“If you love someone, set them free.” Have you ever heard this phrase before? I know I heard it
a few times when I was a child, but the first time I really remember paying attention to it was when I
bought The Best of Sting album in college. I would listen to it when I hung out with my girlfriend of the
time, and I would always wonder whether it was God’s way of telling me that my girlfriend was going to
dump me. By the end of that following summer, I found out that it was.
Love can be such a fleeting thing, particularly when we’re talking about romantic love. Boy
meets girl; boy falls head over heels for girl; boy gets completely crushed when girl goes back to her ex-
boyfriend. Unfortunately, it isn’t any better when we start looking at marriage. Boy meets girl; boy
marries girl; boy fights with girl; boy and girl get a divorce and split up the kids between them. “If you
love someone, set them free.” I’m not sure getting a divorce is what the original speaker meant.
But what does it really mean to set someone free? Actor Kurt Russell and Actress Goldie Hawn
believe that it means they should never get married. For many years, including a few kids, they have
lived together without ever getting married because they believe that love should be what holds them
together, not some ceremony. If the worst comes and they need to part, they would let each other go
because, “if you love someone, set them free.”
All of this may seem to make sense, but where does commitment come into play? If all people
ever do is run away to assert their freedom, then how can anyone ever count on anyone else? No one is
always nice and easy to get along with. There are going to be times in life when a person just isn’t quite
as likeable as they used to be. Of course, my girlfriend is perfect all the time, but that’s just the
exception to the rule.
Anyway, the point is that, at some point in time, we all feel like stretching our freedom and
getting away, as if the people we were running from were the issue and not ourselves; but relationships
require commitment, even if it doesn’t always feel free. Ironically, Goldie Hawn’s daughter Kate Hudson
left her husband (the one she was madly in love with) for actor Owen Wilson, who later dumped her;
Owen Wilson, having “set her free,” attempted suicide as a result of his depression from the breakup.
“If you love someone, set them free.” Love is a difficult thing. Because of the movie industry,
love has been more readily viewed as being a flighty, nonsensical emotion that is free to come and go,
usually depending on hormones and circumstances. From James Bond to Austin Powers, there is a new
love interest with every movie, so no one has to be committed to anyone longer than two hours. But
maybe “setting someone free” doesn’t mean the same thing as deserting them.
In the infamous verse John 3:16, the apostle records one of Jesus’ most famous statements:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should
not perish, but have eternal life.” God loved the world – I guess that means that He must set the world
free. People are not required to know God or be committed to Him. If God really loves us, then He
must realize that we should have the freedom to do whatever we want, without any consequences.
But there is something interesting about John 3:16. Right after the phrase “for God so loved the
world,” there is a word in Greek that doesn’t translate into most English versions. The word is “hoo-
toas,” and it means “in this way.” John 3:16, as beautiful and meaningful as it already is in the English,
has a little more to offer than maybe we realize: “For God so loved the world in this way, that He gave
His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
But what is “this way” in which God loved the world? The answer lies not only in the rest of the
verse, but also in the verses before it: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the
Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” When Moses was leading
Israel through the wilderness, Israel was punished for its complaining against God by being attacked
with snakes. But when the people looked at the bronze snake Moses put on a pole, they were healed.
You see, Israel had been rescued time and time again by God, who had led them out of Egypt
and kept them safe through the wilderness. Time and time again, though, Israel felt “free” enough to
gripe at God for not providing for their every whim. Israel wanted to be “free” to do whatever they
wished, without any concern for God and His desires and plan for them. If God truly loved them, He
should “set them free”… but the freedom God had in mind wasn’t what they had in mind.
When Moses set that snake upon that pole, it was more than just a fancy decoration – it was a
prophecy. The snake was a snake, just like the snakes attacking the people, and snakes were used to
point out to the people that they were being destroyed by their sins, just like in the Garden of Eden. But
to bring salvation to the people, God used another snake – not a snake that brought death, but rather a
snake that brought life.
The same was true for Jesus. He was a second Adam, as the apostle Paul put it. But while the
first Adam brought death through sin, the second Adam brought life. But Jesus didn’t bring life by
letting everyone do whatever they wished, and He didn’t tell them they were “free” from consequences
and the need to follow God. He did “set them free,” but not by pushing them away – he set them free
by bringing them to Himself, so much so that it killed Him.
Jesus became a part of our world, and He took our sins, our evils, all the things that should drive
Him away, and put them upon Himself, as if He deserved them instead of us. And then, He let Himself
be killed for it. He didn’t set us free by running away from us – He set us free by embracing us. It wasn’t
easy, and it sure wasn’t some flighty feeling when He hung upon the cross. But that’s what real love is
about – being crucified to set someone free.
You see, when you love someone, you should set them free, but not by pushing them away
when things get tough. We should love someone by saying that, when things are hardest, we will love
them even more. And even if they never want to be near us again, we live with that cross, not so that
we can throw it back at them, but so that we can show them mercy, even as Christ has shown us mercy.
We have His Spirit, bringing us back to the cross and strengthening us to bear it just a little longer.
So love can be a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t set people free by running away from them
when things get tough. Love keeps us there, through thick and thin, even when the other person runs
from us. Because the only thing that can ever set anyone free is Christ Jesus, and the only way to point
people to Him is if we live as a testimony to His cross, His mercy, His commitment, and His love.