Freedom and Acceptance

Present-day culture and Christianity can, in a sense, find common ground in the concept of freedom. After all, Christianity is a message of freedom and liberation. To realize this, we need only to open the New Testament, where the words “free,” “freedom,” “set free” occur regularly. “The truth will make you free,” says Jesus in St. John’s Gospel. 1 St. Paul states: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” 2 and, elsewhere, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” 3 St. James calls the law of Christianity a “law of liberty.” 4 What we need to do, and will try to do in the course of this book, is find out the real nature of this freedom.

Modern culture has been marked for the past few centuries by a strong aspiration for freedom. Everyone realizes, however, how ambiguous the notion of freedom can be; false ideas of freedom have alienated people from the truth and caused millions of deaths. The twentieth century above all saw that happen, to its cost. But the desire for freedom remains observable in every sphere: social, political, economic, and psychological. Its urgency is probably due to the fact that, despite all the “progress” achieved so far, this desire still remains unfulfilled.

In the area of morality, freedom appears very nearly the only value about which people still agree unanimously at the beginning of the third millennium. Everyone more or less agrees that respect for other people’s freedom is still a basic ethical norm. Undoubtedly this is more a matter of theory than practice, as western liberalism becomes progressively more totalitarian. It may be merely a manifestation of the underlying selfishness of modern man, for whom respect for the freedom of the individual is less a recognition of an ethical law than a declaration of individualism—nobody can prevent me from doing what I feel like! Yet this aspiration for freedom, so strong among people today, even though it includes a large dose of illusion and is sometimes fulfilled in mistaken ways, contains something very true and noble.

Freedom and Happiness

Human beings were not created for slavery, but to be the lords of creation. This is explicitly stated in the Book of Genesis. We were not created to lead drab, narrow, or constricted lives, but to live in the wide-open spaces. We find confinement unbearable, simply because we were created in the image of God, and we have within us an unquenchable need for the absolute and the infinite. That is our greatness and sometimes our misfortune.

We have this great thirst for freedom because our most fundamental aspiration is for happiness; and we sense that there is no happiness without love, and no love without freedom. This is perfectly true. Human beings were created for love, and they can only find happiness in loving and being loved. As St. Catherine of Siena puts it, 5 man cannot live without loving. The problem is that our love often goes in the wrong direction: we love ourselves, selfishly, and end up frustrated, because only genuine love can fulfill us.

Only love, then, can satisfy us; and there is no love without freedom. The kind of love that is the result of constraint, or self-interest, or the mere satisfaction of a need, does not deserve the name love. Love is neither taken nor bought. There is true love, and therefore happiness, only between people who freely yield possession of the self in order to give themselves to one another.

Here we can get some idea of how precious freedom is. Freedom gives value to love, and love is the precondition of happiness. The reason why people attach so much importance to freedom must be because they perceive this truth, however confusedly; and from that point of view, it must be admitted they are right.

But how do we achieve the freedom that will enable love to flourish? To attain this goal, let us look first at certain widespread illusions that must be put aside if we are to enjoy true freedom.

Freedom: Claiming autonomy or accepting dependence?

Although the idea of freedom, as we have seen, can be viewed as a meeting point between Christianity and present-day culture, it also appears paradoxically to be the point at which they are furthest apart. For modern man, to be free often means throwing off all constraint and all authority—“Neither God nor master.” For Christianity, on the other hand, freedom can only be found by submitting to God, in the “obedience of faith” that St. Paul speaks of. 6 True freedom is not so much something man wins for himself; it is a free gift from God, a fruit of the Holy Spirit, received in the measure in which we place ourselves in a relationship of loving dependence on our Creator and Savior. This is where the Gospel paradox is most apparent: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” 7 In other words, people who wish to preserve and defend their own freedom at any cost will lose it, but those willing to “lose” it by leaving it trustingly in God’s hands will save it. Their freedom will be restored to them, infinitely more beautiful, infinitely deeper, as a marvelous gift from God’s tenderness. Our freedom is, in fact, proportionate to the love and childlike trust we have for our heavenly Father.

The living experience of the saints is there to encourage us. They gave themselves to God without reserve, wanting only to do his will. In return they received the sense of enjoying an immense freedom, which nothing in the world could take away from them, and which was the source of intense joy. How is that possible? We can try to understand it little by little.

Outward freedom or interior freedom?

Another fundamental mistake about freedom is to make it into something external, depending on circumstances, and not something primarily internal. 8 In this field, as in so many others, we re-enact the drama experienced by St. Augustine: “You were within me, and I was outside myself, and sought you outside myself!” 9

Let me explain. More often than not, we feel that our freedom is limited by our circumstances: the restrictions imposed on us by society, the obligations of all kinds that other people lay upon us, this or that physical or health limitation, and so on. To find our freedom, we imagine we have to get rid of those restrictions and limitations. When we feel stifled or trapped in some way by circumstances, we resent the institutions or the people that seem to be their cause. How many grievances we have toward everything in life that doesn’t go as we wish, and so prevents us from being as free as we would desire!

That way of seeing things contains a degree of truth. Sometimes certain limitations need to be remedied, restrictions overcome, in order to attain freedom. But there is also much here that is mistaken and needs to be unmasked if we are ever to taste true freedom. Even if everything we consider as preventing our freedom disappeared, that would be no guarantee that we would find the full freedom we aspire to. When we push back the boundaries, more boundaries always lie a little farther on. We risk finding ourselves forever dissatisfied. We shall always come up against painful restrictions. We can overcome a certain number, but some are inflexible: physical laws, the limitations of our human condition and of life in society, and plenty more.

1. John 8:32.

2. 2 Corinthians 3:17.

3. Galatians 5:1.

4. James 2:12.

5. “The soul cannot live without love, it always needs something to love: for it is made of love, and it is for love that I created it.” Dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena, chapter 51.

6. Romans 1:5.

7. Matthew 16:25.

8. There is a very simple proof of this, which takes time to understand. As long as our sense of having greater or less freedom depends on outward circumstances, it means that we are not yet truly free.

9. St. Augustine, Confessions, book 10, chap. 27.

Fr. Jacques Philippe is a member of the community of the Beatitudes, founded in France in 1983. After studying in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Rome, he was ordained a priest in 1985. He primarily devotes himself to spiritual direction and preaching retreats internationally. His published books on spirituality are the consolidated result of such work. He is the author of Fire & Light, Interior Freedom, Time for God, and The Eight Doors of the Kingdom, among others. You can find out more about Fr. Jacques and his preaching schedule at

In his book Interior Freedom, Fr. Jacques Phillipe shows us that we possess, each of us, inside of us a space of freedom that no-one can take away. Despite the most unfavorable outward circumstances, we can claim our freedom because God is its source and its guarantee. Without this, we will always be in search for something else to fulfill us, and we will never understand true happiness.

Fr. Philippe lays out a simple but important theme: "We gain possession of our interior freedom in proportion to our growth in faith, hope, and love." He explains that the dynamism between these three theological virtues is the heart of our spiritual life, and he underscores the key role of the virtue of hope in our spiritual growth.