As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, I would like to take a closer look at what freedom means in the Economy of Salvation for us as Catholic Christians.
We live in a world today where freedom is misunderstood. Society dictates who is free to do what, when, and where based on whims, emotions, and popular opinions. A popular theme is “Hey, if I want to do X and it’s not hurting anyone, why not? I have free will.” You might also find that where you were free to say or do something one minute, you are all of a sudden no longer free to say or do that same thing. The truth is that we are all free to choose anything, but not without consequences and those consequences are really of the eternal order and not of the worldly one.
One of the greatest gifts God gave to us at the moment of our creation was the gift of free will. He wanted us to have such an inherent dignity that He gave us full power over our own faculties, choices, and actions (CCC #1730). He gave us this gift out of love, so that we would not be reduced to robots or puppets controlled by Him. In return, He deeply desires for us to use our freedom to give our love back to Him. This can only be done freely because love that is forced can’t really be called love.
Free will is the ability to access our reason and our will to make choices to act one way or another. By exercising our free will moment after moment, we shape our own lives and are fully responsible for the path we take. Ideally, we choose to seek truth and goodness which is ultimately found in God and, because of this, our freedom leads us closer to Him (CCC #1732).
With freedom comes responsibility. When we act in accordance with truth and goodness, it is called virtue. When we freely act in ways that are contrary to truth and goodness it is called sin. Both of these ways of acting come with their own consequences. When we are truly free we can never escape the consequences because they are a necessary byproduct of freedom. In the case of sin, the consequences are typically negative. Even if they aren’t immediately negative, they will eventually catch up with us. As a result, we become more and more bound by the negative effects of our sin and hence, we are less and less free. We become slaves to our sin, so even though we are choosing sinful behavior, we are not really free. Conversely, when we choose good and virtuous actions we have positive consequences which are in the form of blessings and graces which draw us closer to our Lord. When we use our free will for good, we are not enslaved to anything. Therefore, “the more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.” (CCC #1733). Another way to look at it, is that to freely choose “to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom” and not actual freedom at all (CCC #1733).
Since all humans were made in the image and likeness of God, all humans have an inherent dignity. Therefore, we are called to respect the free will of others, even if it doesn’t align with our own perception of what is true and good. This can be difficult and we see it play out around us every day. Aside from truly evil people, the majority of humanity is oriented to seek out truth and goodness. It’s our human nature. “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” (CCC #27). So, we must always assume that most people are doing the best they can in their search for truth and goodness and acting accordingly, even when we do not agree. That being said, even when people are doing their best, they may still choose the wrong path due to a misguided sense of truth and goodness. There are some tools that we can use to help us evaluate what is really true and good.
The first is God’s law. When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, it was a gift of moral guideposts to humanity. He provided ten basic rules for us to follow and if we could do that, then we were doing a pretty good job. When looking at the Ten Commandments, it is important to think of derivatives of each law. For example, “You shall not kill” can include harming people verbally, physically, or emotionally. “You shall not steal” can include wasting the time or resources of another person. When we do this, the Ten Commandments are not some antiquated form of robotic obedience to ten things but are rather very applicable to all of the situations in our world today. We should use our free will to follow these commandments and their derivatives in everything we encounter. You will find the Catechism draws out the depth of each commandment with many paragraphs for each one (CCC #2052-2557). Perhaps it would be helpful to meditate on some of these paragraphs and think of all the ways each commandment applies to you in your life specifically.
The other tool at your disposal is your conscience. While everyone would likely agree that they have a conscience, what most people do not realize is that a conscience can be formed and molded. You have been doing this with every choice you have made from a very young age. This formation of conscience is what accounts for the vast differences of thinking between many individuals, all seeking truth and goodness. We form our conscience rightly when we form it in the word of God and use our faith and prayer in making our decisions (CCC #1785). Every time we freely make a choice to act in accordance with God’s will, we further conform our conscience to His will. What this means for us is that the more choices we make in accordance with His will, the easier it is to do and the more free we become. A person who spends his or her time immersed in Scripture, studying the faith, and communicating in friendship with God will have a better formed conscience and hence will be apt to choose rightly and avoid sin. A great aspect of having a moldable conscience is that even when one has a poorly formed conscience, the person can, at any time, begin to apply the Word, faith, and prayer to reform it. That is why we must always pray for our brothers and sisters whom we perceive to be on the wrong path with their free will.
This week, thank God for your free will, as it is truly a gift of love. Examine the ways in which sin has enslaved you and keeps you from the freedom God wants you to have. Ask Him, in prayer, to help you to form a conscience even more in line with His will than it is now.
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