I Want to Break Free
“I want to break free!” I believe that this is a phrase that is very much embedded into the makeup of modern man, especially western modern man. Some people might not say it, some people might not even think it in those words or even know the renowned band Queen who have the hit song under that exact title, but it definitely influences all of us at some point or another and in one way or another. But what does this phrase even mean?
At the basis of the phrase are the words “I want,” which speaks of an inward desire. We also have the word “free,” which speaks to us of freedom, and we have the word “break,” which seems to imply some oppressive thing over us that impedes us from being free that we need to break.
Have you looked around at the world lately and noticed that things just seem to be getting worse and worse? You’re in good company. I believe that a distortion, or even an outright replacement, of the definition of “freedom” lies close to the root of the chaos.
The late Holy Father, Pope St John Paul II, saw this problem about freedom and addressed it in much of his long pontificate. He observed three possible modern (false) definitions of freedom:
1. Man is free in the absence of authority over him.
If there’s anyone or anything that sits above you telling you what to do and not do, then it seems that your freedom must be limited in some way.
2. Man is free in the absence of objective truth.
Objective truth tells man what is true and what is not and man cannot change that. This obviously limits man’s freedom as it does in the previous definition and so if man is going to be completely free he must be able to decide for himself what is good and what is bad.
3. Man is free in the absence of nature leading him, instead of him leading and determining his own nature.
Normally, we know what things are and what they should do based on its nature—what something is (some call it “essence”). But modern man says that if something such as nature is over me and tells me what I am or what I am supposed to be or in any way tells me how I am supposed to direct my life, then we’re back to the first definition and my freedom is severely limited. So I must be free from nature, or free to define my own nature, if I want to truly be free.
Pope St John Paul II outright rejected these definitions as the true meaning of freedom in favour of a more ancient definition of freedom. Other theologians and philosophers called this ancient definition, a “freedom of excellence.”
Bringing It Back!
So what’s the real definition? What is freedom? Freedom is the power, or ability, to will the good. This can be confusing to some—that’s ok, read on!
Think of a man who doesn’t know how to play the piano but wants to. Is he free to play any piece he wants? No. He does not have the ability to do so—he hasn’t learned and cultivated it. Of course he can desire to do it but he won’t be able to put it into practice at will.
Think also of an alcoholic. The very definition of an alcoholic is someone who cannot say “no” to the next drink. If he cannot turn down the next drink, is he free? I don’t think so. He might know that to carry on drinking isn’t the best idea and he might even desire to stop drinking, but if ultimately he cannot, then he is not free but is rather a prisoner in chains to his own vice.
This is why Our Lord tells us in the Gospel of John that “…every one who commits sin is a slave to sin,” (8:34). Normally, when we sin, we say things like “I couldn’t help it!” This is slavery. This is what truly makes us unfree—the inability to will and do what is good.
Are Rules Really Made to be Broken?
These observations seem to suggest that there’s another element at work in all of this. How do we know what the good is? In the modern definition of freedom and alluding back to our original phrase at the top: What must we break free from? Herein lies a very unpopular term today: Law.
I mean “law” in the wider sense. All kinds of law: Natural law, divine law, ecclesiastical law, civil law, and even just the general rules about anything—like how one plays the piano.
Law is seen today as exactly one of those authoritative things that sits above me and limits my freedom. This, however, is another misconception. The law doesn’t sit above me just to be a dictator over me. The law is there to serve my freedom by telling me what the good is.
We cannot deny that doing whatever we desire often leads us to slavery. Go back to the alcoholic example. At one point, every alcoholic is not yet an alcoholic. He takes the wrong definition of freedom, does as he pleases—confusing his freedom for licence—and drinks and drinks and drinks. After doing this enough, he realises that he is not capable of turning back. He has drank himself into slavery and we know from experience that this doesn’t lead to happiness—that thing that we all desire as the goal of all our actions.
Think also of the piano example. The law can be seen as the musical score of the piece that someone wants to play. It’s as if the score said, “If you want to enjoy the good that is to play this song, then you have to play these exact notes according to this exact timing. You may choose not to, but if you don’t, you won’t be playing this song.”
Now, once one has assiduously cultivated the ability to actually play those exact notes according to that exact timing—by repeated hard work and sacrifice according to the laws of musical scales and all the rest of what it takes to be a great pianist—one is free to play that song at will and enjoy the goodness that comes along with being able to do that.
You see, man identifies something which is truly good, and the law tells him how to get there and tells him the ways he should avoid that don’t lead him there. Or, sometimes, man doesn’t know what the good is and by looking at the law he can see, first, what the good is not. Second, he can begin to see what the good is by the things that the law says one must do. Remember, law doesn’t just say “Thou shall not play these notes,” but firstly says “Thou shall play these.”
Now we can see that law is not something to break free from or something made to be broken. Indeed there is a rigidity to the law, but it’s not the rigidity of an impeding wall or an unbreakable chain, but rather a rigidity of a foundation that firmly allows you to stand and dance. To try to be free without law is to try to stand and dance on quick sand. The more we try, the quicker we sink and become increasingly trapped.
Pope Benedict said it best when he said:
“When every man lives without law, every man lives without freedom.”
The New Law of the Ancient Good News
If the law is good, then, and is something given to us to help us attain true freedom, then the laws that God gives us, i.e. the natural law and divine laws and even civil laws to a certain extent, are acts of God’s own providence—His Fatherly care over us that directs us to attain what we truly want: Authentic freedom that leads us to our full happiness.
When He first made His laws known to Israel in the Ten Commandments, He gave them the first step to attain true freedom from slavery, not just “freedom” from the Egyptians. However, God’s people still lacked the power they needed to put that law into practice, just like our guy who knows the law of the song he wants to play but still can’t play it.
With the advent of Jesus, the Word made flesh—the fulfilment of the law and the prophets—we are given that strength. All who enter the New Covenant with Christ and are united with Him, receive the Spirit of Sonship: The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit poured into our hearts is exactly what this “New Law” is. This is the power that we needed to keep the law; the law that is now written on our hearts.
No longer does one need the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Because of grace, one has no desire to kill, but to love. Although still a sinner at times but striving for perfection having not yet got there, one actualises his freedom more and more through the power of the Holy Spirit and one’s cooperation with Him. The Christian man or woman willing to be crucified with the Lord slowly dies to sin and resurrects to freedom.
It is to this that St Paul proclaims: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” (Galatians 5:1).
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
(2 Corinthians 3:17)