There are moments when a single truth seems to cry out for focused proclamation. For me one of these moments came in the early 1980s; freedom in Christ seemed the truth in need of focus. When I looked at the people I was living with as pastor—fairly affluent, well educated, somewhat knowledgeable about the Christian faith—I realized how unfree they were.
They were buying expensive security systems to protect their possessions from burglary. They were overcome with anxieties in the face of rising inflation. They were pessimistic about the prospects for justice and peace in a world bristling with sophisticated weapons systems and nuclear devices. They were living huddled, worried, defensive lives. I wanted to shout in objection: Don’t live that way! You are Christians! Our lives can be a growth into freedom instead of a withdrawal into anxious wariness. Instead of shouting I returned to my regular round of work—preaching and teaching, visiting and counseling, praying and writing, encouraging and directing—but I was determined to seek ways in which I could awaken a hunger and thirst for the free life among people who had lost an appetite for it, and then, having awakened the appetite, to find the food and drink that would satisfy it. The more I did this, the more I became convinced that the experience of freedom in the life of faith is at the very heart of what it means to be human.
No truth is ever out of date, and none should be promoted at the expense of the whole truth, but there are occasions when particular truths must be emphasized. Is this such a time? Just as the fourth century required an emphasis on the deity of Christ, and the sixteenth century an emphasis on justification by faith, perhaps these last years of the twentieth century need an emphasis on the freedom that comes to maturity in a life of faith in Christ. Maybe living out this Christ-freedom is a gift we can offer the world as it passes its millennial milestone. So that is what I set myself to do.
Labeling thoughts or actions as free does not alter their actual nature. Freedom is not an abstraction, and it is not a thing. It is a gift and a skill. It is a gift that another provides; it is a skill that must be exercised by each person within the learned limits of reality. If we would understand freedom, we must be taught; if we would acquire freedom, we must be trained.
I found my best help in doing this in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Through the Christian centuries this letter has often been used by God to restore vigor and passion to the life of faith and to confront the world with the realities of a free life in Christ, a life that is free for all: given freely to all of us, making all who receive it free; enabling us to live freely in relation to God and all others. The truth of the Galatian text is documented in the lives of free persons. It is possible. The experience is valid. We are not in realms of fantasy. We are not reduced to necessity. Free in Christ, we are free for all.
To stay immersed in the complexities of a full life, to accept all the necessities of a responsible life, and still to live freely, that is traveling light.
Eugene H. Peterson (1932–2018) was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. He wrote more than thirty books, including his widely acclaimed paraphrase of the Bible, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language; his memoir, The Pastor; and the bestselling spiritual formation classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.