Connections 05.29.2022: What We Mean by Freedom

Acts 16:16-19, 25-34

It’s hard to write on days (weeks, months, years) like this, when the heaviness of current events makes any attempt at meaningful words feel futile. I know it’s hard to teach and to preach at times like this, to offer both condolence and challenge where each is needed. It can even be hard to pray when our thoughts are muddled and words won’t come.

It can also be hard to “just” read Scripture at times like this. When we try to “just” read Scripture when the world is hurting and broken—when the world seems to be reeling wildly off course—the Scripture may speak to us in ways we do not expect or even want. It may console us. And it may challenge us. And we need both.

This week’s Scripture is a story of freedoms. We like that word, freedom, a lot. It’s a rallying cry, a nostalgic lyric, a declaration. And sometimes it is a double-edged sword.

First, Paul frees a slave girl from a spirit that has possessed her. This seems straightforward; surely freedom from a spirit is always a good thing. But the girl—and the spirit—did nothing but tell the truth about the apostles and “very much annoy” Paul. What does freedom mean to a girl whose usefulness is that spirit? Her owners are so angry that they drag Paul and Silas to the magistrates… imagine how much worse they will likely treat their now-useless servant.

By freeing themselves of the annoying girl, the two apostles lose their own freedom, landing in prison on a charge of “disturbing our city” by “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans” (v. 21). Then, in one of the great uplifting stories of the Bible, an earthquake breaks their chains and opens the prison doors. The apostles opt not to escape to freedom, though; instead, they wait for their jailer’s amazed reaction and speak “the word of the Lord to him and all who were in his house” (v. 32). Spiritually speaking, they offer ultimate freedom to the one whose job was keeping the jailhouse secure.

There’s condolence here: holy earthquakes shaking loose the chains and rattling open the doors.

There’s challenge, too: is it right to claim what I think is freedom for myself when my freedom endangers someone else?

Most of all, there are conundrums: can I assume that everyone means the same thing I do by freedom, and that they experience freedom the same way I do? How can I practice freedom and humility at once? When I am offered freedom, should I always take advantage of it? Does God ever call me to give up my chance at freedom so that I can see and join in where God is still at work?

Discussion

  • How can we pray with and reflect on the Scriptures in times when current events and biblical stories intersect? Do we tend to turn to the Scriptures only for consolation, or are we willing to be challenged too? What about the conundrums—how do we engage the texts that raise questions but offer no obvious answers?
  • Reflect on all the different experiences of freedom in this text: the slave girl freed from the spirit (though not freed from her owners), Paul and Silas losing their freedom in prison, the gift of freedom through the earthquake, the apostles’ refusal to take advantage of that freedom. What does freedom mean to each character in this text? How do all their individual freedoms coincide and affect one another? How do individual freedoms exist in a community where our lives, choices, and freedoms have impacts on those around us?
  • It might be tempting to focus on freedom only as a spiritual, eternal gift of God. How do our experiences of earthly freedoms—and our care for those who lack freedom here and now—help us to glimpse the true freedom God offers all?

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is the lead editor of Connections. She is a graduate of Samford University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and as a military spouse has had nine (at last count) different hometowns in the past 20 years. She and her husband Scott and sons Sam and Levi live in the Washington D.C. area. In recent years, Nikki has written Smyth & Helwys curricula as well as devotionals for d365.org and Baptist Women in Ministry. She weaves clergy stoles, knits almost anything, and dreams of making her dreadful novel drafts into readable books. She blogs about faith and making things at amovingyarn.com.

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