Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A): Romans 14:7-9

“It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want.” – The Animals, 1965

“Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” – Romans 14:8

Growing up is an interesting experience.

As children, we have some sense of ourselves as individuals. Our identity, however, is closely tied to our parents, siblings, other relatives, and friends. We tend to absorb the attitudes we find around us, even as we ask “Why?” about many things. 

By the time we reach adolescence (and sometimes it begins a little sooner), things get awkward. We feel a need to pull away somewhat from family and establish our own identities a little more firmly. We may resist, even rebel, at times. We may hurt those who love us the most, even if we don’t intend this. We feel a need to be free from at least some rules or constraints. At the same time, we find ourselves very vulnerable to the attitudes of our peers. We may rebel against our parents, but we will all dress in very similar ways. We seek freedom, but we are in fact not free. It’s a time of transition. We need to pass through this time so that we can re-enter society with a clearer grasp of who we are and what our place might be. In some ways, adolescence is not unlike the cocoon stage in which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

That’s the plan, at least. It doesn’t always work out that way.

Our society often seems fixated on that time of adolescence. We often see freedom defined precisely as a fifteen year old would define it: the ability to do what I want. Period. Movies and novels often idolize the rebel, the misfit or the anti-hero. The one who doesn’t fit in. The one who isn’t part of any institution, and resists any hint of that. On the other hand, like adolescents, we are more vulnerable than ever to what our peers think of us. Witness the influence of social media. Is this truly freedom?

The problem is that we as a society have allowed ourselves to be stuck in a time in our lives that was meant to be a transition, not a place to make one’s permanent home. Adolescence points beyond itself to mature adulthood. To try to remain in an adolescent state of mind is like choosing to live in one’s doorway – going neither in nor out. That goes nowhere. It becomes frustrating, a dead-end. It is no wonder that the Rolling Stones sang about getting no satisfaction. It is even less wonder that this song became so popular in its time. Its message is no less true now.  Why is it that, in an age of astonishing technological breakthroughs, drug addiction rates are increasing – and not only for illegal drugs. More and more people rely on anti-anxiety and anti-depressant pills. For some people, of course, there are neurological and biological reasons for this. They need the help that good medications offer. For others, could it not be that they sense that they are stuck and cannot find satisfaction by following our society’s ways? How many are searching for some alternative to give their lives some sense of meaning and direction?

Whenever we choose to live for ourselves, as St. Paul puts it, we find ourselves stuck in an adolescent state of mind. If one is fifteen years old, that is a normal state. But not if one is 30, or 50, or older. One needs to move through adolescence into a more mature, adult way of life.

How does that happen? What does such a life look like?

Paul would respond, in his usual thick language: “None of us lives for oneself, and none of us dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord.” Your life is not about you, as Bishop Robert Barron puts it. You and I have been made in the image and likeness of God. We find true freedom, and the purpose of our lives, not by being some lone wolf stuck in the doorway, but by giving ourselves over in faith and love to God and by belonging to God’s people. We are made to be in God’s image. Sin has distorted that image. Since we don’t know quite what we shall be (as St. John puts it), our task is to entrust our lives to God, so that God can undo the damages of sin and refashion us to be what we are intended to be. Only God knows who we really are. Placing our faith in God is not enslavement but true freedom. Freedom is not the lack of any constraints upon me. That’s just standing in the doorway. Freedom, rather, is the ability to become all that we are meant to be.  This is precisely what faith in God gives us.

This gift comes to us, not as individuals, but as members of the Church, the Body of Christ. When each of us believes that freedom is about getting our way and doing what we want, other people are rivals and threats. We seek other like-minded people merely as a means to get our way and/or to feel better than whoever “they” are. So many of our divisions and fights begin here. When we understand that each one of us belongs to God, we then realize that the other is not a rival to be feared but a gift to be welcomed.

It is very difficult to make the transition from freedom as lack of constraints to freedom as the ability to love and serve according to God’s call to us. The adolescent fantasy is very powerful in American culture. It is possible, however, to look at the story of the People of God from this perspective and see things that may help us now.

As the Book of Exodus opens, we read how the people of Israel became slaves in Egypt, and then how God called Moses to be the one through whom God would free them. As Moses leads the people, by God’s power, out of Egypt, they are in that transitory adolescent stage. They are no longer literal slaves. But who they shall be is not yet clear to them. God, who has freed them from physical slavery, gives them laws to teach them what freedom truly is. At times, the people are loyal. At other times, they rebel, even against God. They want to go forward, but at times they are tempted to return to Egypt.  At times, they are unified. At other times, they are divided among themselves. Whenever they are loyal to God and follow his laws, things go well. When they insist on their own way, things go less well. It should be easy for any of us to see at least some aspects of our own life’s story in the story of the people of Israel. We are on our own Exodus. There is an “Egypt” that would enslave us, and yet that appeals to us in some way. Through it all, God continues to call us to have faith in him, to follow his will, and to go (or remain) where he sends us.

The question in the Old Testament is the same question that we face: whose shall we be? Thinking that we can belong to ourselves is a tempting fantasy, but it is merely an illusion. We can’t live there for long. Sooner or later, something else will take hold of us and enslave us, even as it promises us “freedom”. We are meant to belong to God. It is God who gives us freedom in the fullest sense – the ability to discover our own call, our vocation, and then to follow that call whatever may come.  It is God who gives us a community of faith, to help each one discern God’s will and to support each one in living that out. May we trust in God, and in the people God has given to us.