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The Peril and Power of Personal Freedom

Jim Denison | Denison Forum on Truth and Culture | Thursday, November 12, 2020
The Statue of Liberty, The path to liberty that stands the storms of life

The Peril and Power of Personal Freedom


Tarra Simmons quit school at thirteen and gave birth at fifteen. Nonetheless, she graduated high school and nursing school, then worked for eleven years as a registered nurse. However, drugs she was taking for depression, along with the alcohol abuse that began when she was a teenager, led to a downward spiral that nearly destroyed her life.

Tarra was arrested three times for selling drugs and sentenced in 2011 to thirty months in prison. When she was released in 2013, “Burger King was the only place that would give me a job,” she says. “My wages were being garnished to pay my court fines, and I was also trying to reunify and catch up with my kids. It was a really hard time—the barriers to succeed seemed overwhelming.”

Worried that she might start the cycle of drug abuse again, she reached out to a law student who had been outspoken about his own conviction for bank robbery. He helped her apply to law school. She eventually graduated with honors and became a civil rights attorney. Last week, she was elected to the Washington House of Representatives with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

When people wonder what it feels like to be the first ex-con to take a seat in the Washington House, she quips, “Usually it’s the other way around.”

Are you moving to Canada?

I am truly grateful to live in a nation where Tarra Simmons can achieve her dreams. Not every American agrees with me, however.

A website that explains “how to move out of the US” has seen a surge of 1676 percent in traffic over the last five months. A pre-election survey found that 31 percent of Americans were interested in moving to Canada if their presidential candidate was not elected. And Americans are giving up their citizenship at the highest levels on record.

While many Americans are rejoicing that Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the presidential election, some are grieving that nearly half of America’s voters chose Donald Trump. Others are advocating ways to punish Trump supporters. And many are worried about the future of a nation that is so divided on foundational issues such as abortion, marriage, and religious freedom.

I am hopeful that our commitment to the fact that “all men are created equal” will empower us to face our challenges together while embracing the value and beliefs of every American. 

But it is this very commitment to the equality of all people that could be our greatest spiritual peril today.

My visit to Ellis Island

Ellis Island closed on this day in 1954. More than twelve million people immigrated to America through its doors across its sixty-two years of operation.

I remember vividly the time my wife and I visited. We were deeply moved by the sacrifices made by so many who exercised their God-given freedom in coming to our country. Americans who dedicate their talents and resources to improving our world and our lives continue to make our economy the largest in the world and enrich our lives daily.

However, our nation’s greatest strength—our commitment to the equality of each person and each person’s beliefs—can also be used against us.

Western culture has elevated the individual from the time Socrates taught us that the key to life is to “know yourself.” The Greeks and Romans believed in the gods but wanted only a transactional relationship with them in which the gods would give them what they sought if they gave the gods the worship and service they required. They were not submitted to the gods as their personal Lord—on the contrary, they placated the gods as a means to their personal success.

Western society from then to today has placed the individual at its center. While many across Christian history genuinely submitted themselves to Jesus as their Lord, many others obeyed the teachings of the church not so much to glorify God as to secure his blessings in this life and to escape hell in the next. Many still do so today.

The industrial era saw an astounding escalation in the quality and longevity of life, enabling more and more people to become consumers in pursuit of their personal dreams. The postmodern era has doubled down on such individualism, convincing millions that truth is what they believe it to be and that morality is personal and subjective. If religion disagrees, it is dangerous. (For more, see my new video below, “What does the Bible say about courage?”)

The foundation of our best future

Yesterday, I cited Jonathan Pennington’s observation that Western people build their lives as a “chest of drawers” with distinct compartments for religion, health, and the other dimensions of life. Dr. Pennington offers a companion image drawn from theologian Peter Leithart, who noted that many Christians are dualists, mistakenly living their lives like a layered cake “with supernatural truths on top of an otherwise natural cake.”

As a result, according to Leithart, the “church adds a spiritual dimension to my life but leaves my natural world more or less intact.” But this is categorically not the way Jesus intends us to live.

Our Lord told his followers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, my emphasis). Paul called us to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God (Romans 12:1), submitting every dimension of our lives to him every day. The apostle testified, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Jesus calls us to embrace the same commitment today.

America’s commitment to the equality of all people is foundational to our shared future. Our grateful submission to the Lord Jesus Christ is foundational to our best future. 

A dear friend shared this verse with me yesterday: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). Rick Warren noted: “Your commitments can develop you or destroy you, but either way, they will define you.”

What commitments will define you today?

Publication date: November 12, 2020

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/cla78

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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