Christian Freedom, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Neighbor
Understanding that I am completely free in Christ allows me to read the injunction to “love my neighbor as myself” as a promise instead of a threat.
In 1974 Johnny Cash released his song “I’m A Worried Man” on an otherwise pedestrian album called “Ragged Old Flag.” The track, inspired by sounds from Cash’s Jamaican estate, is the story of a family man who can not quite get things together for himself or his family. Much of the song consists of Cash warbling the line “I’m a worried man” between verses about hungry babies and dismal job prospects.
Throughout 2020, the refrain has stuck in the back of my mind. I confess I am a worried man.
I stress about my calendar and my weight and my bank account. I stress about my family and friends and disappointing professional sports teams. I worry about domestic politics and global events. I worry about ants and spiders and the fact that my dog will never be potty trained. And this is in “normal” years. As you can guess, for me and many others, 2020 has been a mess.
In preparation for this year’s virtual Here We Still Stand, I reread Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of A Christian (the theme for the year) and had an epiphany wrapped up in a promise. Luther’s work is based on the straightforward premise that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” While this is undoubtedly true, pithy, and biblical, the second part of the quote has caused me some consternation. What if I am not a perfectly dutiful servant of all? I am not afraid that I can’t fulfill the first part - that’s the gift. But the second part seems like a request that is destined to become a stumbling block.
Later in the same pamphlet, Luther hands us the key that comports with both Scripture and experience. He writes, “Thus the promises of God give what the commandments of God demand and fulfill what the law prescribes so that all things may be God’s alone, both the commandments and the fulfilling of the commandments. He alone commands, he alone fulfills.”
What God commands, he fulfills. While this might be invisible to you, by faith, you can trust in the promises God makes.
Through my constant worrying and skeptical state, I figure I can trust that in Christ, I was indeed a perfectly free lord of all. But was I being a dutiful servant? Experience tells me otherwise. And please don’t ask my wife how dutiful a servant I can be.
But what if the message of salvation and the Christian life were both meant to be taken on faith? Jesus says, “be perfect” and “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” To be told, “just do these things” sends my inner worried man into cardiac arrest. But Luther reminds us of the New Testament’s promises that it is God, via his Spirit, that works all good deeds, not for God’s sake, but for the sake of our neighbor. If God commands, he also fulfills.
I can drop all the ethics, philosophies, and -isms of the world and dare to look like a simpleton. There is great freedom in this!
What does this have to do with “Christian Freedom” besides being an idea found in Luther’s text of the same name?
Understanding that I am completely free in Christ allows me to read the injunction to “love my neighbor as myself” as a promise instead of a threat. Despite my inability to see my love for my neighbor, I know that I love them according to the promise through the power of the Holy Spirit. The clause isn’t conditional. I don’t receive God’s favor because I love my neighbor. Instead, it can reinforce my faith. On the chance that I catch myself doing something selfless (or more likely, catch someone else doing something selfless), I don’t gloat over my “progress” but instead see it as a vague reflection of the infinite grace and mercy shown to me in Christ.
There is a medieval paradox known popularly as “Buridan’s Ass” based on the philosopher John Buridan and his fictional donkey. The paradox is based on an illustration that posits a donkey between two equidistant bales of hay. Because neither is closer than the other, the donkey cannot decide which direction to go and thus starves to death. When I do not think of the “Christian life” as a promise, but instead as a list of commands, my neighbor suffers. I wrap myself up in myself and my pieties and my precious “correct” beliefs. This has enough problems to fill another article, but suffice it to say, it makes the “love of neighbor” a very worrying thing.
However, Christian freedom bids me to abandon my worries. I can serve and fail. I can serve and think I’ve done so well I start to become prideful. I can drop all the ethics, philosophies, and -isms of the world and dare to look like a simpleton. There is great freedom in this! Just as my interpretation of “serving my neighbor” is a laughable ethic or political position in an age of greed and cynicism, so too is it freeing. I’ve not yet done it perfectly, nor must I do it perfectly. Still, in the gospel of the resurrected Christ, I’m learning to stop worrying and love my neighbor.