Restraint, Constraint, and True Freedom

Freedom is arguably the highest value of Western society. The concept of freedom is built into the very structure of our society, alongside rights as being fundamental to our place as individuals in our nations and laws. We have a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, rather than a Canadian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities. A major theme in most of our media is personal freedom, usually defined as personal autonomy or the ability to make choices on all things that might affect us. Having nobody tell us what to do.

Theologians sometimes talk about this definition of freedom, and call it “freedom from.” The idea behind it is that nobody tells us what to do, and this is what makes us free. We are self-determining. The opposite of this, they say, is “freedom for.” The basic idea here is that true freedom is not just aimless autonomy, but the ability to choose to obey God. While “freedom from” is focused on personal autonomy, “freedom for” focuses on participation in what God is doing and the ability to choose the good, usually because choosing the bad isn’t really freedom at all, but rather servitude to sin. In “freedom for,” it is understood that we’re all always serving someone, and that the only master that gives us freedom is God, making the only true freedom be enacted in obeying God rather than our own sinful natures.

I think I get “freedom for,” and I think it’s a good concept, but I also think that “freedom from” gets a bad rap. Sure, it’s usually used in our society to justify hedonism, irresponsibility, and frivolous lawsuits. Heck, it’s best exemplified in #YOLO, with all of the buffoonery that comes with that. But something I’ve never seen a theologian do in their arguments against “freedom from” is give an actual account of “freedom from.” Why is it that we love the idea of nobody telling us what to do?

This is actually a really easy answer for most people. On paper, I work 37.5 hours/week; in reality, it’s probably closer to 50, if you include time spent at home thinking about work (last night I dreamed about work for what seemed at least six hours). When I come home I have the demands of being a homeowner, a landlord, a husband, and a churchgoer, the combination of which takes up my weekends. I have homework on top of that, and my political involvement takes 2-5 hours/week, more or less. If I want to sleep 8 hours a night (which usually doesn’t happen), then that leaves very little time for…well, anything. My self-care time is basically spent watching TV (usually 45 minutes/day), which I feel guilty for doing, but I lack the mental capacity most days to spend that time more productively. I have no idea how people who have kids, or who work 60+ hours/week (and a lot of people do), have any mental or physical health. But what’s more tiring than simply doing all of these things is the sheer demand to do all of these things: obligations, responsibilities, and other demands all carry weight, and that weight can become palpably heavy and exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I love everything I do and it’s entirely my fault that I’m as busy as I am, but I just know that I’m pretty normal in this regard. We’re all busier than ever before, and not with contemplative and active practices like farming and gardening, but rather with dozens of fast-paced, mental-heavy commitments.

So I totally get why our society defines freedom as “freedom from”, and why it elevates that concept above most other values. And I have it relatively easy compared to a lot of people. At a certain point, we just want other people to stop telling us what to do, or have a window of time and space where we have no obligations toward anyone. I think that a world in which we are totally free from obligation and the demands of others is a very good world; in fact, I think that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. But let’s back up a bit for an illustration of “freedom from.”


I watched a clip today of Kevin O’Leary being self-righteous, ignorant, and belligerent. This was nothing new for him, but it reminded me of neo-liberal economics and the “free market.”

You may have noticed that O’Leary’s response to the possibility that he might be wrong about something was to shout louder than everyone else in order to stop hearing what they’re actually saying so that he can more easily dismiss it. People only have this response to ideas or logic that threatens them and their way of life. The thing that he doesn’t want to hear is that the “free” market leads to economic inequality, and that economic inequality is in many ways a bad thing. The reason he doesn’t want to hear this is because if this idea is accepted it will lead to market interventions (efforts by governments to make the economy more fair, such as taxation and regulation), and the “free” market will be no more. O’Leary’s devotion to free markets is probably a result of the fact that he’s made amazing amounts of money off of them, but it’s also an example of our cultural devotion to the notion of “freedom from,” in this case, freedom from regulation.

Regulations are laws and guidelines that are in place to ensure that businesses and industries don’t do bad things in their efforts to do good things. For example, environmental regulations are in place to stop industries from polluting or disrupting the environment, giving those industries guidelines to follow that attempt to ensure the smallest possible environmental impact. The people working in these industries aren’t usually bad people, but if their job is to suck oil out of the ground, and environmental regulations make it difficult or impossible to do so, they (understandably) get frustrated. Sometimes there will be pressures from multiple sides: our society demands more oil, but our society also demands practices and regulations that make obtaining or transporting that oil highly expensive or impossible. For someone like Kevin O’Leary, who cares very much about the economy and doesn’t care at all for the environment, the future, or other people, these regulations (well, ANY regulations) are counter-productive and damaging. He might well point out that those who argue against oil production because of the health issues surrounding pollution may find it difficult to get good healthcare when the government is broke and society is shutting down due to a lack of oil.

While I don’t find him convincing on such points, he’s right in that there’s a time in which any rules can become counter-productive. Regulations and laws are constraints on human behaviour, and they have a fatal flaw: in order to be deemed fair and legitimate, they must be universal. A just law must apply to everyone, and a law that doesn’t apply in every situation has “loopholes” that those who would break the law can use to get away with it. The problem with this is that no rule is able to fulfill its purpose in every situation, and what would be a very good thing in one situation might be the absolute worst thing in another. A good example is the slew of issues surrounding human life and death: we all agree that killing people should be illegal, but what if it’s in self-defense? What if the other person is a criminal, or a soldier, or an unborn child, or someone who actually wants to die? No one law can handle all of these situations, and sometimes the constraint placed on us to stop us from doing something might actually be worse than the behaviour constrained.

The other problem with constraints is that they don’t actually make us into better people. You’re not a good person because you follow the law; you’re just not a bad person if you follow the law. Following the law is effectively just being forced to not do bad things. Gold star.

So constraints are a mixed bag. They may stop us from doing bad things, but not in any way that actually improves or celebrates good character. They may also stop us from doing good things, or make necessary things much more difficult than they ought to be. At best, constraints are a compromise, an acknowledgement that we’re going to screw it up unless someone else makes us do it the right way. Constraints are the answer to our lack of restraint.


A little while ago I wrote about gluttony, and I said that not every day is a feast day. A feast is, by definition, indulging to a greater extent than is normal. If every day was a feast it would be normal, and therefore would not be a feast – it’d be sheer gluttony. I also noted that our society and economy is based on gluttony, and I stand by my statement. We have very little restraint, which is why we have so many constraints.

I’m making a distinction based on a nuance here: constraint and restraint mean more or less the same thing, except that “restraint” has an element of self-control in it. Constraint is a limitation or hindrance, while restraint includes self-limitation. For the sake of my argument here, constraint refers to a limitation on human behaviour imposed from outside (laws, rules, regulations, limitations), while restraint refers to a limitation on our own behaviour, imposed by ourselves from within.

Jesus didn’t talk down constraints, but he definitely subverted them, and he did so by appealing to restraint. When God created the law and government (Genesis 9:5-6), he did so as a concession to human sinfulness. He recognized our lack of restraint, and therefore imposed constraints to help us out. The first law after the flood was simple: if you kill people, people will kill you. That didn’t seem to do the trick, and God gave Israel a whole bunch of laws, which they used as the basis for thousands of laws. But even then, Jesus pointed out that they used obedience to some laws as a way to get out of obeying other laws (Mark 7 – or see my recent post about Corban and World Vision). God gave Israel the ability to divorce because he knew we’d screw up marriage, but Jesus knew that this law could be used to hurt as much as it could be used to help, and appealed to the original purpose behind the law instead. God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, and Jesus and his disciples didn’t do so with as much rigor as the law seemed to demand; his response was to say “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”

We only need constraints when we lack restraint. Constraints limit our freedom, in ways both good and bad, and enforcing constraints requires that they be universally applicable (which they rarely are). Enforcing restraint, on the other hand, requires that we apply wisdom, which allows us to treat every situation and person as the individual and unique things and people that they truly are. Restraint can be just in ways that constraint cannot. Restraint brings freedom, at least in the form of “freedom for,” while constraint impinges on “freedom from” and sometimes even on “freedom for.”

This is why I say that I think that we’ll be without constraints, without regulation, in the Kingdom of Heaven: because when we’re more fully made into the likeness of Christ, we’ll learn to exercise restraint. There’s an old slogan of Christian Anarchists that says something like “he who is ruled by God need not be ruled by any other.” What about when we’re like God? Will we need to be ruled at all? Or will we simply exercise restraint upon ourselves and choose the good of others willingly? That’s true freedom, or “freedom for.”

It’s also what we’re able to live now, to a lesser extent, and we call it “the freedom of Christ.” Paul talks quite a bit about this: because we are under Christ, we are no longer under the Law. The Law is still there, telling us what is right and providing a constraint for when our restraint fails, but as long as we exercise that restraint and follow the greater demands of Christ, we’re not being guided, controlled, or constrained by the Law at all. This is good news! Our obligations to others work similarly: when serving others becomes central to our lives rather than something that distracts us from our own plans and goals, our sense of obligation disappears and gets replaced by joy and satisfaction and compassion. The person who lives to serve feels no obligation to do so, and the person who exceeds the demands of the law and exercises their own restraint does not feel the constraints of the law. So when we’re like Christ, or as Paul says, in Christ, then we’re truly free. Servants of all, but slaves to no-one. May this be true of us all.


So, like Kevin O’Leary, I’m not a fan of regulation or constraints. But people who are incapable of showing self-restraint for the sake of others (or are unwilling to) make constraints a necessity, to limit the destructive power of sin. So to Kevin O’Leary and anyone else who argues against regulation I offer this advice: be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Then nobody will need to constrain or rule over you, and we can get rid of all regulations and have a truly “free” market.


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