Readings: Psalm 119:33-45, John 8:31-34, 36-43, Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3 and Divine Providence #145:3 (see below)
See also on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/Hq9dmSWor4M
Since we are just one day removed from July 4th, Independence Day, I thought that today would be a good time to think about the topic of freedom. This might be on our minds already due to the holiday, or it might be on our minds because around the nation, safety protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic have sparked debate around what personal freedom means, and what is reasonable to ask people to do for the common good. And of course, this grappling with the balance between respect for individual freedom on the one hand, and how we must all submit to some level of governance in order to create a civilized society on the other hand…well, this is a very old dilemma and we are seeing it take a new form within our specific context. So while July 4th might be prompting us to consider what freedom means in a political or even a sociological sense, I want to round that out today with a consideration of what freedom means in a theological sense.
The early Christian evangelist, Paul, would often describe the experience of faith as finding freedom in Christ. He understood sin as a cosmic power that could indeed tempt us, but that also more insidiously was capable of convincing us that our sinfulness was actually good, and blessed by God. By Paul’s own experience, he found himself enslaved by his unyielding and unsympathetic devotion to his own tradition, leading to his persecution of early Christians. The antidote to this, in Paul’s mind, was for people to give over their desire to judge what is righteous *to* God, by recognizing that what God wants is revealed in the boundary-busting upside-down event of the crucifixion of Christ. For Paul, it is our desire to judge what is righteous, to own the power of that discernment for ourselves, that keeps us in servitude to the power of sin. Conversely, belief in Christ, essentially a relinquishment of the notion that we can define, own, build, collect, or withhold righteousness, frees us from all the ways that sin would try to control us. By its nature, sin enslaves, while faith emancipates.
Swedenborg would agree with certain aspects of this formulation. But he would depart from Paul in defining spiritual freedom as not just a function of belief or faith, but also as a function of the choices that we make. Swedenborg speaks about freedom in two ways. The first way is in the more classically enlightenment sense: the state of being able to make various different unfettered choices by our own will. He understood the possibility of this state as integral to our spiritual life. God gives us the gift of free choice so that our choices can have meaning.
However, he also speaks of freedom as defined by what it is used for(1). When we use our freedom to think, will and do evil, then that is hellish freedom, and when we use our freedom to think, will and do good, then that is heavenly freedom. Whenever we use our freedom to actualize what we think and want, whatever that leads to, it will *feel* like freedom to us. But Swedenborg points out that “to be led by evil is enslavement…to be led by good is to be led by the Lord.” If our freedom ultimately leads us into ways of thinking and being that are defined by fear, self-aggrandizement, selfishness, etc we become beholden to those ways of thinking and being, and so it doesn’t actually end up looking much like freedom at all.
Which leads to his really interesting assertion, as we heard in our reading today, that when we compel ourselves to do something good for the sake of others, thinking of others and not just ourselves, we are actually in a state of greater freedom than when we choose otherwise. The more we voluntarily work to relinquish servitude to our selfhood, the free-er we will ultimately be. So again, we see spiritual truth manifesting itself in a kind of paradox - that a higher state of freedom actually comes from a thing that doesn’t seem like freedom at all: self-compulsion.
It certainly doesn’t feel that way, right? In moments of self-compulsion, we often feel really constrained. Think about how it feels to compel ourselves to choose healthy food instead of a treat, or to choose to calm ourselves instead of giving in to anger, or to have a conversation that we know we need to have but don’t really want to have. Those moments feel really hard. We might feel resentment, we might feel fear, we might feel embarrassment, and we certainly don’t feel free in the way that freedom is usually characterized, by a sense of being unburdened or unfettered by some expectation. In these moments we are burdened indeed, but by our conscience, by our sense of what is right, and our love for our neighbor. And Swedenborg is saying, that when we consciously choose to do the hard thing but the right thing, instead of the easy thing, we are more fully exercising our freedom than if we were to choose the easy thing. And in a strange way, this does make sense. Choosing the harder thing when we could have chosen the easier thing goes against our instincts, and to choose something that goes against whatever flow we are in demonstrates the true power of free choice. When we choose to stop being bound by our own fears, or selfishness, and make a decision not based in those things, we are stepping into a new realm of freedom, the realm of no longer being bound by that fear or selfishness.
Heavenly freedom, then, is not defined by the simple fact of its own existence but rather by what it leads to. Heavenly freedom is not just having the choice, but using the choice to create more freedom, love, and belonging for others. It is essentially generative, connective and hopeful, not so much something we have, or something that happens to us, but something we practice. Which might not sound all that appealing to our lower selves. Because the notion of heavenly freedom gets weighty real quick. Self-compulsion isn’t fun. It’s kind of exhausting. Our lower selves want to do the easy thing, not the harder thing. Our lower selves want to exist in a realm where nothing difficult is asked of us, a realm where freedom just means getting to do what we want. Notice that at this point we are hearing echoes of Paul, seeing how the cosmic power of sin can even take an inherently good thing like freedom, and turn it into something that serves only the self. But this kind of freedom, one that only looks inward, ends up only being a shell, an impersonation, of the real thing, because it revolves around the self like a moon in orbit. It is necessarily limited, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Our devotion to our own selfhood keeps us small, and I do believe that God wants to invite us into a kind of freedom that is more creative, expansive and inclusive. The trick though, is that we have to choose it by consciously submitting our will to God’s will, and that doesn’t feel like freedom to our selfhood. And so our selfhood won’t want to do it. So here is the crux of the paradox about freedom as I see it. We often equate freedom with feeling relief, or safety, or peace. And this is good, because ultimately freedom should create those things, for everyone. But heavenly freedom should also feel a little bit challenging, a little bit nerve-y. Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
Let’s use the word emancipation to describe a deeper, bigger and scarier level of freedom: inner, outer, personal, economic, structural and spiritual. Surely this is the task of our entire lifetime.(2)
Freedom isn’t the same thing as comfort. In fact, heavenly freedom calls us away from the whatever our selfhood calls comfort, into a realm where love continually expands us beyond our small way of seeing things. This can feel scary but it is also beautiful. Swedenborg writes: “The more present the Lord is the more free we become…” (3) We are not doing this alone. God calls us into a deep freedom that recognizes our fundamental connection to each other, and our unbreakable connection to the divine. May we trust in this essential connective design, and may we celebrate the gift of spiritual freedom that allows us to choose to enter into it with our whole selves. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #43
(2) Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from The Center for Action and Contemplation, Inner and Outer Freedom, June 17, 2020.
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #905
33 Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. 35 Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. 36 Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. 37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. 38 Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. 39 Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. 40 How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life. 41 May your unfailing love come to me, LORD, your salvation, according to your promise; 42 then I can answer anyone who taunts me, for I trust in your word. 43 Never take your word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. 44 I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. 45 I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
John 8:31-34, 36-43
31 To the Judeans who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” 34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.” 39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.
Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3
When a person is being regenerated they compel themselves from the freedom the Lord imparts to them, and humbles, and indeed afflicts, their rational, so that it may submit itself, and in consequence they receive a heavenly [selfhood]. This [selfhood] is then gradually perfected by the Lord and it becomes more and more free, so that as a result it becomes the affection for good and for truth deriving from that good, and possesses delight. And in that affection and delight there is happiness such as the angels experience.
 What this freedom is, is totally unknown to those who do not have conscience, for they identify freedom with feelings of being at liberty and without restraint to think and utter what is false, and to will and do what is evil, and not to control and humble, still less to afflict, those feelings. Yet this is the complete reverse of freedom.
Divine Providence #145:3
…We can see that this is not inconsistent but in accord with our rationality and freedom, since it is our rationality that starts this struggle and our freedom that pursues it. Our essential freedom, together with our rationality, dwells in our inner self, and comes into our outer self from there.