“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore,
and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”
(Galatians 5:1, ESV)
‘To quit smoking is easy, I do it every day”, a funny expression goes. The person who says this has, probably, no real intention to stop smoking. Leaving your addiction behind is not so easy, as many addicts can testify. In the life of an addict, the use of mind altering substances or his dedication to non-substance compulsions, has become ingrained in his total way of being, thinking and acting. He is not free anymore to do and act as he wishes.
Realising that you are in the deepest sense ‘unfree’ is a precondition for a change that could finally lead to freedom. Regaining control over your life and over your decisions is what makes one free, not being controlled anymore by the need for substances, by the need for escape from reality or from responsibilities. In philosophical literature on ‘liberty’, a useful distinction is made between negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the liberty within which someone is able to do or to be what he wants to do or be, without interference. Positive liberty is the liberty in which someone has the option to choose and ‘set up’ their own life. Within positive liberty, a person can express their ‘free will’.
Both concepts of freedom apply to someone who has been able to rid himself of the scourge of addiction. His negative liberty consists of not being harassed anymore by his addiction and its requirements. He is not a slave anymore of substances or compulsive behaviours. His positive freedom consists in the fact that he now can choose to become the person he was intended to be and start living a fulfilling live. But both ‘liberties’ need to be carefully guarded. These liberties are under constant attack. To remain free asks for continued vigilance and courage to address all influences in our life that threaten to bring us back into a state of servitude, of ‘unfreedom’. This we also can learn from what the Apostle Paul writes to the churches in Galatia.
A wandering heart
The Letter to the Galatians is one in which Paul expresses his bewilderment at the fact that the believers are “so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1,6). He calls them foolish and asks them who has bewitched them (3,1). The Galatians were in danger of exchanging the liberty they had received through the gospel for a so called ‘gospel plus’: belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and circumcision i.e. the keeping of the Old Testament Law. But this ‘gospel plus’ was not bringing them more freedom, on the contrary, it would be bringing them back in a state of darkness and servitude. It would be denying the all sufficiency of the Person and work of Jesus Christ. A substantial danger!
Take a stand
Whenever we try to fit the Gospel to our own thinking, we end up being miserable and will be taken prisoner by our own thoughts and considerations. After having seriously warned the Galatians in the previous chapters, Paul starts chapter 5 with a strong call: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Galatians should keep to the gospel they had heard from Paul and not deviate from that. Holding on to that Gospel would ensure their freedom, a freedom for which Christ specifically had come! They should ‘stand firm’, that is: to persevere, to persist, to keep one’s standing, to make a strong resolve not to be a moved away. And they should ‘not submit to a yoke of slavery’, not to be entangled again, not to be engaged again in their former ways, not let a yoke of servitude and self-righteousness again be lain upon their shoulders.
Freedom can be robbed, stay vigilant
For those of us with an addiction background this all should sound familiar. We have experienced how God set us free from our addictions and from everything that entangled us and made us miserable. But we should always be cautious that this freedom is not robbed from us. Before we know it – often because we are not vigilant – small infringements of our freedom finally lead up to a new situation of unfreedom. And this is not what God intends for us. He makes us free in order that we might love and serve Him and our neighbour. As Paul writes in the same chapter (5,13): “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
We are called to remain free and use that freedom to live to the glory of God and to be a blessing for our fellow human beings. As the church father Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once wrote: “Love God and do what you will.” The love of God should be the governing principle in our lives. When this love of God keeps on filling our hearts, we will be free and remain free indeed. We are free from bondage (negative liberty) and free to live our lives in accordance with Gods plan and purpose (positive liberty).
Frans Koopmans works at De Hoop (The Hope), a Christian mental health care organisation (addiction care and psychiatry) in Dordrecht, the Netherlands.