This article is part of Sister Michelle Watson’s deep dive into the concept of “deny yourself” (Mt. 16:24, Mk. 8:34, Lu. 9:23, 3 Ne. 12:30).
If there’s one value that Americans cherish above all others, then I’m going to say it’s freedom. The pilgrims arrived here in search of religious freedom, and our founding fathers broke from Britain because they wanted political, social, and economic freedom. For decades, individual Americans have enjoyed the freedom to pursue any life path they choose.
There is no doubt about it. We put a premium on personal freedom. Modern society will do almost anything to ensure a person’s right to free choice — to choose whether or not to terminate an unborn life, to choose one’s gender identity, to choose whether or not to end one’s own life with medical aid. People ask, “Why should someone else’s beliefs affect or limit how I live my own life?” They assert, “I have the right to live however I choose, the pursuit of happiness.”
Since self-denial — my pet topic this year — is next of kin to contradictory concepts like submission, sacrifice, and self-abasement, how does it intersect with the idea of personal freedom, which is largely about doing whatever you want whenever you want however you want?
I find some real clarity in Paul’s letters, especially the parts where he explains why Christians are under the “law of liberty” rather than the Old Testament law. In the past, faithful Jews abided by laws that governed nearly every aspect of daily life. When Christ came, He fulfilled the law. So, instead of a mile-long checklist of do’s and don’ts, He simply said, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” It’s a higher law, and I’m supposed to rely on God’s Spirit to guide me in the details (see Galatians 5).
Paul says again and again that Christians have liberty — back then, the hot topics were circumcision, eating meat offered to idols, etc. — but they shouldn’t use that liberty to sin or tear others down.
There are times when it’s right and proper for me to sacrifice some of my personal liberty in order to show love to others. That means I can’t do whatever I want whenever I want however I want.
Rom. 14:13 says let “no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way,” and verse 19 continues, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”
Take dancing. Let’s say that I dance to Vacation Bible School music, doing the hand motions for the kids. I have liberty to do this, right? But if I go to a questionable nightclub and dance in a provocative way with a man who isn’t my husband, then I sure hope my branch leadership schedules a teacher’s visit pronto. I have the freedom to do one but not the other.
Here’s another example. I’m at a restaurant with another brother and sister from church, and they do not believe that any form of dancing is OK. If the weekend band strikes up a tune, then I’m not going to pull my husband onto the dance floor in front of this couple.
I know that these examples are kind of weak — maybe you can think of better ones and write them in the comments. But here are some scriptures that I think give awesome advice when it comes to how I should handle the personal liberty God gives me.
1 Cor. 8:9 – “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock.”
Gal 5:13 – “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”
1 Peter 2:16 – “Not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.”
Yes, it’s great that I get to make a lot of my own choices as a Christian, but if I don’t know when to yield my personal freedoms to God’s people or God’s higher laws, then I’m missing a big piece of the pie. What do you think?
This article has undergone ministry review and approval.