Freedom in Rules and Obligation
Sometimes obligation and legalism are very good things. What does it take to be happy and free? This is what we want. This is the motivation behind nearly everything we do. It is at the heart of our American nation, is it not? “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were engraved in the Declaration of Independence and are forever since seared in our psyche. But how do we achieve this? What makes us happy and free? The Church has an altogether different answer the pop culture. The ticket to freedom and joy is simple: a heart of obedience.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).
Obedience takes on a new meaning when dealing with animals in a pastoral setting. I witnessed this a few weeks ago. It was Saturday morning before sunrise and I was out mowing the lawn. Our yard borders a large cow field, and my dogs were running in circles reveling in the wonders that cows leave behind. Their barking changed tones suddenly, and there was a coyote standing just twenty feet away. Back and forth they went, a Great Pyrenees, a Jack Russel Terrier, and the coyote. While the Great Pyrenees was in the pursuit, the coyote ran back. When the Pyrenees grew bored and veered away, the coyote shot forward like an arrow towards the Jack Russel, who ran to the protection of the Great Pyrenees. I watched this for some time, mesmerized, but when I saw the coyote gaining little by little, I called the Terrier by name. Instantly, she obeyed my command. Obedience saved her from the jaws of death.
“I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).
The twenty-first century poses no end of dangers. The audience in Jesus’ era was pastoral. They heard the story and pictured a Middle-eastern desert, with its wolves and bandits. But where are our wolves and bandits today? There have always been red-light districts in disreputable neighborhoods. Today, we carry those districts in our pockets. With a single touch, we can be exposed to worse temptations than ever imagined in Sodom and Gomorrah (we give our children unlimited access). Technological advancements have opened up ethical challenges that our grandparents never even considered. Society has strayed so far from basic, Christian civilization, that we have to push back in nearly every direction. How are we supposed to live?
“I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).
This is the solution and the comfort. We must know God’s voice. We need to spend so much time with him that, through all the chaos and confusion, God’s lead comes bright and clear. My Jack Russel thought he was tough. In reality, he did not have a chance. Yet, he was obedient, and ran when he heard my voice. Are we trained enough to recognize the voice of our master?
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Obedience is not just about safety. Obedience is primarily about freedom. I want to talk about holy obligation. The Church often uses the word “obligation.” We are obligated to go to church on Sundays and the holy feasts. We are obligated to frequent confession. We are obligated to the moral guidelines. These are not options for Christians. These are obligations.
But what are obligations? The very word makes a person cringe today. I used to be embarrassed to talk this way myself. I grew up in the “free” generation — contemporary Christians call it “grace.” We need to come to terms with something. Our culture’s entire attitude about freedom and grace is bankrupt.
Legalism is not always bad. Take an issue like Sabbath. Do you know which religious sects live the longest, experience less stress, and enjoy better health: the Mormons and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Countless studies have been done about this. The conclusion is that these sects keep Sabbath — they make slowing down and family time an obligation. They are legalistic about enjoying life. Boundaries make you free.
Consider worship: We wanted to be contemporary. We ended up creating a religion of self-seeking consumerism.
Consider morality. We wanted “free love” and we ended up with divorce and disease.
Traditions, boundaries, and, yes, even a healthy dose of legalism, are what make a soul happy and free.
It is time for us to reclaim a proper attitude about obligation. Obligation did not used to have a negative connotation. My grandparents were proud of their obligation to serve America. They took joy in their obligation to stay by one another’s side, in good times and bad times. They grounded their happiness in their obligation to Sunday worship and a life built around the values and calendar of their churches. They were healthy, happy, and free, because they defined their life in their obligation to obey God.
We have two options in the 21st century. We can make our own boundaries — define our own morality, sexuality, and identity — and in the end, we will simply be slaves to the soul-consuming machine. We can realign our lives to the boundaries given in Holy Church — and we will be free and happy.
What does all this have to do with Christ, the Good Shepherd? Jesus is the way: a lifestyle, a culture, a Church. If we wander off on our own path, we will end up with the wolves. If we obey God’s voice, and stay nestled in His fold, we will live the good life. Christ is the Shepherd and he offers to each of us:
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Christ is Risen!