LIFE, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Is our American concept of freedom compatible with Christian faith? Does Scripture give us any guidance when these three liberties collide?

Last week I was privileged to hear five candidates who are seeking to become the next President of the United States. They spoke to a pro-life audience at the National Right to Life Convention in Jacksonville, Florida. Each of the five made the point that ‘life’ is the first of the liberties proclaimed by America’s founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence. I liked Herman Cain’s take on it best. His words went something like this, only better than my paraphrase: “Pursuit” is the right word to describe our American culture. We pursue happiness, but we have a right to life and liberty. Our forefathers ordered it correctly. Our pursuit of happiness ends when it bumps into someone else’s liberty. Their liberty takes precedence. And when our liberty—our “right to choose”—bumps into someone else’s right to life, then life takes precedence.
I am convinced that Cain is right.

What does Scripture say?
Freedom is never truly absolute—it is necessarily limited when it infringes on the well-being of another. Scripture teaches this pretty clearly. Paul and Peter both wrote about the freedom from the law that we have through Jesus Christ, but both also teach that we ought to voluntarily limit our own freedom in order to seek the good of others and also in order to glorify God. In I Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul says “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.” He uses the example of sexual immorality. Because our bodies are members of Christ’s body and “bought with a price” we bring disgrace to Christ when we become “one flesh” outside of marriage. In effect, Paul says, if a man sleeps with a prostitute he has joined Christ (and all believers in Christ’s Body) to her as well. So when our sexual liberty bumps up against the holiness of God we must limit our freedom to “pursue happiness.”

Freedom’s paradox
We have been set free from the bondage of sin, yet we are called to submit as slaves to Christ. That submission is vital to our continued state of being free from sin. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The image here is of stubborn oxen who have been set free by their master after being entangled in the harness traces. But, if they do not stand still while he returns to the wagon and takes up the reins, they will become tangled again before the master is able to guide them forward.

Paul also wrote about limiting our own freedoms in order to protect the conscience of a brother. Even in our eating, our liberty is not complete. It is a gracious thing, for example, to avoid alcoholic beverages when in the company of a recovering alcoholic or to forgo a chocolate doughnut when eating with someone who is dieting. When we sin against one another by wounding their conscience in the places where it is weak, the “brother for whom Christ died” is destroyed and “you sin against Christ” (I Cor. 8:11-12).

Peter advises us to limit our freedoms for the sake of Christ, being subject to “every human institution.” At the same time however our spirits are not bound. We are to “live as people who are free” but without using our freedom to “cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Peter even extends this call to subjection to those rulers who are unjust, teaching that enduring suffering is “a gracious thing in the sight of God” (I Peter 2:13-25).

These are hard teachings for liberty conscious Americans to follow! Yet, how can we not remember the example of Christ? He who created all things, has the pre-eminence in all things, is the King of Kings, is divine, perfect and holy, yet bore the weight of our sin and suffered our death on the cross that we might be free from sin and have eternal life!

Abortion: Liberty vs. Life
There is no better example in our culture where liberty bumps up against the life of another person than abortion. In the United States, where women freely choose to abort their children, the number of children who have died in the womb by the choice of their mothers now stands at 53,310,843 since 1973. How God must grieve their loss!

In China, women do not have such liberty to choose. Instead, they are limited to having just one child and when they become pregnant a second time they are often forced to abort against their will. Reggie Littlejohn, President of Women’s rights without frontiers, says in a report about a blind man who has endured imprisonment and torture for speaking out against forced abortion in that country:
In pressing for justice for Chen and his family, let us not forget those for whom he has sacrificed his freedom: the families of China who are being shattered daily by forced abortion, forced sterilization and infanticide. The coercive enforcement of China’s One Child Policy causes more violence against women and girls than any other official policy on earth. It is the greatest women’s rights issue in the world today. No one supports forced abortion, because it is not a choice.

How God’s heart must be broken for these women and their families. His longing for life for his people and their children is clearly expressed in Deuteronomy 30:19, “…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….” God’s prohibition against the taking of human life is also clear. “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Jesus extended the meaning of this commandment to include anger against a brother and even insults. The commandment is not diluted, but the murder in our hearts is also exposed to judgment. Our liberty, our “right to choose” is necessarily limited when it bumps into life in the womb. To take the life of a child by abortion is surely an offense against God who both created the child in his own image and also gave His Son Jesus Christ to die for this little one who will never bear witness to God’s glory through his/her life on this earth.

Presbyterians Pro-Life speaks for voiceless unborn children and for many PCUSA members who hold every human life as precious. Our lives are not our own. We are bought with a price. We belong to Christ. Human beings have been given great liberty in decision-making by God, but we have not been given liberty to choose to end the lives of others.