Freedom, Limits, and the ‘Right’ to Happiness

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Not long ago, I wrote about the American Dream turning on itself due to our changing definitions of “freedom” and “happiness.” We’ve moved away from the idea of freedom for something to freedom from everything—any constraint that would stop us from being or doing whatever we want in life.

The commonsense wisdom of our day says that we have a “right” to happiness and freedom as we define it (so long as our freedoms don’t hinder the freedoms of others). But when we expand our understanding of freedom in this way, or turn happiness into a right instead of a gift, we find ourselves out of line with the Bible’s perspective on the world.

We Are Created

Scripture reminds us we are creatures. We are created. It is God who has made us, and not we ourselves. For this reason, the idea that we have unlimited freedom or the right to all the happiness we can imagine is simply unworkable. Reality doesn’t bow to our imagination.

Consider this example. We could imagine a biological man who longs to experience the wonder and awe of giving birth, but no matter how deep his desire, his freedom is limited, and he has no “right” to the happiness that comes from delivering a baby. The possibility of pregnancy is unavailable to him. His freedom and his pursuit of happiness is limited by his sex.

We can multiply the examples of how freedom and the pursuit of happiness only work within limits. Self-help books tell me that I can be whatever I want to be, but it’s rather obvious that I will never be a star basketball player. I’m not built for that sport. What’s more, the older I get, the more my options narrow, and the limits on my life become clearer. We can resist these limitations as hindrances to our happiness, or we can find freedom within them. The choice is ours.

True Nature of Happiness

But it’s not just our bodily existence, the reality of aging, or the narrowing of options that reminds us that we can’t be anything we want to be in life. The nature of freedom and happiness are bound up with being bound. When you choose one path, you reject another. We cannot choose all options.

Much of the anxiety that plagues younger Americans comes from the notion that freedom means unlimited choice. We think we are free when we keep open all possible futures. And so we get anxious when we consider the options we’ve not chosen, or we see the lives of people around us who go different paths.

We want our loves to bind us, but we also want a boundless love. We want the stability that comes from marriage, while we want the freedom to remain single and keep our options open. We want the emotional connection that comes from being parents, while we want the flexibility and ease of not being tied down. We want closeness of friends and community, while we resist any obligation that would impinge upon our personal space and time. We want happiness but without investment.

Mark Sayers sees this problem throughout Western societies: 

Our culture is depleted and burned out because it rebels against the God-given limitations placed on it. Individuals are depleted because we refuse to live within the fields that God has given us. Instead, we burn ourselves out seeking greater freedom and autonomy.

Outside Order

The only way to experience any happiness is to forgo the possibility of all happiness. The road out of this morass of meaninglessness is through embracing the right kind of limitations and ordering our lives according to a standard outside ourselves.

Overstepping our bounds does not lead to freedom, but merely creates new limitations that will hinder our freedom down the road. To reject an outside standard is not to free ourselves, but to create a new set of chains.

Commenting on this paradox in Shakespeare, G. K. Chesterton wrote:

“The first philosophical significance of [Macbeth] is this: that our life is one thing and that our lawless acts limit us; every time we break a law we make a limitation. In some strange way hidden in the deeps of human psychology, if we build our place on some unknown wrong, it turns very slowly into our prison.”

In trying to escape the prison of natural limitations, we act lawlessly and build a prison of unnatural limitations. This isn’t the path to happiness, but to anxiety and despair.

In contrast, we find the road to happiness in recognizing that we don’t have a “right” to this or that experience, but that life is a gift and our pursuits should line up with what we were made for. Happiness comes not from pursuing freedom from all constraints, but from finding freedom within God-given constraints. It’s not a freedom from but a freedom for.

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