Posted by: Philip Rushton | November 7, 2011

Freedom and Constraint

What does it mean to be free? How would you define it? This is, after all, one of the major values of American culture. It is something we fight for and try to protect.

I think that many people define freedom as the absence of constraint. To be free means we are not confined to traditions or external beliefs. Freedom means that we can create our own ideas of the world without any reference to something outside of ourselves. In fact, the Supreme Court defines the heart of liberty as the ability to ‘define ones own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe.” (Quoted in Keller, Reason for God, 36. Taken from the Supreme Court Case “Planned Parenthood vs Casey.”)

I certainly agree that we need to allow people the freedom to choose their own beliefs if we are to co-exist in pluralistic culture. We cannot impose worldviews or religious beliefs on people. At the same time, I struggle when people use this definition of freedom to argue that there is no such thing as truth. One of the major trends in our culture is to argue that our views on life and morality are purely personal. People regularly argue that we should not call other people to a set standard of what is right and wrong.

However, this argument never really holds up in the real world. Those who argue that morality is a personal choice invariably contradict themselves. Most moral relativists, for example, would likely struggle to agree that people should be free to abuse their child or engage in ethnic cleansing. In the end nobody is a pluralistic purist. We all hold certain standards that we believe others should abide by regardless of their personal opinions. This goes for American culture as well. While we allow for freedom of religion and belief, we still have standards that all citizens must be accountable to. Mormon cult leader Warren Jeffs, for example, was found guilty of sexual misconduct despite his belief that he was acting according to his religious beliefs.

The reason I take time to address this issue is that it is often an objection people have with the church. Many people argue that Christianity is too narrow or exclusive. Skeptics argue that the church is wrong for holding people to moral and doctrinal standards. Skeptics often see the church as a straight-jacket that limits personal freedom.

Timothy Keller argues that these definitions of freedom are too simplistic. He writes, “freedom cannot be defined in strictly negative terms, as the absence of confinement and constraint. In fact, in many cases, confinement and constraint is actually a means to liberation.” Keller uses the example of a fish out of water. A fish cannot breath outside of water so it needs the confinement of water to survive.

In the same way we experience constraints that enable us to be liberated. A piano student, for example, must put limits on free time in order to practice. These constraints have the potential to liberate a person’s musical skill and talent. The ability to experience the benefits of a loving relationships require us to put constraints on our individual time. We must sacrifice independence to be in a healthy relationship. This applies to our relationship with God as well. The pursuit of God, and the pursuit of spiritual growth requires constraints. Paul himself said 2 Corinthians 5:14 “the love of God constrains us.” Yet, these constraints result in liberation. Jesus tells us that the way we gain life is through loosing it.

Keller concludes by suggesting that the goal is to find “liberating restrictions.” He defines these as restrictions that, “fit with the reality of our nature and the world and produce greater power and scope for our abilities and a deeper joy and fulfillment.” To be sure, some constraints are not liberating. We ought to fight against laws and practices that oppress people and endanger lives. However, freedom does not simply mean we bring an end to all boundaries. The goal is to find those liberating boundaries that allow for life to thrive.

So what do you think? Do you agree with Keller that freedom sometimes involves constraints or boundaries? Do you agree that everyone inevitably appeals to some type of boundary or constraint when talking about what is morally permissible? What are some of the ‘liberating restrictions’ you have in your life? What boundaries free you up to experience life to the full?

This reflection is based on chapter 3 of Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God.”


  1. One of the liberating restrictions I partake of is keeping the Sabbath. By voluntarily and willingly restricting myself from working on the Sabbath I find great freedom, peace, and order in the other 6 days of work. I don’t claim to keep it perfectly, yet I have found great delight in responding to God’s invitation to have a day off, guilt free. It’s been an ongoing treasure for me.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Victoria. I’ve been working on keeping the Sabbath rhythm this year as well. It can be a very life-giving practice.

  2. Hey Phil,

    Thoughtful post! I like to think of freedom as the abilty to choose either to do, or to refrain from doing, some particular action. But suppose we just stipulate that’s how we’ll understand human freedom–here are some interesting questions. (1) Am I ever free? (2) Would more freedom (i.e. more instances of having the kind of control that freedom entails) automatically make my life better? I think that the answer to (1) is “yes” while the answer to (2) is “no”…..

  3. I like the illustration that children who play in a fenced yard have been observed to run to the boundaries, and experience the full extent of their freedom, while children in an unfenced area will huddle together in the middle, unsure of their boundaries or safety. I believe God has placed specific boundaries in our lives, with structural integrity to enhance our best performance. Throughout Scripture God instructs His people of blessing in obedience and consequences for disobedience. We have great freedom within the boundaries, and great risk when we cross them. His unconditional love is matched only by His inexplainable grace. The challenge, I believe, is separating the true boundaries from the expectations of self or others.

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