Fathom Mag

Freedom does not mean what you think it means.

A Bonus track to A Spacious Life by Ashley Hales

Published on:
September 20, 2021
Read time:
5 min.
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No matter your life stage, I bet you’ve felt the pressure of limitless freedom—it gnaws like acid so you never know if you’re enough, if you’ve accomplished enough, or worked hard enough. And rather than re-evaluate the story we’re choosing to live by, we switch from one condiment to another. If the fat-free mayo isn’t working out maybe we need full-fat mayo or vegan mayo—maybe that will be the answer! 

Hustle and hurry are our saviors when salvation is our autonomous freedom.

But as we swap out our choices for others, as we look to the next bend in the road where life will be more meaningful and finally slow down, what we’re doing is still getting on the same moving walkway where freedom is defined as my personal choice. As Lesslie Newbigin pointed out: “There is no given, factual, objective standard by which different ideas of happiness might be tested to see whether they conform to reality or spring from illusion.” And since we live in a world of public facts and private values, “on the question of good or bad,” according to our modern Western world, “there is no such objective standard.” 

This means we never feel like we’re enough, doing enough, or have enough. We’re unsure if we’re a good parent, spouse, worker, friend, or Christian. No wonder we spin out with anxiety, button up our hearts, and do not experience the easy yoke of Jesus. We are drowning in ourselves. 

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So when our choice du jour doesn’t work out, we anesthetize ourselves with more work, more shopping, more wine or porn, more political commentary and good religious works to make ourselves a home. On our moving walkway to this elusive “good life,” we distract ourselves from the root of our problems: we’re going the wrong way and we’re singing the wrong song. And when the numbing doesn’t work, we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and vow better, stronger, faster—to really keep at it. 

And when Christians choose to live by the story of our modern Western world instead of the kingdom of God, we will never know a peace that passes understanding. The peace we often chase is contingent on the gods of our western individualism: money, power, youth, and an endlessly revolving concept of freedom. 

Hustle and hurry are our saviors when salvation is our autonomous freedom. 

Don’t get me wrong, options and choice are gifts from God (The creator, after all, made 12,000 species of ants alone!) and freedom is part of what it means to be human. People of faith need to work for freedom and against the systems of this world that seek to enslave, oppress, and take away human dignity. For those who have been historically oppressed and enslaved, the good life is likely not a narrowing of options, it may be having access to options from which they were barred. 

Yet, the solution isn’t in the proliferation of options for any of us. The good life is not the story of grabbing your life by the horns and controlling it through your limitless choices. Whether we’re privileged or not, we aren’t called as people of faith to get on the train to autonomy as the telos of the good life. We follow in the way of Jesus. We all need guardrails to freedom that are given to us in love. This is a spacious life. 

Nor am I advocating that there’s a one-size-fits-all version of life or that the spiritually spacious life is dull—that we’re all supposed to be dour saints dressed in drab clothing necessarily praying five times a day. If a few varieties of ants would do, yet God made more than 12,000 varieties, if he sees the sparrow fall and knows the hairs on our heads, there can’t be only one way to follow Jesus into a more spacious life. 

But there are well-traveled paths toward the abundant life. There are tried-and-true rhythms—that as we follow the way of Jesus and apply it to our places, our people, our loves and affections, we’ll look curious to the world around us. 

But when we naturally swim in the waters of a cultural narrative that requires us to continuously recreate our identities based on endless options, we don’t find freedom and contentment. Instead, we have a thin and stretched life, not a spacious life. It is not a life rich with meaning and purpose full of good work to do. A spacious life holds out to us a real promise, that, like Paul, we can be content in various circumstances. This is what our western secular world so desperately craves. How do we get that kind of life?

It starts by unraveling the connection between freedom and identity. 

We can be crushed under the weight of the rule-following of the Right or we can chuck all the rules out in favor of self-expression of the Left. If we do see our own brokenness and failures, we spin them into talk of self-empowerment or “you do you” instead. We might change which path of freedom to follow (an affair might mean we need to seek our own pleasure instead of the duty and faithfulness we’d espoused before)—but we still operate by the good life being about my own ability to choose my own life. 

But the gospel shows us that the good life—the only thing that will give us a stable and contented identity—is found by living within the loving limits of our God and king. 

We are not the heroes of our own narratives. We are, rather, enfolded into the cosmic drama of redemption where the hero is our king, riding on a white horse, called Faithful and True. The story, in fact, isn’t about us. We’re searching for significance in all the wrong places. We’ve got the story of the good life all wrong because we’ve got freedom all wrong. Freedom is never all about you. Neither (thankfully) is freedom something that requires you to endlessly adjust to it, according to the fashion of a cultural moment. 

Freedom can’t always be freedom from constraints, but rather freedom within the constraints of a loving God.

Freedom can’t always be freedom from constraints, but rather freedom within the constraints of a loving God. Freedom, like other things we look to for satisfaction, can never be an end in itself; it is rather, a mode, a way of being, which leads us ultimately to union with Christ, the telos and aim of the good life.  

It seems we can only walk into our limits as good things when the idealism fades a bit, when we’ve been through suffering. Then, limits offer not chains but freedom. 

Freedom is the entrance into something more beautiful than simply freeing us and then turning us loose in the condiment aisle, asking us to craft our own lives. If it was “for freedom that Christ has set us free,” the type of freedom Jesus offers wasn’t just to give us too many choices in the supermarket of life and leave us on our own to sort out our life recipe. 

The freedom we find in the way of Jesus is abundant life, a life Jesus said he came to give to us, a life dripping with satisfaction like milk and honey, a life with the sustenance and delight of bread and wine, a life where there is a peace that passes understanding. Jesus offers us a spacious life, where no matter our circumstances, we are upheld by a love that created the cosmos and came to earth in order to rescue us and bring us home. A spacious life is a life of contentment that you can access no matter your work-life balance, or how zen you are, or your new workout routine and vitamins. 

Sounds a lot better than the hustle that keeps us moving in the day and anxiety that keeps us up at night, right?

Ashley Hales
Ashley Hales (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is a writer, speaker, and host of the Finding Holy podcast. She is the author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs and A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits. Ashley is married to a pastor and the mother to four children.

Cover iamge by Siim Lukka.

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