“ And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” –John 8:32
There was a time not so terribly long ago that I did not believe in God and practiced no religion. I had various reasons that seemed compelling at the time—anyway, they’re not particularly relevant.
I believed my lack of faith gave me an abundance of freedom compared to all the strictured, structured religious people around whom I grew up, with all their rules and behavioral regulations. Indeed, I believed that hedonism was categorically liberating. So I indulged my impulses; if it felt good, I did it.
There was only one problem with my theory: it ruined my life.
At age 30, I found myself without a respectable job, significant family ties, a meaningful romantic partnership, coping skills, or a dime to my name. What I did have was a mile-high pile of debts and bills I couldn’t pay, a string of broken-off affairs with men I never would’ve considered marrying (some of whom were already married), two pregnancies but no children, and a tendency to seek chemical solutions to my problems. I also had a massive supply of prescription painkillers and other heavy-duty medications, so, as was my habit, I turned to them to solve what I came to consider my biggest problem of all—that of being alive.
In sum, I took over 500 pills. The hospital staff tasked with untangling the aftermath of my actions agreed that my survival was nothing shy of miraculous.
* * *
I now look back on that time as my period of enslavement.
I was enslaved to my impulses—it wasn’t a matter of choosing to indulge them, rather, I felt compelled to do so. When one doesn’t believe there is anything bigger, better, or more powerful than oneself, one deifies one’s own desires, and becomes addicted to one’s vices. If life begins and ends with my own experience of it, then my whims are imbued with the gravity of divine decrees; there are no apparent eternal consequences for indulging them, nor is there evidently anything more sublime to pursue in their place. Thereby, in rejecting God, one makes little gods of one’s vices and oneself.
At first, these gods seem benevolent. Take, for example, the tribute paid to lust in the form of a one-night-stand. When you exchange those first few glances with your quarry, everything is mystery, intrigue, and the challenge of the hunt. Your heart beats faster; your brain turns cartwheels scheming up potential plotlines. And when the deal’s been sealed, and you’re on your way to the rendezvous, you feel triumphant, as though you have captured a rare animal for your own private zoo. And your thoughts, still spinning, sound something like this: This time, I’m really going to let go and have fun. This time is going to be the best one yet.
And then, the transformation begins. This rare animal you believe you’ve captured is his own personal god with his own deified desires and his own private zoo. You can “let go” all you want, but you’ll never “have fun” the way you hope to, because you mean just as much to him as he means to you—precisely nothing—and he, like you, is only there to indulge his own impulses.
And when the episode is over and the lights come on, the metamorphosis from enticing intrigue to awkward silence and cold corporeality is complete, and permanent separation is the only thing that can mollify both parties. One-night-stands last only a single night because neither party is interested in seeing the other again after what has transpired. It stands to reason that it must not have been all that spectacular—it definitely falls pitifully short of the fantasy you envisioned after those first exchanged glances.
And that is the god of lust showing its true, very ugly face. Rest assured, those hideous features run in the family—all of its brother and sister gods are equally grotesque.
* * *
People, even non-Christians (especially them, it sometimes seems), are terribly fond of quoting the scripture cited at the outset of this piece. We live in a time wherein truth as a concept has ceased to be defined as something binary, or even a binary thing qualified by degrees. Instead, “truth” has been re-defined as something relative—a thing about which it is perfectly valid to say, “You live your truth and I’ll live mine,” a statement that would have been considered harebrained jibberish not so very long ago.
In a time such as this, “The truth will set you free,” is a very handy quote to bandy about when one is attempting to validate, even glorify, addiction to his/her vices. One example of this is the LGBTQ community’s adoption of the pop song “Truth Will Set U Free” as a “pride” anthem.
The people who use this quote in such a manner are making the same mistake I did—they are defining “freedom” as the ability to act on every impulse, and indulge every whim. But is this the true face of freedom?
Dictionary.com provides five definitions of “freedom” that are relevant to this conversation:
- the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint
- the power to determine action without restraint.
- personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery
- the absence of or release from ties, obligations, etc.
- exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.
None of those definitions apply to the kind of “freedom” pursued by most people in today’s world—the same fraudulent freedom I once followed with a focused, fiery passion that wound up burning not only me, but many unfortunates who crossed my path.
The first and third definitions initially sound fitting but, having once been imprisoned by vice, I can assure you, they aren’t. One who has deified desire may not wear visible shackles, but he/she is nonetheless bound.
When one knows no higher good than the fleeting pleasure provided by the senses, one is enslaved to the wants thereof. When one knows life is short, is convinced nothingness is all that awaits after death, and believes that pleasure is the meaning of the brief one-act play one believes life to be, one feels one must seize every opportunity to appease one’s senses, and experiences a sense of hollow failure at every missed opportunity to do so. Such an existence is certainly one of confinement—confinement within one’s own cycle of wanton vice, followed by empty despair.
And such an existence fails to match definitions two and four for the same reasons; addiction to vice inhibits one’s decision-making ability and obligates one to serve the vices to which one is addicted. Just as a junkie is essentially a robot programmed with one function—to seek and ingest drugs—one whose sole ambition is the pursuit of sensual pleasure is also a monofunctional entity, constrained by an obligation to gratify one’s impulses. Although that person is theoretically free to choose self-control and self-denial, doing so would be perfectly contrary to that person’s modus vivendi, and would seem absurd to him or her.
Definition number five is disqualified in much the same manner. When one is addicted to vice, that vice and the activities and people involved in the pursuit thereof run the show. For example, if one is addicted to drugs, the drugs, and the endless tail-chasing game of trying to obtain one’s next fix, are in charge. If one is addicted to lust, the tools of that vice—be they pornography and/or other commercialized sex, extramarital or premarital partners, etc.—dictate the parameters of the addict’s choices and actions. For someone addicted to greed, the means of accumulating wealth—a lucrative job, a wealthy potential mate, the ups and downs of the stock market, etc.—direct the movie of that person’s life.
No, the type of “freedom” championed by virtually every facet of contemporary culture is nothing more than a glittering, brightly colored, heavily perfumed, exorbitantly expensive set of handcuffs.
Luckily for us, a key to those handcuffs does exist. And it’s the same key that unlocks the doors to true freedom.
* * *
So, what does true freedom look like? Well, all those people so quick to quote the 32nd verse of John 8 would do well to read it in context (quoted from the Douay-Rheims—emphasis added):
31 Then Jesus said to those Jews, who believed him: If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed.
32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
33 They answered him: We are the seed of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to any man: how sayest thou: you shall be free?
34 Jesus answered them: Amen, amen I say unto you: that whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.
35 Now the servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the son abideth for ever.
36 If therefore the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.
Obviously, verse 32 is not some blanket authorization for an anything-goes, I’m-okay-you’re-okay approach to life. Quite the contrary—two verses later we’re warned that sin enslaves. And, far from the free-to-be-you-and-me-style, relativistic, tripe-tinged slogan into which it has been misshapen, verse 32 is an assurance that if we follow the teachings of Christ, we will be made free. Not if we “follow our hearts,” or “live authentically,” or “live our truths.” No, this warranty only covers folks who are trying to sync their heartbeats with that of the Sacred Heart, and are living authentically Christian lives according to His truth—which, after all, is the only Truth.
I can hear my twenty-something self—someone steeped in the modern mindset and a product of contemporary morality—instantly object to that last statement: “But that’s not freedom! That’s the tyranny of conformity, and repression via behavioral regulation.”
This is what I would say to my former self:
Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of fear and despair. Feeding my vices necessitated a lifestyle that prevented me from building any kind of security—be it financial, emotional, interpersonal, or spiritual. That led to many sleepless nights spent either worrying about how I was going to pay the bills, or crying myself sick over the profound sense of emptiness which lurked around every psychological corner, threatening to engulf me.
All of that changed the very first day I followed through on my desire to go to Mass. That night I slept like a baby. And I have just about every night since. I call that freedom—freedom from worry, freedom from despair.
Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of anger and heartbreak. I was bitter and brokenhearted about all of the injustice and cruelty in the world, and the fact that nothing ever seemed to be done about it. And I felt helpless in the face of it all, which only served to feed those feelings of melancholy and rage. I was trapped in a vicious cycle.
That changed when I learned the reason why injustice and cruelty exist, that they are temporary, and that I can do something about them through offering up my suffering and prayer. This empowered me to break that vicious cycle. I call that freedom.
Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of isolation and alienation. I felt detached from the people around me, as I seemed to have little in common with them, and did not sense any deeper spiritual connection with them. I felt profoundly lonely, but I didn’t know how to change it.
Coming into the Church provided me with an instant spiritual family and a community of people whom I could love and be loved by. Learning about the Communion of Saints showed me I was wrong about feeling disconnected, opening my eyes to the very real spiritual bonds between us all. It showed me I need never feel lonely again, because I never will be, and never have been, alone. I call that freedom—freedom from the oppression of isolation.
Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of my vices. I saw no reason not to indulge them—indeed, I felt obliged to do so—because I viewed this life as the main event rather than the opening act, and did not know of anything more meaningful than simple sensual pleasure. The pursuit of that pleasure led me to personal ruin, and caused significant harm to many people caught in the wake of my careening voyage. I was miserable, but I didn’t know any other way to live—I didn’t know the secret of happiness, so I was a slave to sorrow.
The Church explained the true meaning of free will, the existence of a life to come, and the joy that comes from following the path we were created to travel. I learned that free will is not just about being at liberty to do as one pleases; it’s about analyzing the consequences and potential benefits of all options in light of not only one’s personal needs and wants, but those of all involved parties as well, and making informed decisions with those factors in mind. It’s about avoiding mistakes, but having the safety net of God’s mercy to catch us when we stumble, and reinstate us when and if we have the humility to admit fault and the resolve to repent. It’s about choosing the greatest good for the most people rather than selfish fleeting pleasures—not by force, but because, as a person of conscience, that’s actually the choice that provides more lasting satisfaction. It’s about aiming high for the afterlife, rather than below the belt for the present life. And yes, it’s about having the freedom to choose not to do any of those things, but knowing that there will be eternal consequences for that choice.
I call that freedom.
And that is the truth that sets men free. At least, it’s a small part thereof. It’s not about confessing some tawdry misdeed or personal predilection, then using that to justify a life of iniquity. The former, although factually true, is not Truth, and the latter is not freedom, not really.
Having traversed the path from fraudulent freedom into the legitimate liberation only Our Lord can provide, I hope that all my former shipmates successfully make the journey, too. Please join me in praying for them—it’s something they desperately need, and will not do for themselves.
“Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy…”