Safety or Freedom?

It’s a shame we are not able to visit in person this weekend. Beth and I always enjoy our visits to Edinburgh, but we are where we are and hopefully I can at least provide something here to provoke a few thoughts about the relationship between our Father, his son and ourselves.

The events of the past few months have, for me at least, brought to the forefront the age-old debate between safety and freedom. Namely how much freedom should be given away (or forcibly removed) to achieve a level of protection against some threat. I’m sure you could scrawl through the history books for examples and find current day examples also of where a lack of protection has resulted in terrible exploitation and injustice – indeed does James not challenge us that the quality of our “civilisation” is in a large part demonstrated by our care for “orphans and widows” i.e. the most vulnerable in our communities?

Conversely though, we don’t have to go too far to find examples where too much “protection” has led to terrible oppression and other injustices. And so we find ourselves in the middle of a similar debate – have governments gone too far? Have they gone far enough?

Government representatives and media outlets like to tell us about the sacrifices we have all made, and maybe you agree with that description. For my part, though perhaps these changes to our lives have been necessary, I struggle to think of them as “sacrifices”, partly because my own personal circumstances are really not that bad but partly because of the element of compulsion and threat of punishment for non-compliance.

The Bible presents us with a useful example of the conundrum we have been talking about in the story in 1 Samuel of the people of Israel demanding a king just like those of the surrounding nations. What they got was a big, powerful figure who would provide them with a protection of sorts from their enemies but who would extract a price for providing this protection. Samuel warned them against following this path in 1 Samuel:10-18 but they had their hearts set on this solution and would not be deterred.

I suppose the moral of the story of Israel and its kings is that people are limited in how well they can protect others, even with great resources at their disposal, but will more often than not misuse the powers that have been given to them and squander those resources. Sometimes this will be out of selfishness and greed, sometimes out of malice, sometimes out of panic and fear, sometimes out of incompetence, sometimes a combination of these.

But it isn’t government action I’m interested in focusing on too much here but instead the role of protection and freedom in the relationships between God, Jesus and ourselves.

Firstly, observe the role of choice in God’s dealings with people. Just in Genesis we have Adam & Eve given a choice about whether to eat that fruit or not, Noah’s choice in building an ark, Abraham’s choice of travelling to Canaan, Lot’s choice in leaving Sodom. Each time there is choice but there is also a threat, sometimes explicit, sometimes more subtle. The choice God presents to these and others (and us) is summarised nicely in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 where God invites the Israelites to “choose life”.

At this point I invite you to dig a little and have a think about some of these and other examples. Often, I suspect these choices do not come completely unexpectedly or on a whim but as an answer to prayer. So think of the “cry” that went up to God about Sodom – who made that cry? Think about the “cry” that went up to God from Israel in Egypt and the eventual choice about whether to listen to Moses and follow him or not. Think too about the conversations between God and Cain.
Extend the idea of a connection between choice and prayer further and reflect on the story of Mary and the conception of Jesus. Mary’s use of the prayer of Hannah in her “Magnificat” is suggestive that the choice of Mary as the mother of Jesus was partially her own (Luke 2 :46-53).

God, obviously, can provide as much protection as he likes, so why not just fully protect? Why such a key role for choice? The only answer I can come up with is that it is a part of God’s character and his plan for us is that we develop this character.

We all have a tendency to focus on the outside and the flaws, the threats and the problems that are “out there”, but God is really only concerned about the inside and the threats to our character and our thinking. Can too much “protection” at the same time be a threat? Perhaps physical protection can be a threat in other ways? Perhaps true protection only comes from true freedom? (think freedom in Christ). Perhaps the ultimate freedom is to choose to give that freedom up and submit to the will of God? –the seemingly contradictory choice of becoming a “slave to righteousness”. Not being able to look at things with God’s perspective can easily lead us to complicate things.

How much choice did Jesus have in his own sacrifice? The Bible seems to imply that it was “necessary” for his own personal salvation (a discussion for another time) but that it was also a central part of the “manifestation” of God – a humble self-sacrificing act driven out of love. So an apparent contradiction. Well no, not really – we know that God looks on the heart and this sacrifice was acceptable and perfect therefore we can be sure it was indeed entirely driven by love and not at all driven by self-protection.

But just reflect on what an awful position Jesus must have been in – the path to be followed is the one of self interest but if you follow this path out of self interest you will fail. It must be love holding him to the cross – how sure can he be that in those dark moments to come that his purity of purpose would hold up?

Think of the time it took him to be “ready” and the steps he took to bolster his love – why wait until he was 30 years old to begin his ministry? Why surround yourself with people so often and spend so much time with the sick and the poor and the outcasts? Why spend so much time with his Father in prayer? Why such sorrow and doubt in the Garden?

Reflect on the temptations in Matthew 4 with this challenge in mind. Can I love enough to take the difficult course? What if I fail? Would it not be better to take the opportunity to do a great deal of good now with this power rather than trying and failing to take the more difficult path and so doing little good?

Reflect also on the fact that despite the barrage and vitriol he faced in his last hours, despite the fact that most of those whom he had surrounded himself with forsook him and fled, despite the agony and suffering that it was indeed love which held him to the cross.

Such is the strength of the love of Christ.

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