The Impossibility of Freedom

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Dear Soul,

I need to confess that I have avoided thinking of you lately. Or perhaps I have just avoided praying.

I know that you know who I truly am, a man who struggles to know what or why a man is, a disciple who wavers at the thought of a straight line, a believer whose fears betray his beliefs, a pastor with the impulses of a wolf. I know you must be strained, existing as you do as a string dividing incalculable polarities while simultaneously uniting some tension that gives rise to the woefully negligent word “I”. I’m sorry about that—about not attending to the truth behind that word, the truth that wearies of confronting the rapid and volatile oscillation between reflection and shadow which daily announces the most self-evident truth available to the experience of faith, the only truth that makes the prospect of faith possible: “but by the grace of God…”

“I am what I am,” but I am discovering that even when “grace to me is not in vain” it does not remove in me all that is “least deserving” (1 Cor. 15:9-10). In the world of faith I still drag around my shadow. And as in the world of bodies, as I expose myself more directly to the Light the dark only seems to burn more intensely dark. I have only shades of pretense. Naked and laid bare before my conscience I have proven to be essentially both reflection and eclipse—essentially and both!—never either star or coffin, but always and only a moon. I am therefore always wanting to hide from a side of myself, from you, all that is dark because it has to be dark, a side that is always sad because it can neither make itself warm nor forget that it is sad, a side, nevertheless, that serves to remind me just how suicidal is my desire to enthrone myself as Light and how lonely it would be to move into the outer darkness bask in my own lightless glory. But I can’t hide my shadow from you because you can always feel its cold. I can however hide it from others. I can lie and pretend that I am one-dimensional.

But the truth is: I am what I am: a dark, cold, lonely rock that has nevertheless been strong-armed into the gravity of something Real. It is my somehow my Center without being mine, my Light without lying about my darkness. It makes me glow without making me something that glows, because nothing made can be made to glow by itself.

For a short time I enjoyed the ideas put forth about the so-called New Perspective on Paul, because it was easy to ignore you, to think in grand terms where all souls get cast into the “Kingdom of God” and all the optimism about its inhabitants. How Augustinian it would be for me to speak to my soul about the concerns of the soul; how un-nuanced of me to imagine the psalter actually inquiring as to his soul’s downcast estate. So perhaps I should earn the preemptive judgment of the New Perspective prophets, but I can’t help but wonder if the reason Luther read his tormented conscience into Paul is because Luther, like Paul, had a properly functioning conscience. Krister Stendahl might have been right about the “introspective conscience of the West,” but Krister Stendahl was a closet Mormon—Mormons do not have properly functioning consciences.

I think Barth was right about the strange new world of the Bible that one enters only when one enters it as a wilderness. We must be stripped of all our defenses and instruments that might fool us into trying to conquer or manipulate words that only become God’s Word when they are heard—the voice crying out in the Wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way!”

Indeed, the voice comes to prepare the way of the one who, upon His arrival, is announced: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The voice can only introduce this God-Lamb to the tormented conscience. There is no complement or counterpart befitting among men. We want to prepare the way with palm branches and processions, but the voice points alone to a Lamb and we must prepare ourselves for the slaughter. And hence what has always been there, so damningly plain and as unmetaphorical as physics for those who dare believe in a reality that is higher than the flesh of a man and even the potential of a Kingdom: “but by the grace of God” means precisely “Yet not I, but Christ…”

“I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Perhaps that is why I have neglected you. It always seems so morbid in there.

But there are but two men in this world (Rom. 5). I must either crucify one and die with the other or obey one and despise the other. But all too often I have traded the truth of God for a lie in the name of a truth and in the name of a god, sending out a gospel shrouded heavily with chains and a muzzle—because I am shrouded heavily with chains and speak as though I am not, even though when I speak as though I am the chains disappear. When I am crucified, then I am free. Anything less is less than freedom.

The obvious struggle of a Christian leader is confusing the living with the dead: “Yet not Christ, but I…”—the confusion of pride in all its seductions to become the object of worship. It is a temptation to which we are all vulnerable lifelong. But I think this temptation, strong as it may be, can rather easily be recognized the moment we begin panting after human praise, or perhaps the moment our exemption from hell no longer comes as a surprise.

The more subtle seduction, however, one that we so desperately need some higher Light to pierce with a more incisive vision, is with the angel of light herself. It is a deception that does not come as a greedy confusion between “I” and “Christ.” Instead, it makes a fusion its noble goal. This is the primal resistance to the invasion of God, because our instinctive resistance to truth of God is first a resistance to the truth of ourselves. We were already covered in fig leaves before we hid in the woods (Gen. 3). So we inadvertently or not resist the God who, coming now as he must as our opposition, insists on invading only what is entirely empty, who insists on living in only what is thoroughly dead, but who finds himself among the tombs with bodies restless for resurrection. God comes to us and we prematurely want to come to him so we can come again to ourselves. Grace, we suppose, should raise us in a flash so we can get on with living, failing to see that something must remain dead in order for something to made alive. We sanctify this apostasy by calling it conformity or sanctification or obedience or faithfulness or, worst of all, “optimistic grace” (Collins). Its inner creed sounds so venerable: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, because Christ lives in me.” But Christ cannot live in me or for me if I try to live in me or for me as well. Yes, we were “buried with him into his death” but we have not been raised up from the cemetery. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6). Paul does not say that we too were raised just as we too were buried. We were buried, and yet we walk. Nevertheless we live, yet not we but Christ.

But who can truly say that—who can say what must be said? “Yet not I!” Who can truly resist saying, “You can change because Christ can change you” rather than “You cannot change so God changed for you…”? What change can the immutable God subject himself to without subjecting himself to something less than God? What change in God can mean anything other than the death of God?

I am convinced that this apparent modesty, to walk on resurrection planes of victory, is perhaps the chief enemy of Christian freedom. “It was for freedom Christ has set us free! Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). It was for freedom’s sake because it could not be for the sake of anything else. It could neither be for merit nor for the hope of merit. If for merit, it is already confused: “Yet not Christ, but I!” If for the hope of merit, it will inevitably despair of its futility, if it is honest: “Yet not I, therefore neither Christ…” Indeed, “The conscience is the perfect interpreter of life” (Barth). I am left reduced then to either a liar or a great depression.

The noble goal of a fusion in the relentlessly honest realm of the conscience can only send us running with our forefathers to the trees. And there we resolutely look in the wrong direction. “It was the woman whom you gave me.” “The serpent deceived me.” We comb the land and the Netherland in search for something more overtly hollow than ourselves, something that might serve as a decoy from our extinguished innocence. So we begin, and with sound logic I might add, to “see the small and the larger but not the Large…the preliminary but not the Final, the derived but not the Original, the complex but not the Simple…[we see] what is human but not what is Divine” (Barth). We are the ocean’s title waves that sneer at the pond’s ripples, but God hovers over the abyss watching each self-exalting wave crash infinitely short of the moon it is trying to reach. He sees flatly thus: we’re all at bottom, with the devil. We are hopelessly bound to the serpent’s shores unless the moon plunges itself into the deep.

But we are not bound!

And not because of inherent loveliness nor for some essential spark that needed but a fan to swell into its burning potential. It is freedom for freedom’s sake, because freedom for freedom’s sake can never deny the Egypt on the other side of the sea nor tire out from the futility of trying to swim. It does “not submit again to the yoke of slavery” either by denying the truth of slavery or insisting that we return to fight our own battle. We can only stand firm in our weakness. And if ever we meet an inquirer in the wilderness impressed with the testimony of our escape, we have nothing other to say than “Before us came he who is mightier than we. He must increase; we must decrease.”

We stand firm, that is, by becoming humbly honest about who we are, so that we can be boldly truthful about who God is. We stand firm by resisting the temptation of, say, the father who persists in keeping his beloved son alive on life support, the father whose inconsolable sadness of loss is compounded with a paralyzing delusion of hope. We stand firm by resisting the temptation of refusing to admit that it is okay for the Son to die—that He must die. We must refuse the temptation to make the crucifixion of Jesus Christ any less necessary than it truly was for the salvation of the world—for me!

How audacious it is to say it, though, to say “Yet not I!” and really believe it is okay to say it—that we must say it? Who can say “I am crucified with Christ” when we know we are, in effect saying “I am the crucifier of Christ.” I am the killer of God. I am the thorn of his crown. I am the spear in his heart. Who can say that and believe God would have it no other way—that God had it no other way. “But I do not abolish the grace of God, for if righteousness comes by the law, Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21).

Oh, Mary,
Gentle Mother,
Open the door and let me in.
A bee has stung your belly with faith.
Let me float in it like a fish.
Let me in! Let me in!
I have been born many times, a false Messiah,
But let me be born again
Into something true.

~Anne Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God

Christ demands one act from us: truthfulness. Truth is the only thing that can starve our great appetite for life. It truth that drinks the water from his side without pretending it is not red. It is truth that keeps us standing there firm, naked and hideous with innumerable scars and some fresh scabs. It is truth that resists the temptation to begin stripping the fig tree with every offense. It is truth that remains stripped. It is truth that eats from the forbidden tree and goes boldly to God to who begins with our feet and then washes our soiled, leather garment.

In our depravity, the truth is that we are condemned to death in our sin. In Christ, the truth is that we are not condemned in our sin and death, because we are incorporated into his righteousness and life (Rom. 5-8). Being truthful doesn’t mean being good. It means being truthful about not being good. Truth sometimes sins but never lies about sometimes sinning. Truth demands our utter willing against pretense, because a Christian cannot lie about himself without lying about his Christ. If we exalt ourselves, we humble Christ. If we humble ourselves, we exalt Christ. That is why the preacher’s calling is unmovably singular.

“I determined to know nothing among, save Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

If we begin here and seek to end here, Soul, the space between then and now will remain a chainless space, because in the world where Christ became for us what we could not become for ourselves, there is nothing left to chain. Christ has conquered and is seated at the right hand of the Father. His chains were broken without even concerning himself with ours. It is too late for us. We simply remain—resting in peace. This is now and then will be then, but until then there is no other Truth. So die with me in this Truth, because God lives in Truth.

And with God, all things are possible.

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