The West prides itself on valuing freedom – political, economic, religious, and otherwise. For some, this leads to the promotion of a certain brand of libertinism: the freedom to do what we want. For others, such as Lord Acton, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
For the Christian in particular, true freedom is more than a little paradoxical, involving plenty of constraints and restraints. We know that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and yet, in keeping with the upside-down economics of the Gospel – “the first shall be last,” “those who lose their life will find it” – it comes with prepackaged with calls to servanthood and obedience. These are good hints that true freedom may have less to do with nitpicking over “choice” and “constraint” and more to do with accurately recognizing the image of God we bear and the responsibility it entails.
In seasons of pain and frustration, the notion tends to feel more clear and less paradoxical, of course. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer,” the Psalmist sings. “My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”
This is the sound of freedom through dependence, and it’s one that Christians are well familiar with. But it’s a song we also tend to forget and neglect.
It’s a core concern of Abraham Kuyper’s in his newly translated, Pro Rege: Living Under Christ the King, Volume 1: that modern society offers so many competing views on freedom and channels for personal power that we have become increasingly distracted from viewing Christ as the ultimate king. “Ask the most pious of the pious, and every single one of them will confess that nothing drew them more to God than that feeling of deep dependence,” Kuyper writes, reminding us of the roots of our faith. “Children who learn for the first time to bow their knees know no other religion and cannot know any other religion than that which arises from that feeling of deep dependence.”
Modernity has brought plenty of blessings, and with them, new risks and ripple effects are ripe for hearts and minds. For Kuyper (writing in 1911), the prosperity and technological discovery of the modern age has led “pious” and “children” alike to newfound illusions of power and independence, whether from family, neighbor, community, or God. “A human kingship imperceptibly came to power, leaving no place for the kingship of Christ,” he writes. “That kingship of humanity established a throne of glory for itself in the world cities, and from that seat it now rules over entire nations and peoples by what people refer to as the modern spirit of the age.”
As a result, our rightful position of kingship and dominion has lost sight of the King of Kings:
Is one not struck immediately by the way man as man has grown from a dwarf into a giant compared to the past centuries with regard to his power and ability, to his knowledge and know-how, to his dominion and subjection of the power of nature? Is one not likewise struck by the sudden spurts and shocks in which this growth took place? There is undoubtedly a contrast between man and the world in which he moves. Can it be disputed that, until the middle of the eighteenth century, man was almost like a martyr before nature when you compare his control over nature then to what man was able to accomplish in the second half of the nineteenth century and up to this point in the twentieth century?
Our power, our dominion over nature and its powers, is more than fourteen times what it was less than half a century ago. Whereas people earlier lived under a certain feeling of inferiority and weakness over against the power and forces of nature, at present humanity stands over nature with a magic wand in its hand and knows how to cast spells over it. The former fear gave way, and in its place has come an unwavering feeling of power that totters on the edge of overconfidence. Humanity has won one triumph over nature after another. Earlier people saw themselves as toys in the hands of nature, but now they are its masters.
Already humanity senses that its triumph will soon be complete. It continues in every area of life. No year fails to surprise us in terms of the victories won and discoveries made. And the fruits and blessings reach through into every corner of society. Man and woman, young and old, rich and poor all profit from it. Everyone enjoys it.
This decline, Kuyper argues, has not been limited to those outside the church walls, and Christians of all people should be attentive to remember the reality of our position and the contour of our authority and responsibility here on earth. Whatever the material increases in our “power over nature,” they have not replaced the need for God (or the need for a king).
As Kuyper reminds us throughout the book, our position of dependence on God remains the same, regardless of whatever “progress” we achieve, whatever “power” we gain, and whether we feel less dependent or not:
All creatures are, by virtue of their creation, in a state of full and complete dependence, and they cannot exist for any other goal than to glorify God and to serve him as a means or factor for the execution of his counsel. It similarly follows from this that, aside from God, there can be no power to which creation can be subjected in any way. There is only one dominion, and that dominion belongs to the Triune God. Similarly, there is only one power and majesty, the power and majesty of God. This power cannot be mechanical; by virtue of its nature it must be organic, since it finds its foundation in the origin and existence of all that has been created…
The kingship of the Son of God ought to be compared to this kingship of God rather than to earthly kingship. It is not the earthly standard of the world’s sovereigns or rulers that must be applied, but the standard of the kingship of the Triune God. The simple fact alone that the earthly standard was applied to Jesus can explain why people were disappointed by Jesus’ kingship, missed the overwhelming manifestation of power that they were looking for, and therefore began to understand his kingship more in a nominal sense than as something real. The apostles, however, have given us sufficient warning of this. They immediately transferred the name and honorific title of “Lord” to the exalted Savior, and in their portrayal of Christ as the Head of the body they most clearly emphasized the organic character of his kingship.
Whether we’re seeking to exercise “power over nature” and solve problems or seek justice in business, education, politics, or elsewhere, we’d do well to remember from where our kingship comes, keeping a spirit of humility that recognizes and embraces the “organic character” of God’s kingship, above all.
We are not kings without a king. Ours is a kingship not of our own making. Ours is a freedom that flows best when we recognize that simple reality. We are appointed and anointed by Another. His ways are higher than our ways, his freedom higher than our freedom, just as it’s always been.