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The Greek words we translate as freedom in the New Testament are:
1. eleutheria: freedom, liberty, especially from slavery; the liberty to do as one pleases, freedom from the dominion of corrupt desires so that we do, by the free impulse of the soul, what the will of God requires.
2. aphesis: pardon, complete forgiveness, a sending away, letting go, deliverance.
We see these words when Jesus quotes a messianic passage from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release (aphesis) to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (aphesis), to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV) and when Jesus answers some Jewish opponents: "I tell you the truth: everyone who commits sin surrenders his freedom to sin. He is a slave to sin’s power. Even a household slave does not live in the home like a member of the family, but a son belongs there forever. So think of it this way: if the Son comes to make you free (eleutheria), you will really be free (eleutheria)." (John 8:34, The Voice)
Other well-known passages concerning freedom are: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (eleutheria)." (2 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV) and "For you were called to freedom (eleutheria), brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Galatians 5:13, NRSV). I won't comment much on these passages other than to say that freedom is closely identified with Jesus, the Son of God. Where Jesus is, we find freedom on display.
When we are talking about freedom in a theological context, it is important to differentiate between finite freedom (what we have as finite beings) and infinite freedom (what an infinite being has). Because we are not infinite, we can never have infinite freedom, meaning that the choices we have before us will always be limited. The good news is that our freedom, granted to us by God, finds its ultimate expression in tying itself to God. Freedom that is focused on autonomy is, in essence, turned in on itself and soon becomes a prison instead of bringing a person to greater freedom. The only thing that opens humans up to greater freedom is being in contact with infinite freedom, divine freedom.
This dynamic intersection of finite freedom with infinite freedom is evident in the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, knowing that suffering and death await him, prays: "Father, if You are willing, take this cup [of suffering] away from Me. Yet not My will, but Your will, be done." (Luke 22:42, The Voice) Here we witness the intimacy between Jesus and his heavenly Father; however, we see not only their oneness but their distinction as two wills are clearly identified. In an appeal to his Father, Jesus voices his desire to be free from suffering and death. This could be seen as a form of self-determination. Jesus follows this appeal with a prayer of consent, choosing to align his will with that of his beloved Father and thereby, uniting his finite freedom with infinite freedom and accomplishing what no mere human could.
Jesus shows us that freedom is not related to a demonstration of power and autonomy, but the ability to say Yes even when we are tempted to say No, and the courage to say No even when others would have us say Yes (think about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness). Life or death, fame or obscurity, success or failure, love or hate, it matters not. Jesus freely aligns himself with the will of the Father because his freedom is found in the Father, not in his circumstances.
So what does this mean for those of us seeking to live in freedom? Ignatian spirituality identifies spiritual freedom as indifference. This does not mean that we don't care (Jesus experienced great sorrow in Gethsemane), but that we are not ruled by external forces or internal brokenness. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from personal bias and can submit our wants and desires to God, just like Jesus did. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from disordered attachments (attachments that are out of order) and we can let go of anything which hinders us from loving God and loving others. Spiritual freedom means that we are free from our personal baggage, those past experiences which can hamper our ability to say Yes to God. Spiritual freedom means that we live with open hands, not clenched fists, and that we are able to give and receive freely. Spiritual freedom means that we live fully and freely as the persons God created us to be.
May we say the prayer of Jesus, "Not my will but yours be done," not as a prayer of weakness and limp submission, but as a prayer which is our greatest expression of freedom and leads us into even greater freedom.