Free to Say No

If we think we’re free to say no to God, should this influence how we navigate the choppy waters of engaging culturally and politically as Christians?

Most people I know think that we are free to say no to God. Was it C. S. Lewis who spoke of eternal perdition of God’s final, “Thy will be done” spoken to the creature?

Indeed, human freedom of the will (an idea that never gets any airtime in the entire Bible) is a much firmer part of most of my students’ theology than their tentative affirmations of “predestination” (which is affirmed in several places in scripture).

We experience ourselves as free, and that freedom is one that, in our experience, extends to our receptivity to the call of God. And gifted theologians do find helpful ways of marrying freedom and Providence.

While I was reading Barth last week, I was struck by something that, I confess, I cannot find at the moment! (So I may be making this up.)

Barth was talking about God being glorious in God’s freedom. The discussion of God’s glory in freedom shifted for a moment, to claim not only that God is glorious as God acts freely, but that God is glorious as God gives humanity the ability to act freely as well.

God is glorified in his willingness to allow the creature to say no to God.

It made me wonder if we truly believe in the freedom that we say we value so highly. If we believe that God does not want to force compliance or love (for then it would not be love!) then why do we so often see ourselves charged with enforcing compliance to the will, law, or theology of God as we understand it?

It struck me that a people who would not have ourselves compelled should not compel others, but should summon them with love.

All of us are willing to affirm the greatness of Jesus’ words of love:

Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

But are we able to own up to what we would have done unto ourselves? Will we genuinely acknowledge our desires, our freedoms, our refusal to be compelled, when we are face-to-face with a neighbor who has different desires, yearns to exercise her freedom in a manner differently than we have exercised ours, resists the compulsions of the Jesus story we participate in?

If we insist on our right to say no (or to have said no) to our God, what might that mean for our neighbor who may want that right as well?

33 thoughts on “Free to Say No”

  1. There is a difference between moral obligation and Spiritual Commitment to remain in Christ. We have free will to be moral, as all men do..but In Christ Freedom is His Will that transcends the moral majority which can only be known once one Is There in I Am, and that, I Am One in He Who Sent Me. When Christ enters in, we are in Him.

    1. He cannot Enter In no matter how much we knock until we take the lid off the coffin and Awaken into Consciousness (as Buddha was but sought The Way because He Had not come yet). The lid is the coffin of ego closed by denial containing guilt, remorse, ‘sin of separation’…we must Know nothing of ourselves so we can empty ourselves of ourselves..Self-Fish..minus Self is Fish. He can enter then when we 1) no longer deny, no lid; and 2) confess up, empyting..for there is no room in the Inn otherwise. We enters and we sup on our daily body bread, and it nourishes us until we sup again daily to remain filled In Christ to minimize risk. Risk assessment then in prayer to see where leaks might spring in, like the tares mixed into the bread they sprout at harvest time of poison to the soul.

  2. You know, I couldn’t agree more. Let the state be the state and the church the church.

    Best line from VeggieTales is in the video “The Snoodle’s Tale”. When “God” is asked why doesn’t he just make the snoodles lovbe him, his response is “A gift demanded is no gift at all”.

    Legislating morality and ethics doesn’t do anything except for show how far we fall from the standard (Romans I believe). Grace is what allows us to aim for that standard and God’s Spirit is what leads, guides, and transforms us to that goal, if we submit to it. But submission is key…we need to submit. C.S. Lewis images it as we need to lay down our rebellious arms and join with the rightful king…

    1. Legislating morality does far more than show us how far we’ve fallen. Why do we view the law so singularly when the Bible presents it in a number of different ways? Psalm 1 tells us the righteous man meditates on God’s law day and night and as a result is firmly established. Psalm 119 shows us that the law is a matter of God’s grace. Romans 13 helps us realize that the state is at the very least a minister of God to punish the evildoer with the sword. I’m pretty sure that involves some sort of moral judgment. In the case of a democratic society that has been comprised of Christians for the most part over her history, it is no wonder that we see Christian morals and ethics encoded into law. Why anyone thinks that’s not a good thing is beyond me.

  3. Freedom of the will in the Bible is not the freedom to say no to God but rather the freedom to say yes. And, contrary to popular opinion predestination is not incompatible with it.

  4. Another way of looking at it is he realizes for those who ‘know’ it is as plain as the face on the dollar bill, give to Caesar what is Caesars. It is a fruit-less endeavor. My question then becomes, to vote or not to vote. I pay my taxes yes. Cannot douse that fire with the fire inside, but to be inflamed with Understanding what really and truly must be Understood. Too many are blind. God is in control, so what will be will be. May the best man win, and choose the choices wisely to better the odds. For surely others will as well. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, the other gets the oil.

    1. The way you use capital letters, you really should be typing in German. The plain fact of the matter is that we rest in a state of luxury as Christians in North America saying this or that ought to be a choice. Many people have not had or do not have the same luxury. It’s easy to proclaim the wonderful freedom of a Spirit-filled Anabaptist life separate of government concern when you live in a society that’s been bathed in Christian law, freedom, and grace over its entire history and for a thousand years before. But, in other regions of the world there are still places where the law very much matters and where there would be immense good drawn from putting Christian morality into place in society where it currently doesn’t exist.

      1. It’s easy to proclaim the wonderful freedom of a Spirit-filled Anabaptist life…

        Hmm, I don’t think the Anabaptists found it particularly easy, especially those who lived under governments insistent on imposing their ideas of ‘Christian’ laws on people. Ask the Anabaptists drowned as punishment for their heresies how easy it was for them, and remind them how much easier it would have been had they just accepted those ‘Christian’ laws without resistance.

          1. Maybe not, but the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists’ persecutors are around in considerable numbers, wanting (for righteousness’s sake, of course — it’s always for righteousness’s sake) to impose ‘Christian’ laws and a ‘Christian’ culture of just the kind that eventually led to the persecution of non-conformists, dissenters and those whose lives on the margins were a much more accurate reflection of the path of Jesus.

            1. You assume that which you can’t prove–that somehow the lives of Anabaptists past or present are “a much more accurate reflection of the path of Jesus.” You don’t know that and such a negative judgment on the part of those who aren’t Anabaptists ought to be unwelcome for anyone who’s working with any level of grace or charity.

              But, implementing Christian laws do not necessitate repressing Anabaptists (or others) simply because they were in the past. That’s just more unjustified speculation on your part. In fact, it’s highly unlikely given that the very pluralism we now enjoy is a direct result of Christian civilization and laws working their way forward and learning from mistakes in the process. The American Republic is just one example of a nation that exists with respect to other parties yet often implements laws which are undoubtedly both moral and Christian. Christian laws are already here anyway and I have yet to see any Anabaptists drowned for dedication to their first principles.

              So as I implied in my last comment to you, calling to the horror of other eras when Anabaptists have been comfortably shouting their view from the rooftops of the main Christian publishing houses in this country while enjoying the very freedom to be able to do so under a nation framed largely by Christian law, civilization, and moral principles is just a tad hypocritical and self-serving.

              1. Kevin, I was in the midst of writing a lengthy and rather sarcastic reply, but thought better of it. I can’t help wondering if you are deliberately missing the points that have been made or whether you just haven’t understood them. By the way, it was you who began this discussion of Anabaptists with a sneering reference to them. So please don’t complain when your insults are held up to some scrutiny.

                1. I don’t remember complaining about the fact that you or others replied. I didn’t issue insults to Anabaptists but merely noted that they have it easy in a free nation (that would imply, btw, a recognition of their suffering in other eras if you read carefully–you really had no need to posit that as if I’ve never heard of such concerns). There’s not even anything untrue about that.

                  You thought better of writing a long reply and instead wrote a short one that wonders about my apparent ignorance or deliberate misread of others’ comments? Oh. How comforting. Now who’s being insulting? Back at ya regarding that scrutiny.

  5. I agree, Kevin, and I see that as both something to mourn and as something calling to us to consider when it comes to reforming the church in North America…maybe it’s time to stop trying to force everyone into Christianity and start actually spending more time showing the world that Jesus’ way IS the best way. If we believe it so strongly, then we should have no problem living that way even if it means that the rest of society will ridicule us.

    1. Word must be attached to deed and the full force of the gospel ought to be felt in society because Christ reigns everywhere. If pietism was the way, we should have crowned Schleiermacher king a long time ago. Some already have.

  6. I should perhaps clarify that mine is not, as I understand it a classic Anabaptist position. I am regularly advocating a Christian way to be involved in the political process that, on Christian grounds, does not seek to enact specifically Christian morality as the law of the land.

  7. The reductio ad absurdum of this principle is Christian Anarchism, or at least a surrender of Christian influence in the areas of law and politics. If you’re invoking it as a sort of *limiting* principle, so that we refrain from placing too high a priority on legislating, then I don’t have a problem with that necessarily. But this principle has to play off against our responsibility to shape, inform, and shepherd culture in the ways of the Lord (one of our tools for doing that is legislation). But I agree that there should be limits (in both directions), though I disagree with what seems to be your assumption that, if we’re erring in a particular direction currently, it’s in the direction of too much engagement or too much an emphasis on legislation etc. I think we’re erring too far in the other direction.

  8. Kevin, as an Anabaptist, I’ll say this: we enjoy the freedoms now under US law, for sure much as Daniel enjoyed certain freedoms in his own exile. This does not necessarily mean that those laws are particularly blessed or instituted by the hand of God but simply that God can use even the cracked and broken institutions of this world for his good.

    But, much as my Anabaptist forefathers before me (and yes, I can trace blood relation back to a prisoner in Tracheswald, Switzerland), even if my country did not have such freedoms, I would feel compelled to live a faithful Christian life, imperfect as it may be. The 16th century folks weren’t perfect and neither am I, but I choose my allegiance first and solely to the Kingdom and necessarily subject the national sphere to a level of extrem relativism.

    1. I don’t doubt your sincerity, Robert, and I applaud you for your commitment. You’d likely be surprised to learn that the allegiance of magisterial Protestants is for the Kingdom of Christ first as well and we shouldn’t think otherwise either now or historically. But, if God uses “the cracked and broken institutions of this world for his good” we must necessarily infer that he does so as a part of Kingdom interests. And, if so, then national and global concerns regarding laws and their implementation most assuredly become a part of Kingdom directives. Such a fact does not deter from the main interest of the Kingdom in reconciling the world to himself through Christ but it most assuredly establishes a basis to remember that there is more to the Kingdom than personal salvation and sanctification.

  9. I agree that anything God does with the worldly institutions are for his interests…that’s the definition of sovereigntym…but I see that more as an exercise of the permissive will and his redemptive providence than the specific will of God. I believe that the Kingdom can be just as effective, more so even, than the scular instituions if we in the Kingdom act accordingly. It’s the difference of living with the real and living for the ideal. Reality gives us corrupt goverments with which we may choose (or not) to interact. Ideally, the Kingdom is enacted by the body of Christ transcendant over the earthly governments or, at least, with them ins subjectivitity (Deut 17).

    So, while I welcome the earthly institutions in participation in the Kingdom work, I believe that it is a more efficient and Kingdom effort to enact Kingdom principles indepentantly of government and without regard to national bounds. I do not begrudge or condemn those who participate in the political process…such is their conviction. But I see a calling to be set apart from the world, not in seperatism and pietism and quietism, but to be radically and revolutionary in the way we enact the Kingdom, not leaning on the temporal nations as the tool.

    1. It would be one thing, Robert, if the Bible contained no commands regarding earthly kingdoms but clearly Romans 13 shows that such is not the case. Furthermore, while Romans 13 resonates well with individualized Anabaptist concerns as applied in the early centuries of the church its relevance to other periods of Christian history speak against them. How does a Christian emperor live apart from his earthly kingdom? Is he not bound to implement laws in conjunction with what he knows to be true and just as a Christian? Should he really allow the wholesale continued persecution of Christians in the Empire to go unabated as other emperors enacted? This fact alone (and that of the State being a minister of God) was what emperors from Constantine forward had to deal with and what later democratic societies must deal with as the role and burden of leadership moved from emperor and monarchy to the people. The Anabaptist position would like to cut stark boundaries between this world and the next and what I’m saying is that often we just can’t realistically do that. So, if a system of thought is not inherently workable in this world we must question at the very least whether our understanding is in accordance with the reality of the matter. After all, it is the truth that sets us free–the reality of Jesus Christ and not merely suppositions about that reality.

      You may very well see your calling as apart from the world (an admirable and important concern) but really it continually relies on the very freedom others have purchased with blood, law, and jurisprudence. And, so, the Body continues to function with a variety of parts but we should not (and I don’t believe you are in any direct way) disparage one part over another. I realize you and others would go to the wall should our society fail and Christians be persecuted again–but that shouldn’t lessen our interest in continuing the pursuits of Christian freedom and justice in this world. Rather, it establishes yet one more need for it.

  10. The Romans 13 case is an interesting one, that’s true. A couple of points on it.

    First, contextually, it is written to Christians living within an oppressive regime and so the indications to submit to the government that is persecuting you is extemely cruciform in this context. You may be doing good in God’s eyes, but the government may see you as breaking laws. Do good anyways so that no one can have reason to suspect you. That was Christ’s example.

    Additonal context should be to glance back at Romans 12 to put it into a fuller context to “as much as is in your power, get along with everyone…love everyone… don’t see revenge…be at peace” etc. This context defines a different attitude in that, while the government exists and has certain permitted powers, it is not necessarily in the role of the believer to take up those powers.

    Thirdly, some commentators point out that the translation of the first 2 verses of Romans 13 may be mis translated in certain version to imply God set up the governments and actually mandated and put them in place as they are. Instead, as I mentioned above, the meaning may be more that they are permitted to exist and wield their power rather than actually being in God’s intentional will to act that way. Escatologically, the Kingdom is not interested in the use of force and death to be established but resurrection, shalom, and life. So, God permits things (sovereignty, see Romans 9) for a time but they are not necessarily the permanent and ideal.

    So, Romans 13 for me, as you pointed out, takes on a different flavor. Instead of being “God specifically set up the US government as his tool” it becomes “God allows the US government to exist and redeems this imperfection for his good”. The calling of the Christian is other (1 Peter establishes a similar them in chapter 2 and then describes the suffering paradigm in the lter chapters).

    Is there a place for a Christian ruler? I think so, but that ruler must submit to God in the same way, seeking God’s truth and God’s revealed way in Christ (Deut 17:18-20 as OT example and Ephesians 6:9 as NT principle). Even Constantine did not follow this way. God certainly made use of what Constantine did…but the means (killing all who opposed) seems counter to Christian calling. In this world, a Christian ruler of that character would certainly not be “successful” by earthly standards, but earthly standards are not our goal.

    I agree, clear cut distinctions are hard to do and I do my best to avoid them. However, looking at our political system, I see very little in it that would allow a person living by Christ’s example to succeed without compromising their witness and I find that to be extremely problematic. We are to witness in everything, even in how we act within the systems… so, rather than risking the inevitable compromise of the high standard of Christ, it seems that we can act in the society while eschewing the means of that society. Livng in the world…but not participating in the things of this wprld.

    1. I hear what you’re saying but really, in other words, Anabaptist theology only works for the layman who isn’t an emperor or king. Given that the United States is ruled by the people, it doesn’t work in our society either if you are true to the principles you’ve just outlined above. In essence, then, true Anabaptist culture can only be had where a people are ruled over in the world and not a part of the government. I don’t believe that’s true to the overall spirit of the Bible as we have it. God never wanted Israel to have a king but rather preferred that they kept him as king. Yet, the people still had judges and prophets among them participating in worldly affairs. This is what I mean–as soon as we are true to Anabaptist principles in the real world it becomes inherently unworkable much as I admire your commitment to Christ and his Kingdom.

  11. Even the judges and the prophets were subject to God and the general idea was one of serving, not commanding. I would even to go so far as to say that if Israel truly lived under the Shema, even those prophets and judges would be superflous. I think even in our society (which I would argue, as good as our system may be, still is not ideal), it would work. Agin, considering the ideal, if everyone was looking out for the interests of others rather than their own, things would be pretty peachy around here. The fact that folks do not is not a reflection on the servant view of the Chritian role but a characteristic of living in a fallen world still.

    See, for me, it’s not a matter of “Well, this is the system we have, might as well make the best of it and improve it while we’re there.” That, too often, is the argument used in support of adopting the wordly patterns. For me, the question is not how to redeem the existing system (an act that seems to scripturally be in God’s realm, not mine), but rather if that system should be used at all in favor of a more God centered system, and yes, I’ll use the word “theocracy”. I’ll live here in the US and participate according to my conscience…but ultimately, I see no reason to utilize the system of the world when there seems to be, rather clearly, a much better, radically different way of doing things.

    The systems of this world are allowed…but they are not preferred. To borrow from Paul, “everything is permissable but not everything is beneficial or constructive”. Just because we are allowed to be in the government does not mean that is the preferred way of doing things.

  12. God’s law, as expressed in the Shema is pretty simple, really and, considering it’s quoted by Jesus, I’d suggest it’s universally applicable…

    The key is “write it on your hearts”…if it’s internalized and characterizes a person from the core, external coercion is suprfluous so the need for “the sword” is negated and shalom becomes the governing factor.

    This is the goal, ultimately, according to the general trajectory of the biblical narrative. We started that way pe-Fall and we’ll end that way post-consummation….the stuff that happens in between is messy but God’s people are always called to rise above the mess. If I’m living Shema shaped life, I have little need for government authorities to use the force of law to dictate my actions. And by living Shema shaped life, I’m acting out the other role…the royal priesthood, demonstrating in deed and word what that life entails and inviting others in… not forcing them in by threat of sword or sanction.

    While we live between the book ends, reality intrudes, but I believe that we are called to live in the HERE Kingdom while antipcating the fullness of the NOT YET.

  13. You can’t disconnect the shema from the rest of the law since by definition it is reflective of God’s character. And, we don’t write anything on our hearts–God takes care of that. I’m happy to say that the goal is the law of God in our hearts but that also implies that it rules over us as a society as well “according to the general trajectory of the biblical narrative.” You may have little need for governmental authorities but that is not yet the case for everyone nor does it invalidate the authority of God’s law. Rather, it establishes it.

  14. I feel the need to sort of apologize before commenting. I’m a Quaker and therefore from a TOTALLY different theological perspective, I’ve never taken a single religion class, I’m totally unqualified, etc. But I thought that the conversation took an interesting turn.

    We almost immediately jumped into a discussion about whether, as Christians, we should legislate Christian morality. We never directly approached Daniel’s central question, which I took to be: “If we insist on our right to say no (or to have said no) to our God, what might that mean for our neighbor who may want that right as well?”

    When I think of Christians engaging culturally, I think much more of our interactions with our literal neighbors than of our interactions with government (I’m not denying the importance of the latter). So. How should or does a belief that God’s gift to us of choice (not sure what I believe about free will, just postulating it for the discussion) affect how we approach a neighbor who makes different choices? Does believing that we were free to choose God — *and that it was essential for our salvation that we were so free* (maybe that’s an overstatement of the free-will position) — alter how we evangelize or preach?

    I find in questions of orthodoxy the “right” answer is often discerned because the heterodox answer leads, in practice, to unfortunate results. Is it possible to argue for free will versus predestination mainly on the basis of how either answer changes our interaction with the world? If so, I’m awfully interested in such an argument.

    Oh, on another note, I have Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline in my shelf, and haven’t gotten to it at all. Words of encouragement?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.