The Straitjacket

(Thanks to Tim Keller)

Christian faith is divisive, narrow, and infantilizing. That’s a common complaint with more than a grain of truth.  Skeptics may voice philosophical questions doubting how a loving God could allow suffering or send people to hell, but often their deepest objections have to do with a style of life.

Believing in one truth, as Christians do, creates an ugly divide with the neighbors, who don’t have that truth. It seems narrow in a world where we encounter so many cultures and religion. And it appears typical of an immature person, who has to be told what to believe and do rather than creating his own meaning and his own standards.

Contrast that with the mature, creative, open-minded person of liberal thought—comfortable and accepting with a wide variety of people, beliefs and cultures. Who wouldn’t prefer such a life of mental and moral freedom?

Intellectual responses can be made. For example, we could point out that everybody believes in one truth, even if that truth is that no truth can be known. How come the relativist gets to tell me I’m wrong for saying anybody is wrong? Isn’t that a double standard?

Such responses may clear away some brush, but they don’t get to the root. The root is a paradox: love is the greatest freedom of all, and love is a straitjacket.

The mother of small children, for example, is hardly better than a slave. You couldn’t hire somebody for this labor.  It’s messy, endless and exhausting. And yet, to be “freed” from her children would be the greatest suffering you could impose on a mother. She finds her freedom—her truest self—in love for her children.

So with people in love. Their love imposes many restrictions. They eat foods they never used to like and take up activities they formerly found useless. To their friends’ annoyance (or amusement) they lose the old spontaneity. They no longer do what they like—they first check with somebody. And yet, as anybody who ever loved can tell you, they find in this straitjacket a sense of freedom they only dreamed of before.

Christianity is a straitjacket, mentally and morally. But that is because it makes the claims of love. You are called into love with the maker of the earth, the moon and the stars. Of course you are not free. You have only begun to learn what freedom is.

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5 Responses to “The Straitjacket”

  1. Chase Says:

    good post.

  2. James Swenson Says:

    Well put, Tim: Christianity, since it implies love of God, certainly does impose some legitimate restrictions on how we think and act.

    On the other hand, individual Christians often try to impose certain extra restrictions on each other’s thoughts and actions, and sometimes these are not so legitimate.
    In particular cases, it can take a lot of wisdom, and prayer, to stay open-minded enough to grow in faith and knowledge, without compromising the essential Gospel.

    God has the entire truth. Each of us has just a part, intermingled with an assortment of irrelevancies and errors. Just one more way in which we need each other! I need the truth that God has given to my neighbor — the truth that I don’t yet believe. And I admit that I’m captive to sin: I’m not ready to learn from that neighbor yet.
    Not, at least, if that neighbor doesn’t go to my church, and belong to my political party.

    By thinking in these categories, I bind myself to my own errors. That’s why, rather than think of my love for God as limiting my mental and moral freedom, I’d rather focus on something that will be much more difficult for me: the way that my love for my neighbor could release me from a straitjacket that’s purely of my own making.

    • timstafford Says:

      I like what you say, and it’s stretching. However, I can’t see the two loves as in any way opposed. They are meant to go together. Whatever restrictions come with God’s love will bind me to my neighbor. Otherwise I have got God’s love wrong. And similarly, as I love my neighbor I will learn more fully the depths of God’s love. I don’t have to choose one love over the other, and if I seem to need to do so, I need to review. Somewhere I have got it wrong.

      • James Swenson Says:

        I agree — love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. I was aiming for something a little different in my comment, but I see that I didn’t quite say it!

        I was trying to say that I don’t experience love of God (nor of neighbor) as narrow or limiting in itself. [Neither, FWIW, do I perceive the necessary conflict between “Christian faith” and “liberal thought” that you seem to presume!] My experience is that love and faith are fulfilling, which I think was your point in the first place.

        We Christians, though, sometimes appear to seek out narrowness and limitation as if they were holy per se. That’s not a restriction we freely accept out of love, but one we impose on each other out of fear. We need the perfect love that casts out fear, just to be able to admit the imperfection of our present faith and to learn God’s truth from one another.

      • timstafford Says:

        Yes to all that!

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