Freedom is an abstract concept that urges one to enter philosophical heights and theological debates, where it is easy to evade the question how we are affected by it, says László Thoma, when asked why they opted for “SzabadON” (BeFreed - which literally means “freely”, but the capitalization of the last letters adds playfulness to the term) as the motto of this year’s Starpoint Reformed Youth Festival, instead of simply using the word “freedom”. The keynote speaker of the event, however, does not avoid the serious questions concerning freedom, and together with the organizers aims to inspire festivalgoers to develop a meaningful internal dialogue with regard to the theme. With Rev. Thoma, who is also the pastor of Gazdagrét, we discussed issues of individual freedom, the misconceptions regarding “Christian freedom”, as well as opportunities for finding common ground.
In your view, what is freedom?
Let me approach this term from two different directions: firstly, from the perspective of what is going to be discussed at Starpoint. The starting point of how we define freedom is why this is a question here and now – while at the same time it is a really simple thing as we all want to be free in our own way. I am going to bring up this issue on the first morning of the festival. During our discussions with the working group in charge of the theme, we realized that freedom is not necessarily a positive slogan for everyone; on the contrary, some find it downright scary – this was a sobering realization for us. On the second day of the festival we are going to examine how freedom is present in our culture, in the environment that surrounds us. How we absorb the various interpretations of freedom from our childhood days on, which – whether we notice it or not – influence what we think about freedom. This often clashes with the biblical definition of freedom and concept of man, which is why it is difficult to understand and internalize the Gospel. And on the third day we are going to discuss how Christ gives us freedom, and how the freedom of one who lives in Him differs from the freedom of those who do not follow Him. In a nutshell, these thoughts are the main points of Starpoint’s message, which will be nuanced by the evening worships, and the small group discussions will provide opportunities to go more in-depth. And now, what does freedom mean to me personally? I am learning as I go along. I cannot consider this question independently of the fact that I am a follower of Christ and a child of God – which is the greatest freedom of all. The Gospel provides an answer to the greatest captor and restrainer: sin and death. This is the starting point of it all. And on the level of everyday life the key is authenticity: if you are authentic, you are free.
You talk about biblical freedom, but in various public debates we often hear the expression “Christian freedom”. Is this a valid concept? Is it not the case that there is only freedom, without any qualifying adjectives?
I believe this always depends on the context. This topic is worth discussing even with people are not followers of Christ, or are in various stages of faith development. The word has a different meaning to a Christ follower than to a non-follower. To the former, freedom means, and this may sound harsh, that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…” (Gal 2:20). Out of gratitude and of my own free will I give up my freedom and follow Him. On the other hand, He often gives people space in following Him, so we do not have to live under constant pressure, with burdens and limits – but freedom cannot be interpreted without a certain framework. Think of a river: if the riverbed is not regulated, the river becomes destructive. The same applies to freedom: without a riverbed or riverbank, there comes destruction. The problem, as I see it, is that when it comes to the public discussion of Christian freedom, only individual opinions and thoughts are expressed, which has little to do with what Christ calls us to do.
How can we clarify the meaning of freedom, removing the added distorting layers? How can we represent the truly Christian viewpoint in society in a way that the message reaches the recipients?
I think that in every such case we must enter into dialogue. Connecting with others and starting a dialogue should be separated from the situation when a preacher is articulating divine truths. In the case of the latter it is important to have an internal dialogue – I myself will also ask questions at Starpoint that participants will have to answer internally, and then get the chance to discuss their feelings in small groups. There has to be a dialogue in which we tell the grand story, what God’s plan is with the Gospel, what salvation means. True freedom is inspired by the Holy Spirit. As the Scripture puts it: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor 3:17). We can always reach a certain point in a discussion by providing arguments and examples. But real understanding, a change in thinking, true internal freedom can only be brought about by the Holy Spirit. As Reformed devotees we believe that the Word of God we hear and the Holy Spirit jointly inspire freedom and the understanding of God’s truth.
The concept of freedom is linked to redemption. The entire Old Testament is infused with the motif of fighting for freedom or redemption, and one of the epithets of Jesus is Redeemer. How can we, who view ourselves as strong and independent, face the fact that we live in captivity?
If one feels that they are strong and say that only the weak are in need of redemption, then as a pastor and Christian my answer is: “I am glad you are strong. Your strength is from the Lord. The fact that you feel strong and free is an enormous gift. God rejoices with you in that!” The way of the mission is not to say: “No, you are in fact not strong at all.” Of course, such people are in reality not strong yet – but they are not aware of it, and it is not through emphasizing this fact that they can get closer to the Gospel. Put yourself in their shoes: when we are questioned, all we do is take a step back and resist. When God holds up a mirror in front of us, confronting us with our sins and our captivity, it is different from our own efforts inasmuch as He does this out of fatherly love, and offers a solution right away with His grace and love. We ourselves may be motivated by love when we ask our questions, but we still might come off as confrontational. Everybody can relate to how much we desire to be free on the national, community or family level here in East Central Europe, in Hungary – not only on the basis of history books but also from personal family histories. During the time of Reformation, some Reformers noticed an interesting parallel between the histories of Jews and Hungarians. In the Old Testament, Jews were taken captive as a punishment from God. When God forgave them, their exile was over and they could return home. When Hungary was occupied by the Ottomans, Reformed preachers drew a parallel with Old Testament times, saying that if we returned to God, He would remove the Ottomans and restore our freedom. We can turn to God in light of historical events. It might be a platitude but it is still true: the fact that the Hungarian community has survived in the Carpathian Basin is a great miracle and a special grace of God.
This all sounds very simple: God offers us freedom, which is available to us. And yet many feel that this is captivity itself because they only see the limits you have mentioned before. Why is this so, and how can this contradiction be resolved?
A lot of Christian communities and pastors, often for years or even decades, perhaps with the best of intentions, spoke of the freedom in God in a way that it was unappealing. It is terrible when sin is never even mentioned, because without it grace cannot be understood. But it is just as terrible when nothing but sin is being talked about. During the forty years of Communist dictatorship, the church was constantly marginalized and persecuted. In such situations it is common to turn inwards, and communities easily become isolated. It is a formidable task not to become too closed off, but at the same time to preserve some limits and not to let everything in from the outside. This is one of the reasons. And the other reason is that it is not easy even for Christians to find the balance in what is allowed and what is not. We must struggle over and over again to find what freedom means to us, and how we are able to live with the freedom received in Christ. There is no recipe for this.
Many argue that there is no true freedom when we talk about creation and predestination.
The fact that the world was created by God is the first and foremost step in the Bible’s narrative. I myself have questions in connection with this, but this is the starting point of the great story, so we can accept it. Even if we do not accept it, it remains a fact. We can also initiate a conversation from a scientific point of view, and in this regard we can probably not support creation in every aspect, but what we can do is pose questions and question major, scientifically approved theories. As for predestination, we can read it in the first chapter of Ephesians: God predestined us all to be redeemed in Christ. This is what predestination primarily means to me personally. We do not have a choice in the fact that salvation is in Christ. I can accept if someone thinks otherwise, but as a Christian I cannot change my opinion because it is written in the Scripture. And as far as so-called double predestination goes, there can be theological debates there as well. What I find exciting about it is that it belongs to the realm of God, and we are confronted with the question of His omnipotence. And it is at that point that I bend my knee before the Lord with humility and say: You know best, my Lord. In the end, the question for me is whether I accept the omnipotence of God, whether at this point as God’s creature I bend my knee: if He decided to do so, it is the best thing that can happen to man – even if I do not understand it. We will not get the full picture. A concise view of God and the world always neglects certain aspects of reality.
What kind of freedom are we offered by God?
A kind that we cannot even imagine. This is what the Scripture says about heaven: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived, the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1Cor 2:9). Above and before all else, at Starpoint and as a pastor in general it is my duty to spread the word that God reconciled with man in Christ, and invites us to have a relationship of love with Him. It is poignant that it is up to this point that I am able to lead people: nobody can be brought to the Kingdom of God, we all have to enter it individually. What I pray for is to try to convince people not with the help of human effort but with Christ’s love, with the naturalness, authenticity and power with which He addressed me. I frequently experience that people get defensive when I tell them that something they are doing is not right but in fact a sin – and then after a while they come back to tell me: now they understand. As I have said before: it is the Holy Spirit that convinces us about freedom. It also convinces us about the reality of sin – and then we are able to give ourselves up. Seeing the myriad of pitfalls in this phase of our lives, we often try to shield young people from misusing their freedom, from going to extremes. But the fact of the matter is, we have all been through things that nobody was able to shield us from. It is not with overprotection that we can help, but first of all with drawing their attention to the love relationship: they can seek out God even when they feel not worthy at all, and secondly, if we as individuals and as congregations or church are open and inclusive, even if they have left – so that there is a way back for them. Just like in the story of the prodigal son: no distance from the parental house is too large to return. And the details are for God to see.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international delegates, who have been invited since 2009, won't be able to attend Starpoint this year. The 2021 Starpoint Reformed Youth Festival takes place on 27-31 July in Debrecen, focusing on the theme "Freedom".