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Alan Noble: Being ‘Free in Christ’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Alan Noble: Being ‘Free in Christ’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Depending on who you’re speaking with, Christian’s idea of freedom might be a bit different. We all have a general sense of what freedom is, but when it comes to practically living it out, things get a bit fuzzy. But freedom is a key pillar of our faith, and something that’s worth digging into.

That’s why Alan Noble, author and professor, wants Christians to take a step back and examine our idea of freedom. Noble doesn’t want our culture to co-opt freedom. Rather, he wants us to get back to the Biblical freedom Christ talks about. Noble spoke with RELEVANT’s Tyler Huckabee about this idea that he dives into in his book You Are Not Your Own

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

There’s an idea extremely at odds with a particularly American style of freedom and liberty that we have been raised with, which is that I am owed the right to do what I want, to make decisions for myself when I want to. Can you unpack the difference between the freedom that America talks about and the freedom that the Bible talks about?

In the contemporary West, certainly in America, our concept of freedom tends to be the lack of restraints. In other words, nobody can tell me what I have to do. I’m free to pursue the things that I wish. I’m free to choose the lifestyle I want to choose, to do to my body whatever I want to do, to pursue whatever kind of careers I want to make money in almost any way I want, to use the earth however I want. And not everybody will agree with this, but I’m trying to point out that this is not a one political side thing. Across party spectrums, there is this spirit of freedom as being unrestrained, but as you point out, that’s not the biblical concept.

So when Christ says, “You’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Well, that sounds great. But prior to that, he says, “If you abide in my word, and then you are my disciples and the truth will set you free.” Well, if you abide in His word, that means that you accept His word as law. And if you’re in His word, there are limits in that word.

There are things you can’t do that you’re just not allowed to do, even if you really want to do them that it doesn’t matter. You can’t do them. So that’s a kind of freedom. But then, and this is what’s so radical, he says, “Actually following, abiding in the word, dwelling in it, so not just memorizing the law, but really abiding in it, living in it, that’s what freedom is,” and that’s a radical idea of freedom, but it is from the early church and the classical world. It was a more common understanding of freedom. Freedom is not freedom to do whatever you want. It’s actually freedom to pursue the good, the true and the beautiful, because our natural state is that we are in bondage.

I wanted to read you this from Twitter. When I announced that we’d be having a conversation, a friend chimed in with a question I thought was interesting. I’ll just read this here: “Curious: found and addressed evidence-based research about human agency, interdependence, and the relationship, the idea that we belong to someone else has to abuse the whole modern, i.e. illegitimate mental health concepts, our illnesses plaguing society.” She says, “That sounds familiar.”

I think what she’s getting at is, A, the potential that this idea of not being your own can be used in a toxic way, and B, some ideas about mental health. The way that this moves into the mental health sphere, the current paradigm we have, understanding we have a mental health in popular conversations. Can you unpack that idea in this conversation?

Yeah. So, I mean, she’s right that the idea that we are not our own, but belong to anyone else, is terrifying. And it is simply a fact that people in positions of power have used this logic to abuse people under them. Pastors have used this to say, “Well, you’re not your own, so your body’s not your own, so I can take advantage of your body.” I mean, pastors have done things like this. Teachers have done things like this. That’s a reality. There’s no escaping that. So in my book, I acknowledge that and try to spend some time wrestling with it. Do I spend enough time? I mean, I’ll find out. The way I deal with this in the book is I’m trying to think through, “Okay, what does it mean when someone uses their authority abusively?”

And it seems to me that when somebody is in a position of authority and they use their power abusively, in those moments, although they would be publicly claiming that they are looking out for your good… “I am your pastor. I’m the police officer. I’m the president. I’m whatever. I’m looking for your good.” When they’re abusive, they’re not. They’re putting their own good, or what they think is their good, ahead of your good. And the thing about belonging to God is God is the only being for whom it’s possible, but for him to always desire our good and his own good without conflict. As hard as I try to desire my wife’s good, there’s going to be days where I’m just like, “I really don’t want to do the dishes.” And I know I should. It’s going to happen, fundamentally, but belonging to God is a different kind of relationship. And that’s the kind of relationship where we can belong without losing our self. 

The second half, the mental health. So I am a big advocate for mental health. So I do not discount or discredit the reality of, for example, a growing mental health crisis that I have witnessed grow in higher education and across the country. I don’t do anything to say that, for example, “Well, these people aren’t really depressed. They’re just living in sin.” There’s no move like that that I’m making in a book. I do think that there are social conditions that exacerbate or sometimes create certain mental conditions. And that’s just a fact of reality. When you are, for example, treated inhumanely in your job, every day, 12-hour days, that is going to affect your mental health.

Get help. If you need professional help, get it. But I will say that when we look at the rise in mental illness in the United States… It seems to reflect something about the structure of society. So I think that answers the question.

This problem you’re talking about, it’s coming at us from every angle. Extricating yourself from that just sounds enormously difficult. We’re fish swimming in an ocean here. For those who are convinced by our argument, it still remains an incredibly daunting thing to shift that perspective. Do you have any advice about how someone would even start to try to do that?

I do believe that seeing rightly, seeing that you are swimming in water, allows you to have some cognitive space where you can say, “All right, I’m feeling like garbage right now, because I’m trying to get a hold of somebody in my insurance company so that I can figure out this medical bill and I’m only talking to computers. And that is dehumanizing, and it should not be that way. And that’s why I’m feeling depressed and stressed right now.” That’s okay. So we have some agency there, but still, the insurance company is going to depend on computers to avoid talking to me, because that makes them more money. Efficiency is going to win out. I wish I could give us a here’s a five-step plan for saving America. 

The things that I’ll stress are, one, we need to be aware. We need to be seeing the world and how we’re being treated and how we are treating others. Are you contributing to these dehumanizing effects? Are you encouraging people to pursue their own lives, a divorce from all restraints?

But also grace. I think grace is so important because if this analysis is right, then we’re all living with a lot of stress, and we need to have patience with each other. So when that student comes in and says, “I’m sorry, Dr. Noble, I binge-watched 19 hours of Friends,” my response is not, “Well, you lazy bum, this is why you’re going to make nothing of yourself,” but it’s love and sympathy knowing that that person is probably really feeling guilty and shame, and they feel like they don’t belong and they need help. They need encouragement. So I think grace is so important.

Practically, I would love to see the church be a pocket of resistance in this. What if the church were known as a place where people rest? Christians could legitimately rest. People, when they’re talking about Christians, whatever you want to say about them, those people know how to rest because that’s not true of us. We’re working constantly. We’re working just as much as the secular world. That’s a problem. And when we’re not working, when we’re “resting,” often, we’re just recharging so that we can be more productive on Monday, which is not actually resting. It’s just trying to be more efficient. 

But the key here is, we have a tendency, all of us across the political and religious spectrum, to think when we identify a problem, we need a solution to fix it. And what I want to say is that our society is deeply flawed, and the only one that’s going to redeem it is Christ and that if you think you have a five-point, or any point, plan to save things, to fix society, you’re probably going to have a savior complex. And you’re going to become very bitter when you don’t get your way and when other people stand in your way.

But if instead we say, “Christ is the one that’s redeeming this world, and my task is to be faithful to him right here. Where am I? That’s where I have to do my good work. I get no excuse for ignoring injustice. I have to seek justice in the world. But when I do that, I don’t do it thinking if I don’t solve this problem, then I’m a failure.” That’s not how we think. We just have to act faithfully and rest that God is the one saving us. 

You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World is available for purchase here.

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