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The Absurdity of Freedom

by Greg Howell

The morning had started rather suddenly. My 14-year-old mind was still in that groggy place where the world around you seems more like the dream you just left than the reality you actually live in. But here was this dreamlike thing sitting on the table as if it were always supposed to be there next to the breakfast cereals—a big gallon of vanilla ice cream.

My brother and I stared at it, not really believing what we were seeing. Was it actually supposed to be there? Where was our health-conscious mother? Had she been secretly replaced by someone else? All of these questions swirled around the strange interloper that was quietly melting into a little puddle next to the box of granola.

The previous evening my brother and I had been complaining about all the rules in the house. We wanted a life with options and freedom. We wanted to stay up playing video games, or to let homework slide once in a while. The authoritarian regime that my parents had built must be torn down, replaced by sweet anarchy! Or at least that’s how we thought it came across. My parents just heard us complaining in the back seat of the minivan. At the time they made it pretty clear that the rules would remain, and we would remain subject to them.

But then the next morning that gallon of ice cream showed up on the breakfast table. My mother finally came out of the kitchen holding up some new recipe book that my aunt had sent us the previous Christmas.

“Well, since both of you are having a hard time with all the rules, I decided that we should loosen them up in a few areas. Starting with this,” and she pointed at the ice cream. “Who needs milk on your oatmeal when you can just have frozen milk!”

My brother broke the moment quickly, diving for the nearest spoon. He plopped the biggest scoop he could dig out right in the middle of the bowl. It melted into the oats, looking more like a sundae then a “breakfast of champions.” And if that were the end of the moment, I think it would have been a success. We had bucked the system and had achieved more than we could have hoped for! Ice cream for breakfast, who would’ve ever believed it?

Within about 15 minutes, just as we were getting ready to leave for school, my brother made a mad dash to the bathroom where he remained, puking his guts out. I followed suit not five minutes later, and as I watched the oats and the ice cream make their spectacular reappearance, I had to ask myself, Was this what I had wanted? When I asked for less rules, did I really mean for it to end up like this?

The truth of the matter is that a lot of life’s rules feel restrictive. They keep us from doing things that we want (like putting ice cream on our oatmeal), but at the same time they keep us from doing things to ourselves that aren’t always a good idea. Freedom, whether it’s from a system of rules or from the norms of the breakfast menu, isn’t always going to turn out the way we want it to.

The book of Romans describes what a world that doesn’t follow God’s rules actually looks like. “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” (Romans 1:29, NIV).* When you trade rules for no rules, you’re actually just going to end up a slave to a whole different kind of drudgery.

Paul talks about freedom a lot in the book of Romans. In fact, he talks about the contrast between the life of “sin” (no rules), and the life of the “law of Christ” (God’s rules). When comparing the two in Romans 8, he makes it clear that living a sinful life leads you through a cycle of pain and disappointment. He even says that in this world we are slaves to “the law of sin and death.”

What’s interesting is that Paul thinks living under God’s rules is better than being free from them. Which doesn’t make sense. Keeping rules and not doing what we want to, is freedom? According to Paul, yes, it is. God’s rules were designed to give us the pattern, or the recipe, to live the best life possible. Look at some of God’s original rules, the Ten Commandments, from this angle.

“You shall not lie.” Keeping this rule is freedom from: (a) having to remember what story you told to whom, and worrying that you’ll slip up; (b) getting caught in one of those “I thought you told me . . . ” moments; (c) getting skipped over for a job because of questions about your personal integrity; and (d) living a life in which nobody really believes anything you say, even when you’re trying to tell the truth for a change.

“You shall not covet.” Keeping this rule is freedom from: (a) having to always look at other peoples stuff and feeling bad about your own; (b) being saddled with mountains of debt because you constantly have to keep up with the latest trends; (c) feeling inferior because you don’t have the latest gadgets or clothes; and (d) never being satisfied with what you have, where you live, or what kind of life you live.

If we see God’s rules the way Paul saw them, then we’re free to not live the way the world says we have to. We don’t have to fall into the traps that sin sets for us, and ultimately we can live better now as well as eternally in the future. In the end, that’s a kind of rulekeeping I could really get used to.

* Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Greg Howell is a pastor in Washington, and with his wife has coauthored a teen devotional titled Fusion. He prefers to spend his time snowboarding, behind a camera, or running around like a crazy person chasing his four kids.


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