The Problem of Freedom

The most often voiced complaint against God that I hear among people sounds something like this:

“How can a loving, compassionate God allow such awful suffering to exist in our world? How can he support the murder of children? How can he condone the genocide of those people? Why would God let such a good, generous woman live in such hardship?”

These are difficult questions to be sure; questions that have led people to hate God — or in some cases to give up on him completely — since the beginning.

For me, the answer to this hardship lies not in examining God’s indifference to human suffering, but in God’s love of the entire human creature. Of all the wonderful talents, skills and gifts God has given the human race, the greatest one of all — the crux that everything else rest on — is freedom.

William Sloane Coffin, who died in 2006 after a long career of championing social justice for humans everywhere, answered this question better than I could ever hope to. Coffin uses a well-known teaching of Jesus to explain the problem of free will, and why God thinks it is so important in our lives.

The teaching is commonly called The Parable of the Prodigal Son; the NET Bible calls it The Parable of the Compassionate Father, which I think is a better fit. The entire text of this lesson can be read here if you are not familiar with it. In a nutshell, it is a story about two sons. One asks his father for an early inheritance, takes his father’s wealth and runs off to have a good time. When the money runs out, he comes back home, broken and ashamed; Yet his father greets him with a hug and a shout of rejoicing. The other son stayed at home the whole time, lived a responsible life and tried to follow the letter of the law. When his brother returned, this hard-working lad was furious that his father would even accept him back into the household.
      *It’s important to note the father’s forgiveness does not include re-dividing the responsible brother’s share of the estate to make up for the folly of the prodigal; He simply showered his lost son with generous love, just as he always had.*

But now on to Coffin:

The word of the Lord hits the world with the force of a hint. Could anything be more frustrating? We want God to be God; but he wants to be a still small voice, a babe in a manger. We want God to be all-powerful, so that we can be weak and dependent; but he wants to be all-loving, so that we can be strong. We want God to prove his existence; but he wants us to prove our freedom, to be able to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty. “God is love” means God is known devotionally, not dogmatically. So the word of the Lord has to hit the world with the force only of a hint.

The story of the prodigal son is a parable about all this, about an all-loving father who precisely because he is all-loving has to restrict his power, for love is self-restricting when it comes to power. As the story has a happy ending we cheer the father. But suppose the boy had gotten knifed in a brothel, had died of hunger; or, on the contrary, had become a powerful ruler dictating the deaths of hundreds of his fellow citizens. Wouldn’t we then have complained! “How could you let it happen?”

But that’s the risk. The father could have said “nix” to any dividing of any estate and kept the boy at home; But he could not have kept him filial. God, I suppose, could keep us all “at home,” in the brute calm of servitude. But because love is the name of the game, he releases us into the storms of freedom, and then stands on the road, trembling with concern.

Excerpt from “A Certain Man Had Two Sons,” by William Sloane Coffin.
Delivered at Riverside Church in New York City, May 7, 1978.

We can use this freedom God has afforded us in many ways. We have the freedom to escape from the world; to ignore suffering, ignore the pain that inevitably follows when we pour ourselves out to others in relationship. We can live in isolation, comforting ourselves with the knowledge that God has redeemed us already. We have the freedom to make our own way. To carve out our own vision of success and pleasure in creation, bending the world to our will. Or, as Coffin concludes, perhaps we have been given freedom not to throw our lives away, but to give them away to one another. To give them away to reconciliation, to forgiveness and to love, just as Christ gave his.

How will you spend your freedom today?

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About David Anderson, Jr.

I'm a wandering pilgrim anchored in the Baptist tradition, tossed about by the anabaptist current. I am a minister at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and a recent graduate of Campbell Divinity School. I am the husband of a beautiful woman, and the father of a blond-haired boy. I am a work in progress, struggling to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. View all posts by David Anderson, Jr.

2 responses to “The Problem of Freedom

  • Zach Anderson

    I truly love this article. That is an agonizing question that I have asked at times. And this answer illustrates what I believed in the clearest way. Dave, I love how you write. It’s inspiring.

    • David

      I’d love to talk with you more about this Zach. Freedom is an awesome thing, that comes with awesome responsibilities. I think this time of year (Easter) stands to remind us of that.

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