Is Christianity Restrictive?

(A small-group study guide for: The Reason for God, Chapter 3)

 

[Ice breaker: For those of you who are married, how did you first know you were in love? Write down your answer and save it. Towards the end of this study, we’ll get back to it.]

 

Introduction

Objections I have often heard about Christianity include:

  • “Christians aren’t allowed think for themselves.”
  • “Christianity restricts people’s self-expression.”
  • “Christianity prevents people from truly enjoying themselves.”
  • “Christians aren’t allowed to be free.”

[Discussion: What do you think about these statements? Can you think of why someone might agree or disagree with them?]

 

These objections are valid concerns and should be answered carefully. Their common thread is that Christianity is restrictive, thus Christians don’t have freedom, which is bad. Before answering these objections, we must dig a bit deeper by asking:

  • What does freedom mean?
  • Is limiting freedom bad?
  • Do people generally have freedom, even in democracies?
  • Is love more about having freedom or restricting freedom?

 

 

What is Freedom? Is limiting Freedom Bad?

The dictionary[1] defines freedom as, “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” We touched upon the topic of what defines good or bad, right or wrong, extensively in part one of this series. Now, is limiting freedom bad?

[Discussion: Is limiting freedom bad? Support your answer.]

 

An instinctive response for many would be, “Yes, limiting freedom is bad,” but the answer is more complex. Yes, in some cases, limiting freedom can be bad. For example, drastically limiting one’s freedom to eat or drink can cause premature death through malnutrition or starvation. On the other hand, not limiting one’s freedom to eat or drink can also cause premature death through obesity or eating too much of the wrong foods.

Thus, optimal restrictions, which align with the reality of our nature—with who we are and how we are built—liberate us to enjoy the greatest freedom and benefits, which in this example exists in the equilibrium between malnourishment and obesity. Paradoxically, you could say we achieve the greatest joy and benefits by limiting our freedom. It is in this equilibrium, not weighed down and restricted by either malnourishment nor obesity, in this example, when we are most free.

[Discussion: Can you think of other examples where one achieves the greatest freedom through restrictions?]

 

This same principle applies in other spheres of life as well. For example, can anyone achieve the greatest freedom intellectually, physically, and vocationally without restricting themselves in various areas? Can a bodybuilder build strength without limiting his freedom from pain, by just lifting light weights? Can one advance optimally in a career, without sometimes restricting personal comfort?

If you want to succeed in your career, you will have to get out of bed and do annoying tasks, even when you don’t want to. You will likely also have to limit the number of hours you spend playing video games. It is only through limiting our freedoms that we can operate and succeed optimally. Why wouldn’t this same principle also apply to your spiritual and moral growth?

Why is it okay for someone to limit themselves to achieve freedom as a weightlifter but not to achieve spiritual and moral growth? Restrictions and limits on freedom are necessary and we should discipline ourselves to discover the optimal restrictions on freedom that align with the reality of our nature, with who we are and how we are built.

Someone might reply saying, “I agree that limiting freedom can be good, but it should be left to individuals to decide how they wish to limit their freedom.” This sounds nice, but does it correspond to reality?

[Discussion: Does anyone in a democratic society have freedom?]

 

Do Democratic Societies Have Freedom?

Nobody has freedom in democratic society, at least if one wants to avoid the negative consequences that exercising unlimited freedom might bring. One might want to urinate in public, pick flowers from a park, or modernize a historically protected building that one owns, but society will attempt to prevent you from being free to engage in these activities. If you decide to proceed, then society will punish you.

Someone may object saying that it’s okay to limit freedom by majority rule or by law; however, would this person agree that the laws of the last century which discriminated against homosexuals were acceptable?[2] In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which set security standards for federal employment and barred homosexuals from working in the federal government.[3] Furthermore, in some eastern societies the rule of law restricts women in several ways such as, not going about town without a male escort. [4] Is it fine if this law is supported by majority opinion in that society? Another objection could be raised, namely that people should be free to do whatever they want as long it doesn’t hurt others.

[Discussion: Can people do whatever they want in democratic societies if it doesn’t hurt others? Should people be allowed this freedom?]

 

Most democratic societies restrict people’s freedoms, even if said freedoms wouldn’t hurt others. For example, by banning heroin—even from single rich people who have private health insurance and are not on public system—who would consume it on a private island with nobody else around to hurt. Also, society, for now, prohibits marriages of more than two persons, even if there were a group of 3 or 10 people who would like to all get married as a group with each other. Furthermore, society restricts a 40-year-old mother and 20-year-old daughter marrying together. These are all behaviors that don’t necessarily hurt others, yet they are restricted in most democratic societies.

The objection that people should be free to do whatever they want if it doesn’t hurt others doesn’t work. If you are in favor of abolishing all the aforementioned restrictions, I hope you voted for such a political candidate in the last elections or, if there were no such politician, you have considered starting a movement or petition to remove said restrictions. Otherwise, you are part of the system that’s restricting the fulfillment of certain people, which you are saying is bad. That’s being a bit self-contradictory. The reality is people are not allowed to create their own meaning and purpose, even in democracies if those desires go against the law, regardless if those desires would hurt other people.

 

The Most Important Question

People do not have freedom in a democratic society. The majority would agree that most of the restrictions limiting our freedoms in democratic societies are for our own benefit. Therefore, it is intellectually dishonest to accuse Christianity of limiting people’s freedoms, as if it’s a horrible thing, when it is generally agreed upon that, in many cases, limiting people’s freedoms can be a good thing.

With this in mind, the critics are not saying, “Christianity is restrictive and being restrictive is bad.” They are saying, “Being restrictive in many areas can be good, but in the case of Christianity being restrictive is bad.” The critics’ argument, either consciously or subconsciously, is not that limiting freedom or having restrictions is bad, but that Christianity is bad. It would be more constructive for the critic to analyze all restrictions Christianity imposes on people’s lives and address the ones they think are wrong.

This brings us to the most important question of who or what determines what is right. Is there such a thing as absolutely morality? This was covered in depth in part one of this series.

We discovered there is an absolute morality. Everything is not relative as is fashionable to say these days. For example, most people would agree that, regardless of the situation, it’s absolutely wrong to torture babies just for the fun of it.  Christianity abides by an absolute morality and it limits people’s freedom from wrongdoing, just like many countries do, for everyone’s benefit.

If Christianity were limiting something you enjoy doing, you might not like that any more than a heroin addict likes drug prohibition. It doesn’t change that restrictions can be good, even restrictions on things you would like to do.

 

Does Love Restrict People’s Personal Freedom?

The source of all of Christianity’s restrictions and limitations is love. It may be surprising to hear that love—which almost everyone likes and thinks is good—is also extremely freedom limiting and restrictive. Love is also one of the most important aspects of Christianity:[5]

 

1. Cor. 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

 

Col. 3:14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

 

Joh. 15:12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

 

Love is perhaps the best illustration of how limiting your freedom can bring you to a higher level of satisfaction and joy.

[Discussion: How does love limit one’s freedom? How could limiting one’s freedom out of love for another bring higher satisfaction and joy? Remember the Ice Breaker question from the beginning (How did you first know that you were in love?)]

 

Whether we are speaking about love towards a friend or romantic love, you must restrict your personal freedom to attain a more fulfilled and meaningful relationship. You cannot have a deep relationship with someone without some degree of self-sacrifice. If you always do what you want to do and never take the one you allegedly love into consideration, your relationship with the other will be superficial. The greater your self-sacrifice in a relationship, the deeper and more meaningful it will be.

The reknown French novelist Francoise Sagan expressed this well in her interview with Le Monde. She expressed her satisfaction with how she lived her life and had no regrets: [6]

Interviewer: Then you have had the freedom you wanted?

Sagan: Yes… I was obviously less free when I was in love with someone… But one’s not in love all the time. Apart from that… I’m free.

 

We are faced with the paradox of freedom: We are most alive and free when we’re in loving relations which involve the highest restrictions on freedom through self-sacrifice and limiting our options. As Tim Keller writes, “Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.”[7]

Loving relations peak when there is mutual self-sacrifice, both sides adjusting to one another. One side’s doing all can feel exploitative, and this is where you might stumble regarding relations with God. You might feel that God, being perfect and having all the power, will be a one-way street where you are doing all the adjusting and self-sacrifice to meet his standard of perfection, which you can’t achieve solo.

While this might be true in other religions, it’s not so in Christianity. The god of Christianity made the biggest adjustment and self-sacrifice to make the most fulfilling relationship with you possible. God, existing in all his limitlessness and perfection, humbled himself to suffer on this earth.

Php 2:5-8 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

God, in the form of Jesus, left his abode of perfection and limitlessness to become a restricted, vulnerable, and suffering human. He lived the perfect life we could never life and credits that to our account, because on the cross, he took our condition as sinners upon himself deserving eternal punishment for crimes against him. This enables God to remain just, since punishment for sin was given, and enables those who want to have love-based relations with him to enjoy him not only in this world but also forevermore after our resurrection. Keller puts this perfectly:[8]

In the most profound way, God has said to us, in Christ, “I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you though it means a sacrifice for me.” If he has done this for us, we can and should say the same to God and others. St. Paul writes, “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

A friend of C. S. Lewis’s was once asked, “Is it easy to love God?” and he replied, “It is easy to those who do it.”

That is not as paradoxical as it sounds. When you fall deeply in love, you want to please the beloved. You don’t wait for the person to ask you to do something for her. You eagerly research and learn every little thing that brings her pleasure. Then you get it for her, even if it costs you money or great inconvenience. “Your wish is my command,” you feel—and it doesn’t feel oppressive at all. From the outside, bemused friends may think, “She’s leading him around by the nose,” but from the inside it feels like heaven.

For a Christian, it’s the same with Jesus. The love of Christ constrains us. Once you realize how Jesus changed for you and gave himself for you, you aren’t afraid of giving up your freedom and therefore finding your freedom in him.

 

You will never be able match the self-sacrifice Jesus did for you. If you have accepted Jesus as your savior and the lord of your life, no matter how many times you fail him, he will never fail you. No matter how many times you put him aside by prioritizing other things like money, material possessions, and success, he will never cast you aside. Furthermore, all the restrictions he requires are for our benefit in every way—just like parents put restrictions in place for their children’s own benefit.

 

Is Christianity Restrictive?

Christianity is restrictive. It is about love-based relations with God and, like all other loving relations, achieves its fullest, deepest meaning and joy through mutual self-sacrifice.

While you were indifferent to God, he sacrificed himself, gave his life for you, and calls you to love relationship with him now and forever. Does this mean that you’ll have to restrict your freedom and do some self-sacrificing, just like in every other love relationship? Yes. Will it look ridiculous to those watching on from the outside? Probably. But as C.S. Lewis said, from the inside it feels like heaven.

 

Sources:

I made this document as a study guide for a small group that I host as we read through and discuss Tim Keller’s book Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Most of the content in this document was derived from Chapter 3 of said book. The whole book is highly recommended for deeper study: https://www.amazon.com/Reason-God-Belief-Age-Skepticism-ebook/dp/B000XPNUZE/

Feel free to use this document in your own studies, but kindly provide a link back to this page.

 

 

Footnotes: 

[1]   https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/freedom

[2]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_LGBT_history

[3]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_scare

[4]   https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-12-09/laws-men-saudi-arabia-women-are-still-assigned-male-guardians

[5]     See also the “Great Commandment” in Matthew 22:36–40

[6]     As seen in Keller, Timothy, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, p. xiv, location 1032/4761, Kindle Edition.

[7]     Keller, Timothy, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, p. xiv, location 1058/4761, Kindle Edition.

[8]     Keller, Timothy, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, p. xiv, location 1058/4761, Kindle Edition.

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