Culture is a force comprised of traditions curated and subsequently cherished in the hearts of the collective as years expire. It presses itself upon every facet of one’s life more often than realized.
For instance, in the United States, ordering an afternoon cappuccino at Starbucks is a common practice. If one orders an afternoon cappuccino in Rome, however, the barista will begrudgingly oblige seeing it is not an Italian tradition to enjoy one after breakfast. Just as culture impacts food choices, it also impacts emotions. Americans are in the midst of the holiday season. During this time, it seems everyone has a figurative fireplace warming their hearts with openness, nostalgia, good will, and generosity. These feelings, however, are neither experienced globally by all people nor historically by every age. In America, in our culture, the high time of national festivities is late November to the first of January. (Interesting that a calendar tells us when to become sentimental.)
There are numerous examples of how the American culture infiltrates our lives influencing our emotions, our schedules, our spending habits as well as our thinking. Our thinking may be the toughest aspect for us to be cognizant of. Why is this so? Just as we have always eaten three meals a day, enjoyed indoor plumbing, and had access to higher education, most Americans have grown up in America, saturated with American thinking. Particularly, they are influenced by American political thought, which centers around the presumed “God-given” right to be free. This freedom is qualified as a freedom from government imposing its will on speech, religion, the right to assemble, and so on. The by-product of this freedom is almost greater than freedom itself—individuality. It is fostered by freedom wherein an environment exists where a person’s personality and traits can form and uniquely distinguish a person from the rest of society. Individuality, however, can devolve into individualism where the person becomes the center of his universe for selfish ends. Both flow from the same fountain, with freedom saying, “I have the opportunity to do this or that;” whereas individualism says, “I have the right to do this or that,” or more pointedly “I can do this or that and you cannot stop me.”
The declaration of the right to live as one chooses is not wholly poisonous on its own. America’s Judeo-Christian foundation ultimately rooted authority in God. This foundation guided our government’s framers, our individual and collective morality, and our ethics for over a century and a half. The cultural revolution of the Sixties, however, poisoned the well of America’s soul and postmodernism began to flourish. The effect was swift and dramatic. Postmodernism turned one of America’s greatest strength, individuality, into a slow-killing weakness, individualism. Now, man is captured by the philosophy, postmodernism, that truth is based upon one’s language, one’s culture, one’s religion, and one’s education. It is the capstone thought to Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), which displaced God as the center of the universe and placed man in his stead. This is what has yielded individualism expressed most acutely in the defiant declaration of rights without any form of restraint. The American Church lives in this ocean and must recognize the degree to which its thinking is wet with it.
This is critically important as American Christians approach scriptures speaking of three concepts: liberty, freedom, and God’s sovereignty. Our reference point for these ideas is our political makeup. In our land, freedom is equated with choice, liberty with lack of restraint, and sovereignty with dictatorial control. Therefore, our hermeneutics can be greatly compromised when we read in James of the “law of liberty,” or in Galatians about the freedom we have been called to, or in the Psalms where we are told, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does.” We peer into truth from another age with Enlightenment spectacles. It is necessary to take off these spectacles and be less enlightened so we can be illuminated.
On a grand political scale, liberty has been the rallying cry for many suffering under despotism. In 1792, liberty fueled the armies of Marseilles as they sang La Marseillaise, the eventual French national anthem. Their thirst for liberty was summed up in these lines, “To arms, citizens! Form up your battalions. Let us march! That their impure blood should water our fields.” Another example is Nelson Mandela. Upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, he praised those who “sacrificed everything for liberty” to reign for both blacks and whites in South Africa. Finally, Patrick Henry’s famous line, “Give me liberty or give me death!,” convinced the Second Virginia Convention to form militias and defend itself from the British. From these examples and many others in history, the idea of liberty is tied directly to being politically free and consequently individually free from a government, which tends to impose numerous restraints upon its citizens. For Americans, however, liberty is deep-seated. It has flourished in the democratic republic of the United States. This creates, for the American Christian, a frame of reference anytime liberty is mentioned in the scriptures.
For example, James 2:12 speaks of being “judged under the law of liberty.” Immediately, the American reader can be confused. The phrase, “law of liberty,” is seen as an oxymoron juxtaposing two words that seemingly contradict each other. The word law is promptly interpreted as a list of regulations prohibiting certain actions. As stated earlier, liberty is viewed as lack of restraint. One can imagine the perplexed look on the reader’s face: “Is the law comprised of liberty?” At any rate, it seems impossible that the two words could exist in the same phrase, and if the traditional American definition of the word liberty is employed, confusion will arise, for liberty is usually perceived as a goal to achieve by fighting for one’s own comfort from an opposing force. In this context, however, liberty seems to mean something other than a goal.
Every time a Christian strives to interpret scripture, one of the key hermeneutical instruments that must be used is context. The reader must not isolate a verse from the context of the chapter, the book, and the rest of the biblical text. Chapter two of James provides some needed help for the American Christian. James begins this portion of his writings addressing the sin of partiality—favoritism. He provides the means for conquering this sin in verse eight. He says if one fulfills the “royal law,” the Law given by the Sovereign of the universe, the person will not show partiality. James writes that this law is fulfilled when one “love[s] [his] neighbor as [him]self.” This command is saturated with selflessness. Whereas, partiality is committed because a person wants to be with and seen with the rich and influential, loving a neighbor as one’s self expresses a disregard for one’s appearance and associations. When one loves himself, he goes to his own preferred extent to meet his needs and provides a level of desired comfort. James is teaching that one should go to the same extent for one’s neighbor(s).
James proceeds to note several commands in the Law that reinforce the selfless nature of the “neighbor” command. He mentions “do not commit adultery … [and] murder.” The first command denies one’s sinful, sexual appetite if he resists having sex with one to whom he is not married. He or she does not use the person as a means of satisfying one’s lust. As well, murder is committed because of hate boiling out of one’s soul toward the one killed. When one murders, one strives to obtain something that is not his. It could be power, revenge, justice, etc. When a person resists murder, he is relinquishing a false claim on something that is God’s and not his.
Seeing that he has revealed the sin of partiality’s nature by discussing commands in the Law possessing the opposite nature, James discloses a key component of the Law—liberty. One’s American, political mind is tempted to run to the standard conception, that liberty is gained by taking. One takes control in order to set the standards that will ensure no restraint. There is no room, however, for that idea of liberty used as a tool to assist one in deciphering what James is teaching. James is teaching liberty is gained by giving and giving up. Give the same love you have for yourself to others. Give up lust in order for the other to enjoy the sexual pleasure God has given him or her in marriage. Give up hate in order that the person may continue living according to God’s timeline. In addition, the biblical concept of liberty advocates giving coupled with no guarantee of compensation. The person does not receive any tangible benefit from the person he loved or refrained from sinning against. The neighbor will likely not repay the Christian in kind. The person hated or lusted after will never know the evil that was brewing inside the Christian’s heart. Therefore, there will be no effusive expression from him.
James has already talked about this earlier in his writing when he wrote, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Why is visiting orphans and widows part of undefiled religion? There is minimal opportunity for exploitation or ulterior motives to sneak in. Orphans are penniless. Widows were (and most of them still are) limited in their resources and in their societal standing. One who serves them cannot receive from them equal service or compensation. Spending time with them gives them value they cannot reciprocate. The visit is “pure and undefiled.” It is about giving up time, opportunity, recreation, and possibly relational comfort.
Let us consider where the path of James’ logic leads us: Serving and/or visiting those in low estate is altruistic and a form of obedience to the “neighbor command.” Obeying the Law is a means of forsaking selfish desires as well as treating others in an altruistic manner; this means that the Law and selfishness are in opposition to each other. Where obedience to the Law is present, selfishness is absent. Thus, when James describes the Law as having a component of liberty, it is liberty from selfishness. It is liberty for the soul of a man to experience when he lives selflessly. The God-Man encapsulated the Law and its liberty thusly, “Whoever saves his life [is selfish], loses it. Whoever loses his life for my sake [is selfless], will find it.”
Besides liberty, the other core concept of the American politic is freedom. Freedom is frequently equated with choice. Americans have the freedom/choice to say what they want. Americans have the freedom/choice to worship whom they wish. Americans have the freedom/choice to have a press that publishes what it wills about whomever or whatever. These are a sampling of the freedoms guaranteed according to the structure-building document of our government, the Constitution. Just as it forms the parameters and operations of our government in regards to the guaranteed freedoms, freedom also structures our manner of thinking and how it is exercised. As Americans exercise their freedoms, they expect no interference or infringement from Washington. Additionally, there are many options to pursue within each of the freedoms. Specifically, with respect to the freedom of religion, an American can worship whomever, wherever, and however he or she pleases.
One of the most familiar verses mentioning freedom is II Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The word, freedom, is often extrapolated from the context in which Paul used it. American ears hear the word and immediately associate it with choice in the way the Christian religion can be conducted. Some believe it enables one to interpret scripture in a personal manner rather than in a contextual manner. Others believe it provides them an avenue in which to indulge in sin and still receive God’s forgiveness, while some see it as a means to choose which biblical commands they are capable of obeying. Ironically, they take liberty in defining the word, freedom.
Interestingly enough, Paul makes it clear that freedom is linked to the Lord in the passage. In order for there to be freedom, the Spirit of the Lord must be present. Freedom does not exist in its own spiritual sphere. Since it is inextricably linked to the Lord, it is not open to be defined in any other manner than that which is consistent with the makeup of its creator. If its definition or its application deviates from the totality of who God is, then it is not a freedom of much consequence. Therefore, spiritual freedom’s definition and use are comprised of parts that are coherent with God’s character.
In the context of II Corinthians 2, Paul talks about a “veil [lying] over [one’s] heart,” which is removed “when one turns to the Lord.” It is after this he writes that where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. Paul is connecting the removal of the veil with the presentness of the Spirit. Paul, then, writes what this freedom is, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Christians are now free from the veil’s obstructiveness and are able to see God as they truly desire. This desire was placed in man at his creation as the image of God. Once a person turns to God, the veil is lifted and the change back to the Edenic state of man begins—“transformed into the same image [of God] from one degree of glory to another.” The freedom being written about is the freedom to be who man was created to be, namely, to be a worshipper of God and enjoy the full satisfaction of such worship.
Furthermore, in his epistle to the Galatian Christians, Paul explains another aspect of freedom—the freedom from. He writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Christians have been set free for the purpose of experiencing freedom, a freedom from slavery. Earlier in this part of the Galatian writing, he defines what kind of slavery he is talking about: “the son of the slave was born according to the flesh.” This phrase metaphorically communicates man’s spiritual state before he is freed. Man is born into slavery and exists and operates according to “the flesh.” The flesh is the core of all selfish, evil desires. Mankind inherits the flesh from Adam (I Corinthians 15:22). To his fellow Christians of the day, Paul is teaching that freedom’s scope extends beyond the yearning of the enslaved to be released from their masters’ shackles. It is also extends beyond the notion that man has the capability to do whatever he desires with his abilities. God defines freedom as a freedom from slavery of sin in order to experience the freedom to relate to God according to our Edenic design. True freedom enables the capability of one to do what one truly desires, which is find complete purpose and fulfillment in the Creator.
The third concept lying both in the political and spiritual worlds is sovereignty. For Americans, if a nation’s leader possesses sovereign control, then it is inconceivable that the citizenry can enjoy any level of liberty or freedom. As a result, Americans, more often than not, equate sovereignty with a dictator—one full of exploitative tendencies getting high on the oppression of his subjects in order to satisfy the hunger of his own ego. Sovereigns are megalomaniacs whimsically ruling their countries for the purpose of amassing personal power, wealth, and fame.
Consequently, when an American Christian reads Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,” or other passages speaking to God’s sovereignty, his perception of God can be skewed due to his frame of reference. Some are taken aback while others are repulsed by the draconian tone being used. When one hears the phrase, “whatever he pleases,” thoughts of altruism are not the first to come to mind. This phrase usually describes one who follows his selfish intents with bravado and recklessness. In order to understand this passage and others like it, it is absolutely critical to know the attributes of God described in the scriptures.
The scriptures describe God as unchangeable. Psalm 102:27 reads, “ … you are the same, and your years have no end.” James 1:17 confirms this, saying that “ … there is no variation or shadow due to change” with God. God is eternally consistent in his character, word, and deed. Hence, when one reads numerous passages detailing the depths of God’s love, his promise of forgiveness to those who repent, and his enormous mercy and grace, these traits and others are not confined to the time period of the scriptures. God is also possessing and displaying these traits today. His unchangeableness guarantees that His reign is one of never-ending consistency. Only this type of sovereign can provide the fullest sense of comfort and care. This sovereign is always acting on behalf of his subjects to ensure their lives can be lived to the fullest.
So when one reads that God does whatever he pleases, one must constantly keep in view the character of God. What pleases him is not the same as what pleases past and present sovereigns of this earth. He does not have an ego in need of stroking. He does not exploit in order to possess. He does not crave power in order to feel fulfilled. Much of his pleasure comes when his children find their pleasure in him. This is what pleases him. He stopped at nothing to ensure sin would not stamp out this pleasure. He selflessly gave his Son to regain our liberty for us and reestablish our freedom—the ultimate sign of what type of sovereign he truly is.
The political concepts of liberty, freedom, and democracy have cultivated an America where people can flourish free of governmental intrusion. They must not, however, be used as lenses through which one views the spiritual concepts of liberty, freedom, and sovereignty that empower one to flourish free from the flesh. For the children of God, liberty from selfishness leads to the freedom to worship the one, true Sovereign who can be trusted with possessing complete authority.
This article originally published at Mere Orthodoxy.