Freedom, inspiration, and solidarity: how I understand Christian salvation today

"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.
“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to figure out how to talk about Christian salvation. I never really bought into the cheesy heaven and hell described in the pop evangelical afterlife insurance sales pitch. Pop evangelical salvation is so obviously tailored to worldly middle-class consumerism that it’s simply embarrassing. But I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable with the “inclusivity” of progressive Christianity insofar as it is unserious about addressing the entrapment of personal sin. It’s not enough to be “welcoming” of every possible category of identity. It’s not enough to say “I am enough” and practice “self-care.” We don’t just need to be accepted; we also need to be transformed and healed so that we can be a source of healing for others.

To me, Christian salvation is about three things: freedom, inspiration, and solidarity. We need to be liberated from all self-destructive, imprisoning habits and attitudes that keep us from being our best selves. We need to be inspired to live in the uniquely imaginative way that is our vocation rather than settling for the default narrative of our social tribes. And our liberation and inspiration is not solely for our sake, but rather so that we can be God’s solidarity with humanity.

There are two Bible passages that have been reverberating in my thoughts for the past several years. They capture the kind of life I desperately want to have. In John 3:8, Jesus compares the freedom of the spiritual life he offers with the wind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, the apostle Paul describes authentic community as a process of discovering God’s glory in each other through increasing vulnerability and collective spiritual transformation: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

To me, these two passages describe what Christian salvation looks like on the individual and communal levels. When I blend them together, I see freedom, inspiration, and solidarity.

I. Freedom

Freedom is a strange word that can be defined in drastically different ways. The way that many people define freedom today is the ability to do what you want without somebody else telling you what to do or getting in your way. This definition of freedom presumes that the only obstacles to our freedom are externally imposed. The way that Christian theology defines freedom is quite different. We believe that the sinful forces in our world have tricked us into following social scripts and habits that keep us from being the people we really want to be. We believe our freedom is sabotaged from inside us. We’ve also found throughout our history that Christians often gain the deepest spiritual freedom paradoxically when they are physically imprisoned and persecuted. So for a Christian, the path to freedom is to be liberated from the anxieties, addictions, and idols inside our hearts that sabotage our ability to be who we really want to be.

Now the greatest obstacle to our ability to let go of our anxieties, addictions, and idols is our need to justify ourselves. As long as we are defensive and unwilling to admit our flaws, we will remain in spiritual prison. This is why Jesus is so important to our liberation. By putting our sin on his cross, he breaks through our self-justification and shows us unilateral grace so that we can let our guard down, face our sin without shame, and release the burdens that are holding us hostage. Christian community is supposed to be a space of “unveiled faces,” where we are absolutely vulnerable and authentic because we’ve gained the freedom to be wrong that is the foundation of all other spiritual freedom.

Now the sad truth is that far too few Christians actually accept the freedom that Jesus has offered us. When we turn Christianity into a means of justifying ourselves rather than a liberating renunciation of self-justification, then we become far more toxic than we ever would have been without any religion at all. A community of tightly guarded wearers of pious spiritual masks who always say the right thing is nothing like the community of “unveiled faces” the apostle Paul was describing. Authentic Christian community is a place where mistakes are made openly, differences are talked through, and forgiveness is readily available, because everyone operates from an organic sense of humble fallibility that reflects their freedom to be wrong. Churches built on self-assured hype and self-righteous zeal tend to grow the most rapidly, but they aren’t the most Christlike.

II. Inspiration

Some Christians love to talk about obedience. I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of that word. Because for me, the word obedience evokes the suspension of critical thinking in order to submit to a fellow human who has usurped too much authority. But what does it mean to obey God? In my own life, I have not found it at all analogous to obeying an alpha male authority figure. In all my interactions with God, I have never encountered the pharaoh tyrant that some Christians make him out to be. It’s always been a sweet, small voice that I usually can’t hear at all because I’m too distracted.

On the occasions when I do hear God’s voice, it’s so good, true, and beautiful that it’s almost irresistible to follow. That’s how it was when God invited me to fast on Mondays and then when he invited me to fast on Fridays and then when he invited me to stop drinking. God often speaks to me through scripture into my personal lived experience, which is why I cannot understand Christians who want each Bible verse to have a single, fixed, impersonal meaning they can impose on others. Insofar as I succeed at living according to biblical teachings, it is because I have been inspired to do so, not because I have been brought under someone else’s control.

So the word I would use for doing what God tells me to do is inspiration. For people who need Christianity to be hard, that word probably sounds too lightweight. But I think it’s a much better word to use. Because it’s not drudgery to do what God tells us to do; it’s inspired living. It’s letting him make us into the truest, best, most beautiful version of ourselves. To me, the hardest part is not doing what God tells me to do, but listening well enough that I can even hear him speak at all. As long as I am preoccupied by my idolatrous allegiances and attachments, I won’t be able to hear God speak (although sometimes he will “shout” to get my attention).

The image of the wind in John 3:8 is what an inspired life looks like to me. People who trust God radically and listen to him closely live their lives in sync with the Holy Spirit, like a leaf that the wind can blow from place to place, never knowing what’s ahead but trusting in the breath of God. Because they trust God to take care of them and fulfill his purpose, they are absent of the nervous energy that is suffocating so many of our declining churches today. They are the true free spirits, unlike narcissistic hippies who are no less uptight than the yuppies they define themselves against. People who live inspired lives are genuinely attractive to those around them without ever trying to be. These are the people the ancient bishop Irenaeus was writing about when he said, “The glory of God is the human being who’s fully alive.”

III. Solidarity

The point of being set free from idols and inspired by God is to participate in God’s solidarity with humanity. My spiritual pilgrimage is not for my selfish individual redemption; it is for the sake of reconciling the world to God. The first name Jesus was given was Emmanuel (God with us). His life, death, and resurrection are all God’s expression of solidarity with us. Jesus utterly disproved the fundamentalist Christian claim that God cannot stand the presence of sin by going right to wherever sin had the strongest stench and eating and drinking with sinners there.

The more Christlike we become, the more deeply we seek to empathize with our fellow sinners. We lose interest in winning arguments and making ourselves look good. Instead, we give ourselves over more and more to the pursuit of justice and harmony throughout our communities. This isn’t to say that we tolerate evil, but rather that our rejection of evil is rooted in solidarity with those who are harmed by evil rather than self-interest or self-aggrandizing sanctimony.

The original Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert talked about “winning your brother for Christ.” This is entirely different from trying to prove to someone else that they’re wrong and you’re right. The way you win your brother or sister for Christ is through solidarity, i.e. genuine investment in supporting their stated needs until they gain enough strength and empowerment to become part of the solidarity they have received. Our job is not to fix other people. Our job is to be on their side and listen to their story, so that they can gain the safe space to find their own freedom and inspiration. Solidarity is the basic purpose for which we are liberated from idols and inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it is the means by which Jesus multiplies his disciples.

In Paul’s incredible image of 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, solidarity is the foundation that makes it possible to be transformed from one degree of glory to another. We cannot embark on our spiritual journeys alone. We need each other. We need a safe, gracious environment where we lose our veils and see God’s glory in each other. These two biblical images of freedom, inspiration, and solidarity are so drastically different than the patriarchal citadels of control that so many modern American churches have become. I hope with all my heart that God is in the process of leading Christians out of the paranoid authoritarianism that sabotages the beauty of our faith so that we can be known for our solidarity rather than our condemnation.

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