Human freedom does not mean doing what we want to do when we want to do it. Our freedom is always situated and limited. A man born and raised in South America cannot become president of the United States. A woman who has had hand surgery may need a leave of absence from her position as first violinist in the symphony.
We are free, following prudent appraisal, to choose the direction we believe our life dictates. This choice has to be made within the limits of our age, our physical and psychological make-up, our education, and the inevitable natural disasters and unexpected events that are out of our control.
Openness to God’s will amid the demands and delights of daily life is an ongoing lesson in obedience. We listen not only to the natural and cultural conditions around us but also to their meaning in relation to God’s providential plan for us.
We cease being obedient when we only pay attention to what we want, independent of our relationship with and reliance on God. Disobedience tempts us to give priority to our own insights and ambitions, often oblivious to the needs of others. We may even go so far as to equate God’s will with what most promotes our self-interests.
Obedience halts this naïve rush toward unlimited freedom. To obey is to listen to reality and to ponder our calling with humility. Expressions of God’s will are seen with new clarity and the gift of our freedom is less impeded by egocentricity.
Every choice we make carries with it a responsibility to accept its consequences. Being free benefits greatly from being obedient. We listen to God, to what our heart tells us, and to the advice of trusted others. We learn that to act alone causes us to lose our perspective on the whole and the holy. The more obedient we are to the leading of God, the more likely it is that we will respond to this situation in fidelity to our calling.
Freedom and obedience are essential ingredients in our pursuit of spiritual maturity. Far from living the lie that to be free is to gain limitless satisfaction of our every desire, we walk in the truth that limits are blessings in disguise.
If our financial situation is shaky at best, our desire to purchase that shiny new car in the showroom may have to be put aside for another day. Buying a vehicle on the used car lot can serve our needs for now.
The brakes God places on our idle dreams of unlimited freedom then become blessed gates we ought to go through.
Certain restrictions placed on one area of our life may be God’s way of showing us what our real purpose for being here is.
A friend of mine began teaching elementary school in a small town in upstate Pennsylvania despite the fact that she wanted to be at the university finishing her degree. She neither liked being in a place with so little cultural stimulation, nor did she enjoy the utilitarian atmosphere she found there. How could she live happily in such circumstances when her heart longed to be elsewhere?
Until now she had simply tolerated the situation. On the surface, she presented a façade of pleasantness, but interiorly she felt bitter and negative. “I don’t want to be here at all, but I need the money…” She felt constrained by her limits and couldn’t see beyond the misery she experienced.
Once she acknowledged her dislike for teaching there, new insights emerged. She neither denied this feeling nor fixated on it. She decided instead to turn it into a means of growth. She realized how disappointed she was that her dream of getting her degree would have to be postponed. She accepted the discouragement of working with people who did not share her outlook or empathize with her hopes. She chose to accept disappointment rather than merely tolerating her position and feeling negative toward it. She willingly yielded to the limits of her situation and made the best of them. She let all the disadvantages subside and addressed only the advantages.
This free response lessened her resentment. She became more present to the task at hand and decided that one year more or less would not interfere with earning her degree.
My friend’s response illustrates the fact that freedom means opting to accept the limited reality of the providential circumstances in which we find ourselves. No situation is perfect. We must take a stand toward it in keeping with our faith in God’s guidance. This appreciative stance signals the transition from adolescent indecisiveness to mature commitment.
Jesus tells us that his food and drink was to do the Father’s will. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he faced death freely in obedience, saying: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).
We may find ourselves in situations where, like Jesus, the Father asks us to do what may seem utterly disagreeable to us. Yet during these trying times, we learn to listen to God’s voice. We accept what at first seemed impossible to us, only to find that the grace is there to survive the ordeal and grow through it.
We need to sharpen our ability to hear God’s voice speaking in our heart and to muffle the static of disobedience. What a relief it is to catch the perfect pitch of transcendent inspirations. They release our freedom to say yes to God and to enjoy the fruits of being obedient to God’s will.
To listen with our minds already made up is a formula for failure. Being both free and obedient releases us from the bondage of pride and opens us to the purpose for which we were placed on earth. Only then can we hear and heed the final command Jesus gave us:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing themin the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
And remember I am with you always to the end of the age (Mt 28: 19-20).