Control and the Life of Faith
“For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.”
The Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 7:22-23
Often the progressive church avoids Paul’s use of slave language and his discussions of being “a slave of Christ”, and American history has given us good reason to pause here. We know deeply in our being that all human beings are equally worthy of love and dignity, and therefore instinctually balk at the idea that one human should literally own another as property. What we often miss in avoiding Paul here is that he would likely agree with us. His contention would be that even if you are free from physical oppression and domination by another person, it does not mean that you are not enslaved.
Slavery for Paul is more about control than anything else, and he would argue that there is no “pure” freedom for an individual person. Even if we have all the money and respect and power in the world, we may in fact be a slave to those very things that seem emblematic of our freedom. Wealth has a way of bending our decisions toward protecting it; power has a way of leading us to preserve it. Paul argues in his letter to the church in Rome that true freedom is only found when we give God control of our lives. “…you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:18
How many forces are at work manipulating our choices and actions? How many loyalties are we juggling, leading us to betray our convictions in order to satisfy their demands? How many things exercise power over our lives? Richard Rohr, in his book Breathing Underwater, suggests that the medical model of addiction might be a useful contemporary lens through which to understand Paul’s discussion of slavery. Perhaps we are all suffering from our own as-yet-unnamed addictions, whether to things that we force to bring us comfort, relationships that we exploit to manage our emotions, or patterns of thinking that help us to control the world we live in.
Rohr, drawing on the wisdom of the 12 Steps, offers that we must start by acknowledging that there are forces in our lives over which we are powerless (i.e. things that are enslaving us). These are things that, despite our best efforts and feats of will power, continue to manipulate our thinking and our doing. These demons are often voices in our heads that convince us we are unworthy, unlovable, irredeemable, or unnecessary; these voices deny for ourselves the deep knowing we have about others. Acknowledging that these forces are at work, that we have been possessed by these demons, is the first step toward liberation. However, we cannot merely cast them out without replacing them, or they will move back in, often stronger than before (see Luke 11:24-26).
Jesus, and Paul, and Rohr, and all prophets and teachers that come from God, tell us over and over that true freedom from slavery in this world comes from submission to our Creator. It is not a slavery that God puts on us; it is a slavery which we gladly take up. If we are God’s own, no one and nothing else can own us, and in that we are free. In this model, freedom is a discipline, not a state of being. Rather than being saved once and for all, we choose to stand continually in God’s salvation.
In Peace and with Love,