A Theology of Freedom and Service

Written by Armond Boudreaux

My prayer life has been pretty dry lately. For most of my adult life, I’ve read and prayed scripture at least once a day, but for the past several weeks, I’ve found it laborious – not because I don’t want to do it, but because lately, it requires a sustained effort to clear my mind, to drag my thoughts back from whatever distractions or “really important things” that demand my attention. I wake up early every morning to work on a book manuscript that I need to hand over to the publisher by December; meanwhile, my wife gets up early to read scripture and pray before the kids wake up. The contrast between the two of us makes me ashamed of myself.

So last week on my drive to work, which takes me about forty-five minutes, I resolved to spend a good portion of the trip praying. I managed half of the Lord’s Prayer before my mind turned to other things – things that demand my attention throughout the day but ultimately don’t matter very much. What I wanted to do was pray; what I actually did was think about the day’s business (or busy-ness). To paraphrase Saint Paul, I wasn’t doing the thing that I willed to do, but rather the thing that I hate.

It’s no doubt ironic, then, that Exodus was on my mind later that day (or maybe it isn’t). That book tells the story of an ancient people who were literally thralls to a foreign nation, but symbolically, it presents us with a startling view of life: we can either be slaves to something in this world (be it our own passions, the demands of a job, addiction of some kind, family, friends, a love of sports, money, or countless other things), or we can be slaves to God. As the author of Exodus sees it, there is no other option. Egypt’s treatment of the Hebrews; Pharaoh’s hardened heart; the ten plagues; hundreds (perhaps thousands) of deaths in the horror of the last plague; the Red Sea washing away the Egyptian army; the Hebrews reverting to idolatry at the foot of Sinai – taken together, these insist on one essential truth: no matter what, in the end, God’s will must necessarily be done. As the best professor I ever had told me, we’re left with a paradox: the only way for me to be truly free is for me to conform my will to God’s will. Or, as John Donne prays in Holy Sonnet 14: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free.”

Our natural freedom – that is, the freedom that we are born with – consists of choosing who or what will place demands upon us, then. The question is not of being a slave (δοῦλος), but rather of what we will be enthralled to. So these days, when I pray (and especially when I have trouble concentrating), I pray like this: Lord, grant me the freedom to be your servant.