by James Harvey
I recall a father telling me how after a two-week business trip he returned home and, quite unintentionally, became a source of tension. The time away had dulled his senses to the family dynamics. He ended up taking some stands in matters of discipline that were not as artful as he would have liked. This humble father quickly remedied the situation through apology and patient listening. But the story illustrates that standing firm is an art to be cultivated in Christian life.
We should first understand that the Scriptures call us to stand firm. The fact that standing firm can be difficult and requires tact does not mean that it should be avoided. The gospel was at stake in the Galatian churches. Paul opposed Peter to his face to preserve the integrity of the gospel of free grace (Gal. 2:11). He exhorts the Galatians to stand firm against the false teaching that said faith in Christ plus adherence to Jewish ceremonial law was necessary for salvation. To yield to such teaching would be to lose the gospel itself: “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). These teachers were so influential and persuasive that even Peter and Barnabas were led astray. But the Galatians had to stand firm. It is not hard to imagine how impressive or influential people in our churches can push some agenda that, perhaps even unwittingly, undermines the gospel. Standing firm is essential.
The health of the church was at stake in Corinth, and Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to address a whole host of issues that the church was facing: factions devoted to favorite preachers, sexual immorality, marriage problems, controversies over eating food offered to idols, disorder in worship, and false teaching on the resurrection of the body. At the close of this letter, the Apostle says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). The forces of division, the lusts of the flesh, and the lure of false teaching will continue to challenge God’s people. Standing firm is essential.
The key to the art of standing firm is love. Immediately after Paul exhorts the men of Corinth to stand firm, he says, “Let all that you do be done in love” (v. 14). Christians are called to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). If we don’t stand firm in the faith, our homes, churches, and communities will suffer. But if we stand firm devoid of love, our witness will be marred. Indeed, the ability to have a fearless love is what makes our standing firm unique and powerful before those who oppose the truth (Phil. 1:27–28). The world stands firm in hostility, as those “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). We stand firm in love because God first loved us. We stand firm not because we fear loss, but because we are already guaranteed immeasurable gain (1 Peter 1:4). We stand firm not because we must earn God’s blessing, but because He has already poured it out upon us in Christ (2 Thess. 2:14–15).
Consider where God is calling you to stand firm. Practice the art of standing firm, full of love for Christ and others.
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. (Psalm 19:7, NIV)
The law revives the soul? Seems more like the law oppresses the soul. True, rules may be required for a society to survive, although we generally want them to be the minimum required to protect innocent people from harm. Why would anybody think a soul might delight in them? Could it be there is a connection between the law and the soul that is not apparent to us? The soul craves to be free, but soul-freedom turns out to be a little more complicated than we think.
Think of freedom coming in two flavors, two kinds of freedom. There is freedom from external constraints, somebody telling me what to do. This is freedom from. But there is another kind of freedom that might be called freedom for. There’s the freedom for living the kind of life I was made to live, freedom for becoming that man I most want to be — freedom for.
You do not have to be an expert to recognize that the kind of freedom our culture craves is freedom from external restraints. Tell someone he can’t do something, and he’ll probably find a way to do it. Freedom from external restraints appeals to all of us, but I do not believe that it’s the freedom the soul needs.
Your freedom is not restricted simply by external constraints. There’s another odd kind of restriction. Your freedom gets limited by an internal reality that is a kind of brokenness or weakness or dividedness inside you. You want to live with a happy, cheerful, optimistic attitude, but you don’t. You want to quit yelling at your kids. You want to be the kind of person who manages anger really, really well, but you aren’t. You’d like to think you have become unselfish, but you haven’t. You are not free. The freedom you lack is an internal freedom, and this inner lack of freedom is much more dehumanizing, much more tragic than external constraints. This kind of freedom is internal, and it is precious. It is “soul-freedom.”
Remember that the soul is what integrates our parts. If our will is enslaved to our appetites, if our thoughts are obsessed with unfulfilled desires, if our emotions are slaves to our circumstances, if our bodily habits contradict our professed values, the soul is not free. The only way for the soul to be free is for all the parts of our personhood to be rightly ordered. The deeper freedom — the freedom that the soul needs — is the freedom for becoming the person I was designed to be.
How do you get the freedom that your soul craves?
This is the great irony about freedom. To become truly free, you must surrender. Surrender is not a popular concept. It goes against everything we think we know about being free. Wars are not won by surrendering —have you ever seen a football team surrender in the Super Bowl? But surrender is the only way to achieve freedom for your soul.
If you want to free your soul, you acknowledge that there is a spiritual order that God has designed for you. You are not the center of the universe. You are not the master of your fate. There is a God, and you aren’t him.
True freedom comes when you embrace God’s overall design for the world and your place in it. This is why in the Bible you see this strong connection between God’s law and soul-freedom. The psalmist writes, “I will always obey your law, forever and ever.” Then the very next verse says, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” (Psalm 119:44-45, NIV)