Instead of the usual coffees and beers that I drank on a very regular basis, I decided I'd try to go a full month where the only thing I drank was water. It was coming up to October and so I called it H2October. It was an interesting month. I guess starting work at 6am without coffee is hard at the best of times, but for that month I was working in a three cup cafÃ©, surrounded by all sorts of interesting international micro lot beans; and where out of habit or forgetfulness I'd be handed an espresso when I got to work which I had to decline. It was definitely a test in discipline.
As this October rolled around, I'd almost forgotten the experiment from the year before. But in the last couple of weeks of September I remembered my challenge and decided to try it again. This time I invited a few friends to join me – I sent out an email with three reasons why I thought it was a good idea:
1. It's good for your body to be well hydrated and not just receive caffeinated, alcoholic and sugary drinks.
2. It's a good quality to be disciplined and try things that are difficult
3. It's a good opportunity to test our dependence on things that we enjoy, to ensure that we're in control of them, not the other way around.
That last point is something I picked up from one of my lecturers in London, Christopher Ash. I remember he referenced a political cartoon from WWII, which depicted a miniature Hitler who was holding a huge Russian bear and saying, "I have caught a bear … and he won't let go". I think that image is very successful at demonstrating the duality of our 'freedom' – that sometimes the things that we choose of our own free will can soon become things that we can't not choose and our freedom is lost, ineffective, forfeited.
Take drugs for example. On the one hand a drug addict is completely free, they live their lives in the constant pursuit of their desires and frequently attain the hit they're after. The first time they tried the drug of their choice they liked it and they decided, they chose to do it again. But somewhere along the way those choices lost their autonomy, and before long you could almost hear them say, "I have chosen this drug … and he won't let go". They are continually choosing to do the things they're doing, but they've lost a different type of freedom, a deeper freedom, the freedom to go without. They can no longer choose good things of a bigger, more long-term, nature. Their choice of one experience has taken hold of them, and they have forfeited the freedom to now choose a career or health or financial and social stability.
But it needn't be as extreme as drug addiction. Even in our day to day as we get a coffee or RSVP to an event, perhaps as we think about buying a car or a house, or as we simply choose what we are going to eat or how fast we are going to drive – we have for so long pursued our own happiness and enjoyment that we are in danger of losing our freedom. We're lifestyle addicts who think we're free because we get what we want, but we can't see that these things we have taken hold of now have a hold on us.
It's a wonder that we need the maxim "money can't buy happiness", or that we are so surprised by the joy and generosity of people living in poverty in the Third World. As if after years in the almost involuntary pursuit of our desires we somehow expected to be happier in our slavery than those who haven't formed our same addictions.
This quasi-freedom that we hold onto is the most common objection I hear to Christianity. People can often see the truth and goodness and validity of Jesus, they can even want Christian joy and faith, but they won't follow Jesus themselves because they aren't ready to give up their 'freedom'. They talk as if the offer of eternal life isn't worth forgoing premarital sex, as if, in their 'freedom', they have a specific set of priorities that are incompatible with Jesus.
But they don't realize the awful truth that they can't choose to follow him; they are like a man in a cage graciously telling you that he'd rather not come on your walk in the mountains or your overseas trip because he's far too content where he is.
The truth is, that following Jesus is freedom, real freedom, deep freedom. Not the plastic freedom of slavery to your desires, but actual freedom; the liberty to pursue things of significance. He sets you free to choose health, to be whole, to have full life and eternal life. This is what Jesus offers when he says "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed", and he said it into a first century discussion of the slavery of our desires. Regardless of how comfortable the cages appear, two thousands years on it is still this freedom that our society so desperately needs.
Sam Manchester is a graduate from The University of Sydney, currently studying theology.
Sam's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-manchester.html