Depending on whichever accordionist is playing our emotions through the news, social media, and advertisements we consume, our personal freedoms are either expanding or collapsing. This has been particularly true during the pandemic, where everything from free enterprise, to mask mandates to—literally—where each person stands has been under scrutiny.
But the focus is most often turned to the outer freedoms that save us from oppression, which means we often overlook the inner freedoms that save us from ourselves. There are also freedoms through faith, which are not a “freedom from” view, wrote theologian Art Lindsley, but rather more of a “freedom from in order to be free to.” Freedom is a cry for people of many faiths, as Lindsley observed, as well as of different cultural, economic and political constructs.
If you’re on a personal journey toward freedom in your work, relationships and faith, consider these four sometimes overlooked human freedoms.
Freedom Through Discipline
Through his popular podcast and leadership books, retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink has championed the belief that “Discipline Equals Freedom,” an axiom attributed to Aristotle. “Freedom is what everyone wants—to be able to act and live with freedom,” Willink told Forbes Magazine. “But the only way to get to a place of freedom is through discipline. If you want financial freedom, you have to have financial discipline. If you want more free time, you have to follow a more disciplined time management system.”
Freedom may seem antithetical to discipline, but when you maintain rigid personal structures, plans and routines, you either allow yourself more flexibility and choices, or you see more clearly what’s important and all the things impeding your life goals.
Freedom Through Knowledge
The process of learning—turning information into knowledge—takes self-control in several forms: of mind, attention, habits, faith, and judgment. From Cicero to modern-day leaders of academia, education is considered liberating because once knowledge is obtained, we have the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
The liberal arts definition of education is considered “learning how to think.” Author David Foster Wallace told Kenyon College graduates in 2005 (in what is considered the best commencement address of all time) that education is not learning how to think, but rather “learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think” and “to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Good luck with that in the current attention economy where people’s thoughts are manipulated by smartphone notifications and algorithmically generated news feeds.
The real freedom of education, Wallace said, is “to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
Here’s the problem with discipline and knowledge: They’re not always there for you. They can be taken away, or options to access them can become unavailable. They may seem like inner freedoms but they are reliant on outer circumstances. An athlete can have a disciplined training regimen but their choices can be eliminated with injury or, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, canceled practices and competitions. When it comes to knowledge, there are multiple ways it can be taken away or restricted: access to quality education can be limited, or there’s too much information to assess (thus making it too overwhelming to be helpful), or you can simply forget what you learned.
There are, however, choices and freedoms that are always with you.
The last human freedom, or spiritual freedom, is what psychologist Viktor Frankl called the ability “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” According to Frankl, in the space between stimulus and response, people have the freedom to choose how they will respond. Discipline and knowledge are not always available responses, but your attitude is always a choice by which you can respond and make life meaningful and purposeful.
Frankl, who was imprisoned for three years in a Nazi Germany concentration camp, wrote about meaning-centered psychotherapy in his oft-cited book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Stephen Covey evoked Frankl’s fundamental principle about human nature in one of the most popular self-help books ever published, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to support the first habit: Be Proactive. Although our endowments of self-awareness and willpower make us uniquely human and freely responsive, we’re also reactive to our humanness—our impulses, our flesh—instead of exercising our spiritual freedom.
Spiritual freedom is not to be confused with biblical freedom, which in Christianity is surrendering the old self with its practices, for the new self, the understanding that we are made in God’s image. Rather than giving authority for decisions to ourselves and what we think is right, the foundation of beliefs, faith, and actions—and source of freedom—is the Bible. Our biblical freedom means we are “freed from the bondage to sin, the Law, death, and lies about reality,” wrote Lindsley.
As Frankl experienced in the Nazi death camp, you can have spiritual freedom and still be oppressed. And as Lindsley noted, biblical freedom is not autonomy or doing what you feel like doing without any constraints. This true human freedom, however, means that by following Christ’s commands, you’re free to be more of the person God created you to be.
Path of Human Freedom
Inner freedom, emotional mastery, and yielding to God lead to freedom in all areas of life, including expanding to outer freedoms (economic, political, religious) for the flourishing of yourself and others. That path, at some point, leads from inner freedom to the outer community, because, while increasing faith, a positive attitude, knowledge and self-control are effective ways to follow Christ (Pet 1:5-8), so is love of God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40). And there’s no escaping from the failings of self-will without following the everlasting, prevailing will of God (1 John 2:17).
Take this path of human freedom, not the escapist path to human freedom:
- Your human freedom starts with how you are created: you’re set free to be the person God created you to be in his likeness (biblical freedom). See Colossians 3:9-10.
- You are then free to fill the stimulus and response when encountering the world with whichever attitude you choose (spiritual freedom). See Romans 12:2. There’s a world of options here: religions, ideas, and disciplines, and toward people and principles. Find what’s true.
- Finally, you can use this inner freedom to make the most of the outer circumstances, through discipline (self-control, 2 Timothy 1:7) and knowledge (truth-seeking, John 8:32), to free yourself and others.
Try to do any of this backwards—from the outside in, by reacting to stimuli and without faith in God—and it will feel like the world is collapsing around you.
God created you with intention. You’re free to live life and make choices with intention.