Tuesday
Nov152011

A Spirit of Slavery

Slavery was defended as America’s “peculiar institution,” during the Civil War, an arrangement so at odds with our Constitution and convictions that it required special, if absurd, explanation.

Slavery, of course, is seldom a chosen lifestyle among human beings, who generally yearn to breathe free, whether they are escaping oppressive political systems, overbearing spouses, low wages, or whip-cracking taskmasters.

A possible exception emerges in the Bible, at first literally in the Exodus people of Israel, whose exit from Egyptian bondage was hampered by their hungry wandering and melancholy nostalgia for the leeks and onions of Pharaoh’s paradise. There they had bent, but not broken, under a terrific burden of brick-making and religious suppression; their cries were heard by a merciful God who sent them Moses to lead them to a Promised Land. While their spirits were willing, their bellies were weak, and cravings and doubts conspired to enslave them anew.

From this, a metaphorical brand of slavery develops, even as God guides the scheme of salvation through the Law of Moses and into the gospel era. Slavery becomes an appropriate way of describing a perverse dependence upon the tempter for the satisfaction of wicked and self-destructive yearnings, as well as the resulting guilt and disillusionment that shackle the wayward believer to iniquity. A spirit of slavery is surely undesirable, but is apparently inescapable where human weakness prevails.

Our God no more wants us to live as slaves to malevolence than he did the Hebrews in Egypt. The Moses he sent for us is equal to the task of liberating, not mere thousands, but billions of souls from a taskmaster far more infamous than Pharaoh:

 

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)

 

Slavery to sin is a surrender to the flesh, an ill-fated compact with the devil by which indulgence is supplied at the price of eternity. The remorse and dread that follow illustrate the folly of the bargain, but a renewal of passing pleasures and demonstration of the difficulty of liberation serve to perpetuate the unhappy enslavement. It is the very spirit of the believer that is different – that is made different – by the power of grace and submission to the guidance of Christ:

 

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:13-15 ESV)

 

The spirit of slavery is indulgent, pessimistic, corrupted, selfish, and myopic. It is a spirit of fear, for guilt attaches to it like barnacles to the hull of a rusty trawler. The spirit of faith, however, is contented and self-controlled, able to see past the addictiveness of instant gratification to the promise of eternal life, “ for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (Second Timothy 1:7).

Many have exalted at the liberation which the gospel brings, only to find themselves enticed and shackled again after a few weeks or even years. Like the Exodus pilgrims, their recollections of slavery grow hazy – the horrors are muted and the indulgences are magnified beyond anything reasonable or accurate. At the same time, the hardships and sacrifices of the arduous journey toward Canaan are immediately tangible and seemingly unbearable. Hope grows distant and faint and defeat can seem so inevitable that the struggle hardly seems worth the effort. Christians can fall prey to old habits, new errors, or their own pessimism – regardless, 

 

if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (Second Peter 2:20-21 ESV)

 

An effective enslaver is skilled at making bondage seem acceptable – like a trapper fooling his prey long enough to capture it, all the while intending its consumption. We should not be so ignorant of the tempter’s reclamation schemes, but at times, we are discouraged enough to prefer the fowler’s net to the wide open spaces of hope and faith. The spirit of slavery sees giants and unassailable obstacles en route to Canaan; the spirit of faith never wavers; “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).