Have you ever been told you had to do something and immediately you wanted to do the complete opposite? How about this; if I asked you to sign a petition about something you were mildly in favor of would you sign it? You say to yourself, “Maybe or maybe not!” Let me add this to the mix. What if I told you someone was proposing a city ordinance limiting people from being able to sign petitions like the one I just asked you to sign. Are you more likely to sign that petition? You bet you are! Madeline Heilman, a research psychologist demonstrated this very fact in her study called “Oppositional behavior as a function of influence attempt intensity and retaliation threat” in 1976. Her study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and basically found the more you feel your freedom to choose something is threatened the more likely you are to perform the task. Similar studies gave birth to a phenomenon psychologists call the “Romeo and Juliet Effect.” If you ever had a son or daughter wanting to date someone you didn’t like and you insisted they weren’t allowed to do so you know what I’m talking about. The more a parent insists their teenager is not allowed to date someone the more attractive that other individual becomes.
As interesting as these studies are anyone who has ever read the book of Genesis doesn’t find them all that surprising. From the start of Genesis we read about restrictions being placed on freedom and when these restrictions are intentionally highlighted they become the downfall of the human race. Adam and Eve are told they can partake of anything God created in the garden EXCEPT eating from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17). For the most part they obey that limitation. However, when the serpent asks Eve, “Hey, what are you not allowed to do? You mean God said you can’t eat from a particular tree? That doesn’t seem fair.” (Genesis 3:4-5) a subtle shift occurs in Eve’s resolve. Just like those individuals in Heilman’s study, once this limitation on freedom appeared more restrictive Eve’s perceived freedom to eat what she liked became more important than obeying God. Basically human psychology hasn’t changed much since the beginning of time.
The spiritual lesson to learn from all this is not to confuse freedom with slavery. If our reaction is to naturally rebel against what we perceive as limitations placed on our freedom we’re not really exercising a free choice, right? In fact, we’re merely reacting to our natural inclination to do more of what someone says we can’t do in an almost deterministic way. This is nothing more than slavery to the forces of our unconscious mind. Too often we view our relationship with God as a relationship that places limitations on what we can and cannot do. We tell ourselves, “I’m a Christian and I can’t do that, believe that, say that, etc.” That’s a dangerous position to take because Satan is right next to you just as he was with Eve saying, “You can do that, you won’t die if you do that….” When your Christian experience consists merely of instructions about what you should and shouldn’t do you’re more likely to do more of whatever you think is limiting your freedom. There’s a healthier way to understand your relationship with God. That healthier way is to experience God in the context of love.
God gave you freedom so you could use it to express radical love. Freedom is really only freedom when you use it to choose love; anything less than that is probably a reaction against something else. I can never force you to love me. If I say you must love me, you can say no. If I say you cannot love me guess what, it doesn’t elicit the Romeo and Juliet Effect, you still won’t love me! Only you can choose to love me, I can’t command it, trick you into it, and I can’t demand it from you. God created us this way because to experience true love you have to be able to freely choose it. It’s the one true act of freedom human beings can perform. Everything else has some element of determining principles mixed up with the choice.
Don’t believe just because you can disobey God you’re able to exercise freedom. All you’re doing is falling into a type of unconscious cognitive trap identified in the studies above. If you want to experience true freedom learn to love well. By loving God first and your neighbor as yourself you’re truly living in freedom, even when it feels like the most restrictive thing you can do. The reason love is the only truly free choice you make is because it’s the one thing you were created to do. You were created by a God who is love, to be an incarnational expression of love, and to love him and your fellow human beings in a radical way. Being truly free occurs when you fulfill this vocation to love not by doing things you have convinced yourself you are free to do. Live the vocation of love and experience what true freedom is all about.