The Personalist Project

As any addict knows--whether the substance of choice is Oreos or cocaine--the "freedom" to do whatever you feel like doing can turn into slavery faster than you'd ever have imagined. It's not a question of whether that's true, just of how long it takes us to stop squirming and admit it. 

This point has been made before, to say the least. True freedom is not merely the ability to do what you want, whatever that might turn out to be. True freedom, it always turns out, is the power to do what you ought--the power to say no to your appetites--the power to become who you're meant to be--the power to freely choose what is good and true and beautiful, which will end up leading to your happiness in a way that Oreos and cocaine can't rival.

To 21st-century ears, though, this sounds like sleight of hand. Oh, sure, my freedom is precious and valuable,as long as I end up not getting what I want. True freedom means obeying the rules and doing what I don't feel like doing, doing what God tells me to do. If that's freedom, give me slavery.

I'll leave it to others to defend the point. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Fr. Jacques Philippe do it brilliantly. But there's another kind of true freedom that Christ exemplifies which is easier for people these days to appreciate. 

I don't mean the freedom to control your circumstances. Christ does occasionally makes use of this kind of freedom. Once, when the crowd was trying to stone Him, He "passed through the midst" of them and disappeared unharmed. Another time, when the disciples needed money to pay a tax, He arranged for the coin to appear inside a nearby fish.

These are examples of the kind of freedom that gives you physical control over a situation. Another example is the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. This ability was so easy to appreciate, they tried to make Him King by force. Anybody can see the appeal of this sort of thing, even if they're oblivious to all the foreshadowing, symbolism and Eucharistic imagry.

But He also wields an interior freedom: the ability to resist attempts at psychological or emotional coercion. This kind of freedom made Him immune to attempts at mind games, manipulation, and people trying to "push His buttons." This, if you think about it, is just as appealing to people today as the freedom to walk away unharmed from a murderous mob, or to make food or money appear just when you're hungriest or brokest.

The Scribes and Pharisees try to manipulate Him, attempting to trip Him up on technicalities. He doesn't fall for it, but asks them questions in return that leave them momentarily helpless. The devil tries to work on His physical appetite ("Command that these stones be made bread") or His supposed desire to prove Himself ("If you are the Son of God..."). The bystanders who jeer at Him as He hangs on the Cross do the same thing ("He saved others; He cannot save Himself!" and "If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!"). But Jesus, because He is free, doesn't take the bait. He can't be manipulated, pressured, or goaded into doing anything at all--not even under threat of torture and death. He's free to do as He chooses.

What He chooses isn't selfish pleasure or His own convenience. What He chooses is death and abandonment. That part is a hard sell, to 21st-century people or anybody else.

But the message we are to take from that is not just "hardship is better than pleasure" or "stop wanting what you want." It's not a pious lesson at all, not a facile "teaching moment"--but the vision of a Person who possesses real, interior freedom, the kind we all wish we had.

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