride. Try sexual sin. Try over-spending. Try numbing with Facebook, television shows, smoking, being bored, and general time wasting. These things all destroy. They destroy you, the trust others have in you, the relationships you’re in, and all manner of your health.
But Jesus – Jesus pours into you. He brings you abundantly joyful life (John 10:10). He replaces your fear with peace (Matthew 6:25-27) and joy (Luke 2:10). He fills your empty places with good things (Luke 1:53). He brings you hope, even in the most hopeless circumstances, because he makes everything new (Revelation 21:5), and he will accomplish in you what he set out to accomplish (Psalm 138:8). Every single wonderful thing that has ever happened to you has come from him as a gift (James 1:17).
So the freedom Jesus brings is not a list of rules. He gives you the freedom to enjoy your life, to not be bound up in things that don’t satisfy. He brings you a ticket out of consuming worry. He brings you deliverance from addiction. He introduces you to a life of completeness and fullness for all those empty places. He doesn’t take away the consequences of sin, but he gives you another option: himself. Without him, you can’t know the freedom of complete inner calm, inexhaustible joy, and deep wisdom for the most harrowing storms.
Specifically for me, this has begun to mean freedom from perfectionism. My personality is as achievement- and perfection-oriented as they come. I am the firstborn of two high achievers, so there was no escaping this. I spent decades petrified at being anything other than perfect. It’s no way to live, folks. You’re stressed and frustrated with yourself almost all of the time.
Then, this January, the third time my Counseling Systems class met, I was assigned a huge project due the next week. Being new to the program and to psychology in general, I was terrified at the thought of turning in such an important project so soon, so I promptly scheduled an appointment with the professor. I sat on the couch in her office with a list of questions intended to help me perform perfectly. After hearing her patient answers, I was still scared to death, and the stress squeezed itself out as tears, my paper blurring in front of me.
She then shared with me a part of this truth about Jesus bringing us freedom. “Listen,” she said, “you can’t thwart God’s will with a less-than-perfect project or exam, even if that’s what results. You aren’t that powerful. If it’s God’s will for you to be here, you’ll succeed when you give him your best effort. You don’t have to be perfect.” Slowly, so slowly, I have found freedom from (most of) my perfectionism. God didn’t ask me to be perfect, and he promised to accomplish his work in me no matter what. I’m safe.
Believe me, I was skeptical of this “freedom” too. But he really did purchase actual, true freedom…for everyone (1 Timothy 2:6). In Jesus there is freedom from “hustling” for approval, as Brené Brown puts it. In Jesus there’s freedom from fear (2 Timothy 1:7, 1 John 4:18). In Jesus there’s freedom to hear the truth (cf. John 8:43). In Jesus there’s freedom to keep your joy, no matter what happens, because you know it will all be okay in the end (see Revelation and all the Gospels). In Jesus there’s freedom from all the junk that comes from you trying to meet your own needs – freedom from all that destruction and anger and sadness and hustling and shame. That’s what freedom is and that’s what you get with Jesus.
Tell that to your list of rules.