Law and Freedom are two words that may seem contradictory. Especially in American culture, we identify Freedom as the absence of imposed restraint or regulations. Often, we view Law as the rules that get us into trouble if we violate them – and get caught. The truth is that freedom for one person only exists due to the restraint of another. Law and Freedom work cooperatively. I think we have personalized our view of law so much that we immediately hear the word and try to figure out how it prevents us from some kind of moral infraction. We view the law as something that tells us how to stop being bad and start being good, then we impose this same definition onto the Bible when we read it.
The New Testament writer, James, wrote about the “law of liberty:”
“Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.” (James 1:25)
James also described this law of liberty as “the word” which serves as a mirror into which we may look to analyze our state before God (the Greek term James used for “the word” is logos, which means “the revelation/message of God: Jesus”).
“For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” (James 1:23-24)
Mirrors allow us to assess our physical appearance. We look into them and correct – as much as possible – our appearance, so that it matches our idea of how we desire to appear. If we were to look into a mirror and see ourselves as a mess, then simply walk away without making any sort of change, then we would’ve just wasted our time. James was trying to explain that we can read Scripture, attend worship, go to the altar, join a study/small group, fast habitually, pray/meditate, or even know the message of Christ word-for-word, but, if we do not allow those religious practices to impact our daily existence, then we have simply wasted our time. Why do any of that, if we do not act on what we have seen, heard, or experienced? This should lead us to ask what this message of Christ, logos, is asking of us.
James gave us some personal practices that we should develop:
“…let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20)
Then he went further:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
The orphans and widows would have been those in society who were unable to care for themselves. James was referencing Isaiah 1:17, a theme of using our resources and abilities to lift the burden of the physical needs of others in order to bring them freedom.
I believe that is why James called the teachings of the logos made flesh, Jesus, the “law of liberty.” It is selfless action (law) that results in freedom (liberty) for those whom it benefits, and for ourselves. Freedom for others who benefit from our physical abilities and monetary excess in a way that makes their lives easier, and freedom for us as we no longer enslave ourselves to those abilities, resources, and possessions that result in nothing but more work and feelings of dissatisfaction/emptiness. Both the giver and the receiver experience greater freedom.
We have a preoccupation in the West with controlling behavior to the point that it distorts many of the teachings in the Bible, turning Christianity into a work-for-salvation plan. It is really about a total mind shift that results in us realizing that the best way to express our love for God is through loving and serving everyone with whom we interact, then teaching others to do the same.
The mirror we look into in order to reflect on our state of being is one that challenges us to take our eyes off ourselves and place our focus on others. This is where restraint plays a part in freedom; we restrain ourselves from using our talents and resources to only benefit ourselves as we serve others. Jesus explained in Matthew 25 that, when we begin to take action on the needs of others, then it is really God who we are serving.