Paradox

“Perfectly free
Dance if you wanna be…”

This morning when I got to my kitchen and turned on my iPod, the first track it pulled on shuffle was exactly the song I needed this morning: “Church Music – Dance(!)” by David Crowder Band.  I think there must be a tiny little angel who slips inside my iPod sometimes to program the song I need to hear next.  Or maybe the Spirit of God juggles the bits himself, for fun; regardless, I’m always grateful when the exact thing I need rises up out of apparent randomness, especially when I didn’t know I needed it.

While making tea and oatmeal, this repeated line tugged on my ears.  “Perfectly free.”  We people forgiven by God are perfectly free; the Bible says this over and over.  Perfectly free.

Except it’s not true.  I look at how my week has gone, full of stress and unhappiness, and I am most definitely not free.  I’ve got obligations to people and businesses and myself.  I get trapped by my own body: hunger, hormones, pain, loneliness.  Not free.  Not in the least free.

Except it is true.  Jesus himself says so, and says he himself made it so.  He knows more than I do, and he doesn’t lie.  I’m free, all of us are free.

Except it’s not true.  Seriously, look at how we act.  Look at how we treat ourselves, let alone how we treat others.  We are not a free people.  We’re all stuck by the crappy parts of this world we’ve built.  Watch 30 minutes of news on any given day, and then tell me I’m wrong.  We’re not free, and we mostly don’t know what to do about it, except be unhappy.

This is the paradox every Christian lives inside: we are free, and we are not free.  God’s grace and gift to us is freedom, and our lives and choices and the world around us show us unmistakably that we are trapped.

The argument to untangle this usually goes, “We are free, but we don’t live out of the freedom we have.”  Or, “We are free, but we don’t know how to claim it.”  What good is a freedom you don’t claim?  Or one you don’t know how to claim, or know how to “live out of” (whatever that means), or one you don’t even know you have?

What good is freedom if you can’t experience it?

It makes me think about a very sad analogy.  Imagine a dog belonging to a very evil person, which spends its life either locked in a very small kennel, or pulled out to be abused.  It is trapped, in every sense.  Horribly unfree.

And one day the evil person is taken away in handcuffs, and a very kind person unlocks the kennel and opens the door.  What does the poor dog think?  Is it free?  How does it know?  Will it come out?  Chances are it stays put, right where it is.  If the kind person pulls it out, chances are it expects more abuse, and either cringes or attacks.  How would it know any differently?  It can’t experience the freedom it has been given.

This is the part where at least some people will say “but the feeling of being trapped is only in the animal’s mind.  It’s really actually free.”  Not so fast.  Only in the mind?  The strongest prison is the mind.  The mind is what keeps any of us from experiencing freedom.  It’s the mind that keeps us all locked up, even when all our kennel-doors are wide open, with Jesus bending down to peer in and say “seriously, you’re free.  Come out here.  Really, I mean it.  You’re free now.  Come here!”

It seems to me that a lot of people never listen to him.  They’re “free” but not actually free.  They stay inside their little boxes, happy that Jesus opened the door for them, but they don’t actually go out there.  Are you nuts?  Who knows what could be out there?  My life is pretty good, just the way it is.  My door is open now, so Jesus can come in my box and make it better for me here, right?

Right.

Some of us don’t get to stay in our boxes, even if we want to.  Jesus takes some of us by the scruff of our necks and drags us out, with us flailing and yelling, crying and kicking, saying “don’t beat us anymore!  Let us go back where it’s safe!”  Jesus brings us out into our freedom, and we hate it.  He wrecks our old situations and familiar patterns, and we get terrified and angry and yell at him (or want to yell at him).  All the while, he’s trying to heal us up and make us better and set us loose in a wide, awesome world.  And we hate it.  Sometimes we hate him for it.

Not free.  Perfectly free, and so not free.  Terrible, incredible paradox.

The real truth is that we are free.  Jesus made that true himself, and he doesn’t lie: we are free.  Our unfreedom is the lie, but one with sharp teeth that lives right inside of us, and we keep listening to it.  It takes time to learn how to stop listening, time and hard, painful work, and the patience of Jesus who keeps nudging us forward, even when (especially when) we don’t want to.  It takes time to learn how to trust our liberator and believe him above and beyond the familiar, intimate lie that gnaws on us.  In the meantime we don’t experience all our freedom; we live the paradox, inside our mind-prisons where we jealously clutch the keys that lock us in.

Right now I’m living in the teeth of the paradox, and I have to remind myself of it so I know where the truth is.  I still remember my small box, with a few comfortable rags and a bit of dry bone to gnaw; sometimes I think it wasn’t such a bad old life, and I’d like to go back now, Jesus, please.  But I’m trying to look around at where I am now, and see that it’s good here.  I’m trying to listen to the one who says “it’s a wide, awesome world, and I made you to run in it.”  I have to remind myself, out here in the scary open, that Jesus didn’t bring me out into it to beat me.  He’s trying to heal me, and make me strong enough to run with him.

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