A Christian Understanding of Freedom
In the previous chapter, Archbishop Averky defined the Christian conscience. Now, he turns to proper understanding of the freedom that comes along with our conscience.
The highest gift that God bestowed upon man at his creation was the gift of freedom. Man was created free. It was within his will to choose one or another path in his life.
It was this freedom of will that was the seal of the image and likeness of God in man.
The philosophical term for the state of man described here is “libertarian free will”, the capacity to choose freely between option A and option B. His Excellency describes this as the seal on the image of God within us, which is a very interesting way to put it. Coming from a Reformed background myself, I have read much of the ink that has been spilled on the topic of free will (and conversely the belief of its complete bondage), so I found it interesting to see the Orthodox position laid out as such. However—spoiler alert!—this was the state of man pre-fall.
Why did God create man with a free will? This is quite understandable: God’s one and only motivation in creating man was His love. And love always desires the most good for its beloved. Furthermore, love desires a free response—love for love—that is in no way forced.
I’m tempted to gloss over this as it is extremely familiar to me. For those who don’t have a similar background for me, this is a common defense of free will in terms of why God created us with free will. This is also the basis for the so-called “free will theodicy”: in order for love to genuinely exist, free will must first exist. Yet, free will can lead to consequences that are not always ideal, hence the need for a theodicy, and thus we have a fall:
Having created man with a free will, God gave him a negligible, easily fulfilled commandment in order to exercise and strengthen this will towards good: the commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Man was given the opportunity for obedience in the simple act of not eating of the tree. Interestingly, this obedience is said to strengthen the will towards God. Of course, we all know how well our ancestors obeyed…
Having refused to freely and lovingly obey God, [Adam & Eve] fell into the most bitter slavery to the devil.
This is truly what sin is: slavery to the devil; that is why it is mentioned here in the discussion of freedom. Sin is antithetical to freedom.
In other words, after the Fall, sin penetrated so deeply into man’s nature that, although man did not completely lose his God-given freedom and inclination towards good, he became, in the words of the Apostle, a captive to the law of sin (Rom 7:23).
Indeed, our inclination is adjusted through the fall. As we descended into sin, our freedom to choose good became restricted by our captivity to sin.
to restore to man his original, God-given freedom, the Only-Begotten Son of God descended to the earth, as though He were a slave, “taking the form of a bondservant” (Phil 2:7), in order to destroy the power and control that the devil had over the human race. By His sufferings on the Cross and glorious resurrection from the dead, He crushed the rule of the devil and then sent down upon His disciples and apostles, and through them to all believers, the grace of the Holy Spirit as the Power of God that heals all injuries from sin.
the purpose of His coming to Earth consisted in nothing other than to deliver man from his slavery to sin.
Here once more the contrast of Eastern and Western understanding of sin comes forth. His Excellency here is saying that Christ’s death and resurrection conquered the rule of the devil, thus healing injuries from sin.
This is the important distinction. Sin is a corruption in need of healing, not an act in need of retribution. Also of interest here is how Christ became a slave to subvert our slavery to sin. That element of Christ’s life is rarely highlighted, regardless of whether you find yourself in the Eastern of Western tradition of Christianity. Often, we focus so much on the death and resurrection of Christ that we fail to understand how important his life was for our slavation.
Everyone knows by experience how agonizing and painful slavery is, when someone is under the weighty yoke of another’s will, not able to do what he wants but only what he is told. In just such a painful and agonizing state of involuntary slavery is every person who is given over to sin and to various passions and vices.
This is a fantastic illustration because it highlights the frustration that everyone has felt at one point and connects it to what sin genuinely does to our soul. The frustration of being trapped under another’s will is exactly what sin is to us.
Every passion, every even seemingly insignificant sinful predilection results at times in unbearable inner torment, creating a true hell in one’s soul. The one given over to passions and vices begins to experience already here on earth the full force of the torments of hell that await the sinner in the afterlife.
This is something I have not heard prior to studying Orthodox theology—this concept that the foretaste of hell is experienced in our bondage to sin. The converse is also true:
On the other hand, a person not subject to any passions or vices, who is able to rein in his sinful urges, delights in a state of true inner freedom that produces peace and joy. His soul is filled with light and a blessed feeling of “sweet, heavenly peace” that is nothing other than a foretaste of that paradisiacal blessedness that awaits the righteous.
We are told that we can experience a foretaste of the heavenly joys that await us in the same way we experience the full force of the torments of hell depending on our slavery to sin. What I find interesting here is the difference in these two experiences. On the one hand, Archbishop Averky is saying we can experience the full force of the torments of hell in this life, yet only a foretaste of the blessedness of paradise.
I find this difference somewhat curious. If we are truly to understand the havoc wreaked upon us in our slavery to sin as the full force of the torments of hell, it calls into question what the Orthodox doctrine of hell is in its entirety. Perhaps I’m just overthinking it.
all who continue to wallow in sin and who through their sins are languishing and suffering as slaves to the devil are deeply unhappy, for they cannot find moral satisfaction, which is the only thing that can give a man happiness in life. Thus, true freedom, which grants happiness, is freedom from sin. Is this how contemporary people understand freedom, and is this the freedom they seek? Unfortunately, no.
True happiness is the same as true freedom: freedom from sin. This is extremely contrary to what the modern world says about happiness, which frequently involves unfettered indulgence in sin:
Instead of freedom from sin, people began to strive for freedom to sin. True freedom, freedom of spirit, Christian freedom came to be considered “despotism,” “coercion,” the oppression of the Church, while the dissipation of one’s sinful will, which leads to enslavement of the spirit, was made life’s ideal.
Sad but true. This is the state of the modern world. Freedom to us means the capacity to sin brazenly and demand that others praise us for it.
Let us pray that we continually foster true freedom in our lives—the kind of freedom that leads to life and true happiness as we draw closer to God and cast of the chains that keep us bound in slavery to our own sins.