The Blessings of Being Bound

Finding Freedom Through Commitment

In our world of easy mobility and tremendous choice, life can feel like a hallway with a hundred doors.

We choose one among a hundred majors after having chosen one among a hundred schools. Then a hundred careers confront us, along with a hundred places to live. And these decisions aren’t even the most important. We choose a church among not quite a hundred options but many, consider a potential spouse from a hundred physical and digital possibilities, prioritize friendships from the hundred people we have known. True, friendships and jobs and marriages don’t always come easily (our world knows many jobless and lonely people) — yet, for many, the possibilities can seem dizzyingly diverse.

In such a world, we might feel tempted to believe that freedom consists in keeping as many options open as possible. Or if we do walk through a particular door, we would prefer to keep it propped open, just in case something better appears. Many enter one door only to retreat to the hallway shortly after, and then enter another door only to do the same — job to job, church to church, friend to friend, place to place. Or if we did choose to lock ourselves into a room (say, by getting married or having children), we might find ourselves chafing, itching, imagining what life might be like through a different door.

How hard it can be to believe, then, that in this hallway with a hundred doors, the best, most freeing decision we can make is to close ninety-nine of them. Only then will we discover the blessings of being bound — by covenant, by commitment, by friendship, by faithfulness.

Bound in the Beginning

From the very beginning, the Bible teaches a principle that seems paradoxical, and especially in a day like ours: Binding relationships liberate. Personal autonomy enslaves.

The principle appears as soon as people do. Almost immediately after he is formed from the dust of the earth, Adam, free and sinless Adam, finds himself bound by the two most enduring relationships in the world. He hears his Maker, he beholds his bride, and to both he gives his covenant loyalty (Genesis 2:16–17, 23–24). And so he becomes a worshiper and a husband, bound in spirit to his God and in flesh to his wife. He is not his own — at the same time, however, he is the freer for it.

The short story of Eden gives us glimpses into Adam’s paradoxical freedom. In being bound to God, Adam may have forfeited the freedom of self-rule, but he gained the freedom of enjoying God’s presence, reflecting God’s character, and fulfilling the mission God made him for (Genesis 1:28; 2:9, 19). In being bound to Eve, he may have lost the freedom of bachelorhood, but he gained the freedom to be fruitful and multiply and to live with one who was bone of his bones — his home in human flesh (Genesis 1:28; 2:23–24). Here is freedom without bitterness or regret, freedom naked and unashamed.

The joy of Eden was a binding joy, a committed joy, a joy where you found yourself by losing yourself. It was a joy that would weave a whole fabric of relationships, each with its own kind of binding: children, kin, and neighbors to love as yourself. And in such joy, we get a glimpse of the life God made us for. As fish need water and birds need air, as trains need tracks and cars need roads, so we need the kind of relationships that tie us to others with cords far stronger than convenience.

We need marriages bound by covenant and sealed with vows, children who call forth from us a glad fidelity to family, church communities that feel as indivisible as the human body, friendships sturdy enough to withstand opposition and offense. We need loyalty strong as a tree with roots long grown.

For as Adam and Eve show us, the alternative to such loyalty is not freedom, but a far, far worse kind of bondage — the tyranny of autonomy.

Our Great Unbending

As we watch Adam and Eve walk out of Eden, with shame wrapped around them like shackles, we see the true choice that lies before us: not whether we will be bound, but to what. In cutting the ties that bound them to God and to one another, they became entangled in a different cord, barbed and cruel. They became slaves to sin and self-will.

“We need the kind of relationships that tie us to others with cords far stronger than convenience.”

When humanity fell, we fell not only downward, but inward. We became “lovers of self” (2 Timothy 3:2), “haters of God” (Romans 1:30), and all too frequently, users and abusers of others. No wonder, then, that when God redeems us, he calls us upward (to him) and outward (to others). He begins a great unbending of our concave souls — teaching us that our great need is not to find freedom from others, but to find freedom from our dogged devotion to self.

No wonder, then, that God often speaks of our redemption using images of new and holy bindings. When we believe, God unites us to his Son (Colossians 3:3), engrafts us into his people (Romans 11:17), makes us members of Christ’s body (Ephesians 5:25), welcomes us into his household (Ephesians 2:19), and places us like living stones on the wall of his temple, surrounded on every side (1 Peter 2:5). We left our God alone; he binds us back home.

God knows that such relationships — and not only with church members but with spouses, children, roommates, and friends — have a way of freeing us from our slavery to self. And really, what else will? If our relationships operate on a kind of end-at-will basis, then what else will challenge our inward allegiance? People, with their pesky requests and intrusive needs, are marvelous foes of tyrant Self. They will become, if we allow them, so many saws that cut our inward chains.

But only if we allow them. Only if we refuse to let a little trouble take us out of the door that led us to them. For freedom is found in the binding.

Freedom Lost and Found

What kind of freedom do we find in the binding? Many kinds.

On a relatively small level, we find freedom to live within the bounds of a decision. God did not make us to continually walk through life’s hallway, wrestling again and again over the biggest decisions — whom to date or marry, which job to take, what church to join, where to live, which people to love. Nor did he make us to constantly question what life would be like had we made a different choice.

How much time, emotion, and mental energy do we spend on choices that would be wonderfully settled if we were more willing to be bound? Rather than repeatedly wondering how to live, we could get down to the business of actually living.

More significantly, we find the freedom of a broader, deeper vision, the kind that comes only with long acquaintance with the same people. Just as residents of a place know far more of its true pleasures than tourists do, residing long in certain relationships opens our eyes to marvels we would otherwise miss. For those with eyes to see, familiar people become not boring, but more beautiful, in time.

If we will allow spouses and children, church members and friends to lay their claims upon us far after the relational tourist leaves for new people, we may become like Psalm 104 explorers — this time tracing not the hills and valleys of earth but the expansive landscapes of human souls. We may discover wonders as broad as the image of God.

Most significantly, however, we find the freedom of increasingly becoming the people God made us to be.

Loveliness Born of Loyalty

The unbound life may be free of many commitments, many requests, many demands that come from close relationships, but often at the incalculable cost of a human’s highest dignity: love. “Love your God” and “love your neighbor” are not only the two greatest commandments; they are the blueprint for the fully human, the fully free, life (Matthew 22:37–39).

God made us to be burdened and bent by the glorious weight of other people. He made us to find greatness in serving others (Mark 10:43), blessedness in giving to others (Acts 20:35), joy in sacrificing for others (Philippians 2:17), true life in dying for others (Matthew 16:25). He made us to remove the bubble wrap of a selfish life so that we might see and hear and taste and touch and smell the beauty of binding relationships — relationships that can hurt, yes, but whose scars are so often better than safety.

Even in the harder seasons of our relationships — a troubled marriage, a conflicted church, an unreconciled friendship — there is a loveliness born of loyalty we will not find any other way. For God gives strength to those who set their faces like flint toward faithfulness (Philippians 4:13, 19). He has an infinite reserve of steadfast love to offer (Exodus 34:6). And as many discover, relational wildernesses can lead to a land of milk and honey, where married couples laugh again and friendships bloom again and churches bear the fruit of holy love again.

True, not every loyalty in this world is for life. Some friendships fade and church memberships transfer and jobs transition for upright reasons. But those who remain loyal longer than their flesh wants, and longer than the world advises, will discover the stunning loveliness born of loyalty, the untold blessings of being bound.