“Real insight came as I began to realize that this unfreedom was the result of a disordered attachment—a place where I cared more about what other people thought and felt than what God was inviting me to.” — Ruth Haley Barton
We all have the sense that life in this world is not freedom. “Unfreedom” as the above quote puts it. We may well lament the feeling of hopelessness in bearing too much relational responsibility and pain. Staying in this kind of head space for too long sends us into mental illness, emotional instability, and spiritual fragility, because, as Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” That tree of life we could call spiritual freedom.
We have two main problems... three if you will!
First, others may steer our lives far more than we wish they would or could. Many of us feel controlled by others and wide open to their manipulations. Anyone who genuinely cares about what others think realises this is probably true for them at least part of the time. But this isn’t the biggest problem we have, because, secondly, we rarely relate with ourselves in truth—our true selves. There is always this existential divide we must cross, and most of the time we don’t know how, and even when we did, we possibly balked at going into that Promised Land to our soul. Of course, thirdly, we could only be led there or could go there through God’s leading.
In imagining better intimacy between God and self, we must know, we cannot please God and people at the same time. This is nothing about being an antagonist.
God knows we love people, but it must concern God that we love [pleasing] people more than we love God. God knows we need to love God first if we’re to love people adequately and appropriately. The trouble is we fear rejection, conflict and reprisal more than we fear (respect) God. This leads us to please people rather than to please God by faith. The people who don’t resonate with this perhaps please themselves rather than others before they please God. I guess I’m saying that pleasing God is not natural for us, even when we love God.
Living a life of pleasing people and bending constantly to the whims of convenience and culture leaves us feeling spiritually punch-drunk. The only way out of this is to back up the truck, put God first, and prepare for the casualties; those who will not take kindly to changes that they perceive impact them negatively—those thinking we’re rejecting them, whether we are or not.
Ruth Haley Barton continues:
“Spiritual freedom would be the freedom to be what and who God is calling me to be, not who I am determined to be or who others are expecting me to be.”
Spiritual freedom, then, speaks of ordered attachments as opposed to disordered attachments, which are maneuverings of the false self, which is hidden but paradoxically present in all our lives. Spiritual freedom which is demonstrated in a shalom-type-peace of wholeness comes from pleasing God first, and then as an outworking, it’s the serving of others according to God’s will, as a consequence.
Spiritual freedom can only come once God is pleased, and God is pleased when we are true to the nature God has called us into. This involves a lot of letting go—and not just the bad things that are bad for us; but also good things that are too much for us, good things that are not right for a present season, good things that are not being used for the purposes of God, or good things that we covet greedily or lustfully. Good things that go or have gone bad.
If we’re following Jesus correctly, we only encounter God authentically through experiencing our loneliness, disappointments and frustrations in truth, with God, by speaking to God in prayer whilst bearing these burdens at the depths of our rawest feelings. We think such an experience will be deplorable, but actually, this is HOW we encounter God—in the nothingness of neither resisting nor denying the painful realities of our lives.
It isn’t God overcoming us as the world would have us believe; it’s God helping us to overcome the world through experiencing the depths of God’s Presence, which is to go to places we would normally prefer to deny were even there. The world that would just as well have us trapped in getting everything we ever wanted to the forfeiture of our own souls!
Strength comes, therefore, out of inordinate weakness, and to ‘go there’ with God is absolutely the rarest of phenomena. This is why intimacy with God is so rare an experience for us. We need to be weak to be close, and just about all of us resist that weakness by habit of comfort and modern convenience. We prefer strength of our own design, as much because we can control it. Strength by faith is too scary for us, yet all we need to do is see the opportunity in weakness and in conflict.
Christian faith is a game-changer, because it is entirely couched in the opportunity that lies within “bad” things. Faith makes victory out of likely defeat, BECAUSE of the presence of bad things. Faith sees the opportunity in what might make us tremble, depressed, disgusted or angry and delights in such an opportunity.
Whenever we fear or are angered most, there, in the midst of the fear or anger is opportunity—to turn our weakness over to God, to encounter God by Presence, to resist insisting upon our own way, to live the strength that comes simply by bearing one’s own painful truth.
Opportunities come thick in life, and I mean many times daily, and we know them most by what we prefer to avoid. We loath disappointment, we hate betrayal, and we despise frustration, but these are all Gateways to the Presence of Almighty God.
Finally, once we understand and begin to live into this spiritual freedom, once we have reordered our attachments, we feel freer to disassemble the disordered attachments we have with others, because we have broken the disordered attachments we have had with ourselves.
All this, because we truly began putting God first when and where only God could help. And instead of running from God and creating all sorts of messes for ourselves, we put God first and finally felt empowered to place our relationships in God’s care.
Would we be surprised if God is begging us to curtail some relationships and activities, and to end others? Let us never forget it was Jesus who commended the disciples for discerning when to kick the dust off their feet!
It would be appropriate to close with a final quote from Ruth Haley Barton:
“Spiritual freedom is not freedom to do anything I want. It is freedom from everything that is not [of] God; it is being solely oriented and responsive to the person of Christ in the depths of our being.”
Quotes taken from “Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God,” by Ruth Haley Barton (IVP, 2018).