I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.
[Deuteronomy 30:19-20 ESV]
In the historical setting of the Old Testament this quotation from Deuteronomy comes just before Moses dies and his successor Joshua leads the Children of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land. It was a timely reminder to the people that they continued to have a choice – they could choose to follow the Lord and his way, holding fast to him, or to turn away from him – they had freedom to choose between life and death, blessing and curse.
Freedom to choose is something that we experience to varying degrees in every aspect of our lives – the freedom to choose where we live, what job we do, what food we eat, what clothes we wear and so much more. This freedom may seem an important aspect of our chosen life-style but what we choose as a result is really rather superficial compared to the fundamental and deeper spiritual freedom we have to make the choice between what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad – to essentially choose to move closer to God or to move further away from God. This is the type of freedom to choose that is described in Deuteronomy 30:19-20. It is God given and maintained equally to all as part of our essential human nature.
In his book Heaven and Hell, Emanuel Swedenborg wrote the following about this type of freedom:
Essentially, spiritual equilibrium is freedom, because it is a balance between what is good and what is bad, and between what is true and what is false. All these are spiritual realities. Therefore, to want to do something good or something bad, and to think something true or something false, and to choose one over the other, is freedom. This freedom is given by the Lord to every human being, and is in no way removed from anyone.
[Heaven and Hell 597]
But we might ask Why does God gives us this freedom?
We can perhaps find an answer by thinking about the way a wise and loving parent treats their children. One of the hardest things such a parent has to do is to let their child make mistakes despite realising the probable pain and suffering that will ensue. Children have to grow and develop and make their own way in the world and not feel they are being manipulated or directed by their parents. They will make the right decisions and the wrong decisions and yet the loving parent has to stand back and not intervene. They just offer advice to their child as to what they should do and then leave their child the freedom to make up their own mind. The loving relationship of parent and child is similar to other loving relationships in that, paradoxically, the more freedom we give to those whom we love the greater and stronger is the love that is ultimately returned. Force someone to love you and no real mutual love develops. However, offering to love someone and leaving them the freedom to respond or not is a high risk and potentially painful strategy as most people find out at some stage in their lives when love is not returned.
God gives us the freedom to choose his way or to reject it because he wants to develop a relationship with each one of us based on mutual love not the relationship of a master to a servant but of friends, as Jesus makes clear in John’s gospel.
You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
[John 15:14,15 ESV]
Jesus also talks about the mutual nature of the relationship he wishes us to enter into.
Remain in me and I in you. He who remains in me, and I in him, bears much fruit.
[John 15:4, 5 ESV]
And the mutual or reciprocal nature of this desired relationship is also mentioned in Revelation:
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I shall come in to him, and dine with him, and he with me.
[Revelation 3:20 ESV]
Freedom to choose allows everybody the possibility of forming a link with God, holding fast to him and coming closer and closer to him or we can go in the other direction and break the link with God and move further and further away from him it is our choice.
Emanuel Swedenborg comments on this linking with God as follows:
The link between the Lord and a person is reciprocal; and it follows inevitably from this that a person ought to link himself with the Lord, so that the Lord may link himself with him. It also follows that the consequence would otherwise be not linking, but removal and separation, though this is not on the Lord’s part, but on a person’s. In order to make the link reciprocal, a person has been given freedom to choose, allowing him to set foot on the road to heaven, or the road to hell.
[True Christian Religion 371:2]
Swedenborg also refers to coming closer to God:
It is a law of the divine design that the closer and closer we come to God, which is something we have to do as if we were completely on our own, the closer and closer God comes to us.
[True Christian Religion 89]
In the gospels Jesus emphasises that He who remains in me, and I in him, bears much fruit. Some of the spiritual fruit to which he refers are listed in Galatians 5:22,23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control;
We have been given freedom to choose the Lord’s way or our own. But it is in choosing his way that we can begin to develop true spiritual fruits. Not only will this development bring us closer to the Lord and him to us but we will become truly spiritually free!
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, You will become free?”
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
[John 8:31-36 ESV]