Some Slavery Feels Like Freedom

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Staff writer, desiringGod.org

A few weeks after my wife and I were married and moved into our first home, I bought a corded lawn mower. If you don’t feel the failure in that sentence, my experience may save you from years of pain and heartache.

It was the kind of decision so many of us make as creative and brave (and naïve) twenty-somethings. Though Dad advised against it, the mower was just enough cheaper than the others to save me a few bucks, and just enough different to make me think I had stumbled on the holy grail of yard maintenance — the revolutionary invention previous generations simply hadn’t discovered yet.

And then I unboxed my big mistake and actually tried to mow my lawn.

My wife says I “vacuum” the lawn. Picture mowing the lawn like anyone else would, but with the added adventure and excitement of an extension cord. First, you have to find functioning outdoor electrical sockets, and then move from functioning socket to functioning socket as you mow. All the while, you’re adjusting the cord with every turn — literally every single turn — so that you don’t shred your power source halfway through.

And, of course, you need a cord long enough to mow the whole lawn. Again, like any other creative and brave (and a little impatient) twenty-something, I just eye-balled it. Don’t ever eye-ball it.

Please Vacuum the Lawn

I’ll never forget the first time I took her out for a drive. Our next-door neighbors were having some kind of party in their backyard. They had no idea they’d purchased front row seats to a Saturday morning comedy hour.

Or three hours. It took me forever — checking outlets, changing outlets, wrapping the cord, unknotting the cord, adjusting the cord, sweating like crazy — all to mow a yard the size of some people’s living rooms.

And to top it off, my wife came out to check on me just in time to watch me come up two or three feet short in the corner of our lawn. I reached for it, and the mower cut off. I had unplugged the cord. Like a vacuum. Dejected, I marched back across the yard, in front of my wife, our neighbors, and their friends, to plug my lawn mower back in. Ultimately, I had to surrender, leaving two or three square feet of tall grass on each of the four corners of our little property, including the two well-displayed corners on our busy street.

My wife bought me a longer cord the next day, but the whole process is still a spectacle to behold: my wielding something as large and sharp as a lawn mower while tied to the house every step, like deciding to tie your cell phone to the wall in your kitchen with some string — my own strange self-inflicted (and hilarious) slavery.

A grown man on a bright orange leash.

Come, Follow Me

Jesus met a grown man on a leash once. The man stops Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). Jesus answers him, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother’” (Luke 18:20). He lists five of the Ten Commandments, all of them focusing on outward obedience.

The man, filled with passion and confidence, says, “All these I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:21). In our words, “I’m a good Christian.” He had done everything he knew to do to make his life look like a believer’s, to make it look like he deserved to go to heaven.

How does Jesus respond? “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).

One Thing You Lack

Jesus could have questioned what it meant for the young man to really keep all the commandments he listed, and explain to him that no one has ever kept any of those commandments perfectly. He took that approach with others (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28). No, Jesus knew where to find this man’s heart. It was buried deep in his wallet.

What did the man say? Well, he didn’t say anything. “When he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich” (Luke 18:23). Matthew says, “He went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22).

One thing you still lack. Those five words didn’t highlight lines in the man’s budget as much as they highlighted the loyalties in his heart. He looked like a Christian, but lacked real love for Jesus. He had tried a pick-and-choose kind of religion, and ended up walking away confused and depressed. He left with his hands full and his heart empty — having the outward appearance of freedom with his big bank account, but hopelessly enslaved to his money and all it could buy.

A grown man on a bright green leash.

What Are Your Idols?

For this man (and for many), it’s money. What cords do you carry?

We may gladly surrender all kinds of things to Jesus, doing whatever we can to follow the rules and fit in as a Christian. But we secretly cling to our cords, not trusting him with our work, or our comfort, or our health, or our marriage, or control over our lives, or our suffering, or our romantic or sexual longings. And like the rich young ruler, that lack of trust uncovers our lack of love. We love Jesus, but we love something else a little more. And loving anything more than Jesus, even a little more, means we don’t really love him after all. He never settles into second place in our hearts.

So, we walk away and do our own thing, leaving hard-to-reach corners of our lives untouched by Jesus, unwilling to part with what feels good and comfortable in order to follow him. It often looks like “Christian” freedom, but without Christ. And whenever we choose to live for something more than Christ, or instead of Christ, that thing begins to wrap its steel chains around our heart and cool any warmth in it for Jesus. All while we wear the clean and pressed clothes of Christianity. But each time we come up close to what we wanted, the whole thing comes unplugged. Our idols never reach far enough to give us the safety, intimacy, and happiness we were after.

Cut the Cord

The rich man felt like Jesus was asking him to sell himself into poverty and slavery. Satan prints money with lies like that, and he subtly weaves it into the fabric of all our materialism. Jesus wasn’t selling slavery that day, though. He was offering the rich man the fullest freedom possible.

Jesus promises all those who are worried about all they’re giving up to follow him, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29–30). That kind of math will radically change how you think about money — or whatever your idols might be.

If we will trust Jesus enough to leave behind our old ways of trying to manufacture and preserve our own happiness, he’ll give us something far greater — infinitely more than we might have settled for otherwise. But we have to trust him first, that he knows the difference between slavery and freedom better than we do. We have to cut the cord.