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C.S. Lewis, in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” which is found in the collection of essays, God in the Dock, argues that we are all by nature time bound. This frailty will, of necessity, give us a parochial view of the world. We tend to confuse our current circumstances with what is “normal,” that is, we think the experiences of our lives are perfectly capable judges of ultimate reality. We therefore come to reading new books with the same prejudices and unexamined presuppositions as the author, and so have difficulty stepping outside ourselves. When we read older books, on the other hand, we run into the prejudices and presuppositions of another age, revealing not only them, but our own as well. Stepping out of our time in our reading, he argues, helps us step out of our unspoken and likely unhealthy assumptions.

Our parochialism, however, is not merely along the axis of time. We have a narrow view of things geographically as well. We can, in a sense, travel to other times through reading old books. To get to other places, literal travel will often do the trick. Of course, even here we are still more comfortable the closer to home that we are. Reading a one hundred-year-old book will not challenge us the same way a one thousand-year-old book will. Taking a trip to England won’t upset our equilibrium as much as say, a trip to Burma — which is where I was several months ago. 

Burma, now called Myanmar, is a third-world country in southeast Asia, nestled between India to its west and Thailand to its east. Eighty percent of the population is Buddhist, and the nation has been ruled by a military dictatorship for over thirty years. It is brutally poor. Last fall the government cut down hundreds of demonstrators who only wanted a touch of reform. It is a long way from the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I went there, however, to meet with and teach a group of faithful, local Christian leaders. As we made our way from the airport to the rundown motel where we stayed, I couldn’t help but think of what a difference it would make were these good people to be given some liberty. If only, I wondered, God would bless these people the way He once blessed our country, who knows what wonders they might do?

As time went on and I got to know my hosts and witness their ministry at work in that tragic land, my perspective changed. While freedom is a good thing and a blessing, what they have is far more valuable. These are men and women who are content in God’s grace. These are men and women whom we would see as the man robbed and left for dead along the road, but who see themselves as the Samaritan. We pity them, but they serve those who are truly in need. These are men and women whose love for each other constructs an alternate nation, a holy nation. In the midst of their poverty, they are a royal priesthood. While we might be able to export Western style democracy, they are sitting on a surplus of biblical fidelity, mutual love, and true Christ-honoring freedom that we so desperately need on our shores. We don’t need to go over there and rescue them. We need them to come and rescue us.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are wonderful things, blessings from the hand of God Himself. That said, Jesus tells us that if we would gain our lives, we must first die. Jesus tells us that it is His truth, not this political party or that, not this tax burden or that, that would set us free. Jesus tells us that we ought not to be pursuing happiness, but that instead we should seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Jesus tells us what His priorities are, what His standards are. He tells us how we are to live as citizens of the kingdom we are pursuing. His economy, the way He has ordered the world, is right side up. Our way of looking at things is both upside down and backwards.

It is backward to believe that we must secure a social order wherein we enjoy the blessings of liberty so that we can then grow in grace. It is an evil wagging of the dog, on the other hand, to pursue Christ so that we might enjoy greater political liberty. Instead, we must pursue Jesus. If we would be free from intrusive government, we must first be set free from our appetites, our idolatries, our desires for the things the pagans chase after. But if we pursue Jesus and find Him, just as my friends have in Burma, then even the yoke of political oppression is easy, the burden of grinding poverty is light. If we have the pearl of great price, hidden where neither rust, nor moth, nor thieves, nor bureaucrats can get at it, then we will no longer pursue happiness. We will have found it.

Jesus did not demand His rights, but gave them up. He now rules over all men. And he calls us to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.

Respectable Sins

Sweet Land of Liberty

Keep Reading Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

From the September 2008 Issue
Sep 2008 Issue