“Life is So Good” is an autobiographical account of George Dawson, which contains the by-line “One man’s extraordinary journey through the 20th century and how he learned to read at age 98.” I’m only into the second chapter, and it has already been an incredible story of George, a black child growing up at the turn of the 20th century in Texas. He relates this story:
[After hearing his Great-Grandmother and Grandmother recount the story of the day that they were freed from slavery, long quote.]
“‘People was talking about the new freedom and what they gonna do.’
‘That’s so,’ Sylvie said. ‘But for Charity and me, our course was set. We would stay and wait for my man to come back. He had escaped two years earlier and gone off to join the Union Army to fight for freedom. News moved slow but we would wait. I had faith.
I always listened. It was a story that was told and retold. But each telling only made it better. Every time I heard, I had more questions.
‘What did you do while you waited?” I asked.
Both grandmas laughed and gave me hugs.
Charity picked me up in her arms and Grandma Sylvie put her hands on my shoulders as she talked. ‘Only one thing to do,’ she said. ‘We worked.’
‘But that’s what you did before there was freedom, ‘ I said in confusion.
‘That be so,’ Charity said, ‘but with freedom we had hope. Hope is what kept us going then. We worked from sunrise till dark, and in the moonlight we tended our own garden patches. It was two years before we learned that he died in battle. Colored was on the move in the South then. A field hand that just arrived, Tom Dawson, told us the story as we chopped cane.
“Your man,” Tom said, “he be like a father to me. I was young and so green then. I had escaped from the plantation, but I didn’t know nothing about fighting. We was in the same unit, a colored unit. I was in front of Reggie when we got our uniforms…[Tom continues his story]… I stayed right with your father and was next to him when he took a bullet. He was hit in the chest. I pulled him down in a ravine with me. He was breathing hard and I gave him water and told him not to die on me. He nodded and I leaned close to listen to him as his voice had become weak. ‘Master Lester’s plantation, Mississippi, go there and tell my wife, Sylvie, and daughter, Charity, that I died in the fight for freedom’”
“When the war was over I walked from Delaware down to Mississippi. Seemed like it took forever. Of course, I had to stop and work the fields sometimes to get some food for the body. But I made a promise and I kept it!”
Grandma Sylvie said, ‘Don’t you ever forget that your great-grandfater died for us to be free.’
‘That’s right,’ Grandma Charity said. ‘We learned how much freedom cost.’”
I apologize for such a long quote, but at the same time I apologize that it was also abridged.
To the point- a few things in this story jumped out at me. The first is that the very idea of freedom changed Sylvie and Charity’s view of “work.” George’s confusion is easily understood by us- “work? why would you work? That’s what you were freed from!”
The reply was essentially this- “yes, we worked when we were under enslavement, but now that we are free, working was different. It was different because we had hope.” This second issue is something I will briefly touch on later. George’s reaction is analogous to the reaction of Christians when they consider their own freedom. As Paul states: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3.17). But what does this freedom look-like? What does it mean to be free?
A lot of us, before we were saved, were trying to get by on good works. Whether we believed it would save us, or we believed in some karmic cycle, or if we didn’t believe in anything at all. When we were saved, we realized just how futile those works were- they were Isaiah’s “filthy rags,” “impossible to please God” for they were done “without faith” (Hebrews 11.6). We found out we were free- free from the law. Unfortunately, that resulted in an idea that we can now do what we want. There’s no condemnation (Romans 8), and grace abounds in sin (Romans 6). Yet, this is not what Paul means when he says that we are free (see, especially, Paul’s response in Romans 6). Paul’s freedom is something entirely different.
If we continue looking at Romans 6, we will read that we have been set free from sin- yet we are now slaves to righteousness. This is Paul’s way of saying simply- you are now free, free to obey God when you never could before. We were enslaved to sin, to disobeying God. Now we are free in such a sense that we can finally obey God. What once seemed to be a heavy burden of works, was heavy because we were enslaved by it. Now, through grace, we are freed from that enslavement and are free to finally and actually obey God. It is not freedom to do what we want, but freedom from doing only what we could as dead men and women, enslaved by sin. It is what Paul and Jesus mean when they say we will bear fruit. It is what James means when he says that he will show you his faith by his works. Like Sylvie and Charity’s perception of work, our perception of God’s commands have gone through a fundamental change because of our new found freedom.
What is it, then, about this freedom that so changes our view (which itself, stems from a change in our nature)? It is hope. Charity says, “but with freedom we had hope.” What reason does Paul have to declare, “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3.17), if it isn’t to give believers a hope? See the very next verse: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
This is our hope- the transformation of ourselves from sinful people, deserving of God’s wrath into the image of Christ Himself, a transformation that comes in its finality at the resurrection. Above this, our hope is Christ Himself, the One who frees us so that we may obey God with joy. With Sylvie and Charity, we see that freedom indeed does have a cost. First, it cost Jesus His very life upon the cross as an atoning sacrifice. Second, it costs us our very lives, as He beckons us to pick up our crosses and to follow Him down the path of dying to self and sacrificial love.