The Lady is having a special birthday! It took years to get her back in shape, but then who wouldn’t need help after being rooted to one spot outdoors for a hundred years? Sporting her polished new look, Miss Liberty, the famous guardian of New York harbor, is now ready for the galas planned in her honor. There will be parties, fireworks and flowery rhetoric about the statue. In addition, there undoubtedly will be much discussion about liberty itself.
Will those discussions and flowery words do the subject justice? How can we, who have always enjoyed national freedom, truly fathom the meaning of liberty? The majority of Americans and most of the readers of this Newsletter were born free. Having experienced so much liberty for so long, we can scarcely imagine anything less.
Historically, liberty and America go hand-in-hand. One of our greatest artifacts and national treasures is the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall. Though it is cracked and fragile and no longer able to ring, its very presence silently tolls its inscription: Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”
Those words come from Leviticus 25:10, which describes Israel’s year of jubilee. Every 50th year each Hebrew was to return to his own inheritance and his own family, regardless of any transfers of property or enforced servitude that might have transpired. Although ancient Israel, like its neighboring countries, had a slave economy, there was one major difference. A Hebrew slave was not a permanent slave. He could not sell himself for more than six years, at which time he had the option of permanent indenture or freedom. Besides that, the laws governing the treatment of Hebrew slaves virtually gave them civil rights.
Yes, there was liberty in ancient Israel, but it was a God-given benefit conditioned upon obedience to his laws. In that sense, the ancient Israelites were all slaves—even the king.
They were bondservants of the Almighty. Israel’s indenturement began when God called Abram out of Ur to a place he would show him. That new place was not Abram’s place, but God’s. Then, when the sons of Jacob pawned themselves to one Pharaoh for food and subsequently became abject slaves of a later monarch, God redeemed them from Egypt. At Sinai they reaffirmed God’s ownership when they said of one accord, “All that the LORD hath said will we do and be obedient” (Exodus 24:7).
Israel’s liberty never conferred the right to avoid obligations. Freedom from Egyptian slavery meant serving Jehovah. Freedom from certain bonds at the year of jubilee meant returning to assume other obligations and other responsibilities.
Liberty is meaningful only in contrast to some kind of bondage. Unless we are or have been bound to or by something, how can the term “liberty” mean very much to us? The liberty sought by our founding fathers in the American Revolution was freedom from the power of King George III and his oppressive colonial policies. The liberty a prisoner seeks is freedom from the physical confines of a jail cell.
There is no such thing, however, as absolute liberty. When we declared our independence from England in 1776, we needed a constitution as well as liberty. We recognized the necessity for self-imposed laws in order to establish our orderly existence as a new nation.
Likewise, a parole does not provide a prisoner with the freedom to commit another crime. On the contrary, the ex-convict is freed to lead a law-abiding life. While prison walls had limited the possibilities for committing a crime, the parole now provides greater potential for a criminal act, as the freed prisoner has greater access to society. The parolee’s new liberty imposes responsibility. Now he must exercise greater self-control if he is to stay out of trouble and remain free.
Liberty is always restricted. A common misconception of liberty claims that a free person may do whatever he or she wants to do. “Liberty and justice for all,” as quoted in our Pledge of Allegiance, does not allow for that kind of freedom. It merely means freedom for every citizen, insofar as it does not infringe upon the rights or freedom of others. As one person put it, “Your right to swing your fist ends at the place where my nose begins!”
In one respect, liberty is always dangerous. It gives us the right to choose, but it does not guarantee that our choice will be right. It gives us the right to be wrong. In that sense, liberty is dangerous because it cannot save us from the consequences of being wrong. It is dangerous because we may confuse our “right to choose” with the “rightness” of our choice. Liberty is dangerous because humanity suffers from a tendency toward self-deception.
The Scriptures teach that “The heart is deceitful…and desperately wicked…” (Jeremiah 17:9). It follows, therefore, that if we allow only our hearts to influence our choices, we will often deceive ourselves into taking the wrong path and doing the wrong thing, putting ourselves in harm’s way or harming others. Our own way is seductively pleasant to our ego-charged wills.
In exercising our liberty, we need guidance. We need God’s guidance as to how we will use our right to choose. We can choose to live according to his Word and his way, or conversely, we can choose to live according to our own way. Yet that way which may seem so right can often lead to death and destruction. Proverbs 14:12 warns, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”
Some people misuse their liberty. The liberty we enjoy in this country ought to encourage us not to sin, but to serve God. Liberty provides the occasion and the opportunity to sin, but it does not give us the authority to sin. Unfortunately, those who have not committed their lives to the Savior are enslaved by their human tendency to choose evil rather than good—their way rather than God’s way.
In today’s society many who have chosen to live sinfully have adopted a euphemism for sin. They call it a “lifestyle” and loudly proclaim that everyone in this country is free to choose their own. I maintain that such a “lifestyle” leads not to life, but death. A “lifestyle” is suicide when its distinguishing characteristics are what the Bible calls sin!
Freedom in Christ is true liberty, but because he has redeemed us, we are bound to serve him. Yet that service is not grievous. He is a kind Master, indeed. He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can handle, and he loves to delight those who follow him. The Savior’s liberty brings joy—the joy of service, of being one with the Creator and his creation. And even though at times we face difficulties, we still catch glimpses of gleaming, everlasting glory. In the meantime, if we get muddy, rusty and unusable, he can cleanse, polish and restore us to be fit vessels for his service.
The restored Miss Liberty stands as a beacon in New York’s harbor. Her legend proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
As Americans who value our national liberty, we’re proud of that beautiful symbol of our most noble ideals. But Miss Liberty has the potential to rust again, even as lofty ideals have a tendency to erode. As Christians, we have something more beautiful and more lasting than Miss Liberty to offer a weary, sin-enslaved humanity. We can proclaim true liberty throughout the land—the liberty that comes from commitment to the One who needs no lamp because he himself is the Light. We have the privilege of broadcasting his invitation to all: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”