By Tyler McKenzie
Looking for relief from anxiety, depression, or something else? If you stop the right thing, it could move you toward the right results. We are a society sick off freedom. I want to argue that the opposite of what we think of as freedom (voluntary self-limitation) can heal our mental unhealth and also explore why our culture is at war with it.
Unobstructed personal freedom is gospel in our culture. It is the prescribed path to “salvation”—joy, peace, purpose, self-worth, and authentic living. In such an environment, there is a natural aversion to limitations. The frequent use of the First Amendment as a shield against our political enemies is the perfect illustration. Why do we love the First Amendment so? It’s a rule against rules. “My rights over your rules!” This summarizes the modern sentiment.
Oppression and repression have become barbed buzzwords you can stick others with when you don’t want to comply with them or resent their self-restraint. Never mind Jesus says that his love language is obedience (John 14:23-24). Never mind he explains that such obedience leads to “peace of mind and heart” that “the world cannot give” (John 14:27, New Living Translation). The seeds of this heretical freedom-gospel have been planted deep.
People parrot, “Follow your heart.” It’s the John 3:16 of our culture’s freedom-gospel. But do we even know what’s going on in there though? Probably not. That’s why therapists exist (and we are all realizing we need one). Go see a good therapist. Many will ask questions about your past. They may have you fill out something like a genogram which maps the generational sin, sickness, and trauma in your bloodline. When they look at that broken map you call your family tree, it’s going to take them about two minutes to say, “We got some work to do!” You don’t even know what is driving you. We all have all sorts of childhood issues and family trauma. Nature and nurture are working against us in ways we don’t even know exist.
A society that preaches “follow your heart and do what you feel” is a society that isn’t taking seriously your past and doesn’t care about your future. The principle here is deeply Christian. We believe that true freedom is found in good limitations. Giving up your lesser freedoms to a good set of rules leads to greater freedom.
This is where the conversation intersects with mental health. If our mental health struggles are at least partially spiritual problems, the most untapped and countercultural spiritual intervention may be to restrict your freedom. Find a good rule. Stop something! Resist a desire! Put yourself under spiritual authority! Try voluntary self-limitation. If you’re looking for relief from anxiety, depression, or something else, stopping the right thing can move you toward the right results.
Voluntary self-limitation is a powerful practice that remains largely untried. It involves what we might call “disciplines of disengagement.” They include practices like:
• fasting from something for 24 hours
• taking a Sabbath day each week from work
• limiting the quantity of your screen-intake
• curating the quality of your screen-intake
In the spirit of G.K. Chesterton, these Christian ideals have not been tried and found wanting. They have been found difficult and left untried.
Jesus is the ultimate example. Think of how his story is marked by voluntary self-limitation. It started when the divine Jesus was born to an unwed teenager. In so doing, he limited his omniscience and omnipotence. The Bible teaches young Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52). How does an all-knowing and all-powerful God grow in wisdom and stature . . . without some level of voluntary self-limitation?
Jesus grew up poor. The only place they had to lay him was in a feeding trough for livestock. The one who had all the riches of the heavenly realms became poor for us (2 Corinthians 8:9). How did one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills accept a bed covered in straw and manure . . . without some level of voluntary self-limitation?
Until age 30, Jesus lived an unspectacular life taking up the family trade as a construction worker. How did the one who built the universe become a builder of tables and roads . . . without some level of voluntary self-limitation?
Then at the age of 30, Jesus put down his hardhat and decided to become a traveling preacher whose disciples were average joes, social misfits, and spiritual vagabonds. How did the one who commands the worship of angelic legions find himself preaching to disinterested hearts and befriending betrayers . . . without some level of voluntary self-limitation?
He did it all in three short years before he was put to death by the governing powers. How could one who humbled pharaohs and kings be crucified by one . . . without some level of voluntary self-limitation?
How was an immortal eternal God killed . . . without some level of voluntary self-limitation?
Yet, he died. When he did, some believed he had lost the war, but Jesus knew that he had won it. He made a way for our peace that the world cannot give . . . through his voluntary self-limitation.
So, reflect today. Think of what he chose to lack for the love of God and humankind. In Jesus, we see a profound truth of God’s design. Peace, healing, power, joy, freedom, love, and greatness are found in voluntary self-limitation. One of the best ways to follow Jesus’ way is to imitate this. Limit your life within the will of God. Limit your life for the sake of others. The Spirit will provide peace of mind and heart.