When you hear the word “slave” what images or words do you conjure up?
For me they are: subservient, servant, labor, shackles, mistreatment, beatings, harsh, plantations, black, negro spirituals, master, cruelty, dehumanization.
I often try to imagine what it must have been like for the slaves whose emancipation finally became a reality. How surreal. They could walk away, no longer be forced to work in the sun, back bent, answering to a man called “master”. But as free men and women they inherited a new set of worries- integrating back into society with the label “freed slave”. They were marked so to speak, probably for life.
For much of my early Christian life, this is how I lived out my faith- like a freed slave. In my mind, I knew that grace saved me and that I was free in Christ, but in practice I was bound by legalism, rules, expectations. Being like a dumb sheep, I gave in to listening to the confines of men. This appealed to me. I followed what they taught almost without question, mastered by what could easily be called pseudo-biblical principles, relying heavily on the interpretation of men rather than God Himself.
No wonder I became such a rebel. I hated all the stipulations because what I craved was true freedom. Instead, I had simply traded one set of chains for another.
But over a period of years and a thorough embracing of the gospel of Jesus, the freedom came. The rules stopped being my god. God became my Master and I embraced Him willingly (although sometimes with suspicious resistance as I wondered if I could fully trust Him). This was not forced labor, under the service of a harsh, cruel taskmaster. This servitude was one that I entered into by my own free will, through the grace of God. Now my burden was easy and the load to bear was light.
What irony- to go from being a slave to sin, to the bondage of legalism, to a willing servant of Christ! I think of it as liberating servitude- not oppression or lack of freedom- but a loyal heart free to follow after the best, kindest Master ever. He knows my needs and cares for them tenderly. He loves me in an unrelenting fashion. He forgives me when I have strayed or rebelled. He lavishes me with abundance, meeting all my needs and more.
Now the labor I exert and the rules I live by are simply a beautiful expression of thanksgiving to my gracious Master, who died for me. I am pleased to serve Him, happy to submit to Him, striving hard to keep my former evil master at bay; mindful also of never going back to the bondage of legalism because now I am a servant without chains.
Here it is in the words of the book of Romans, chapter 6 (The Message):
15-18 So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!
19 I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
20-21 As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.
22-23 But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.