We’ve been remade through a re-birth; we’ve become new creations and given new hearts; and the walls that imprisoned us have been bulldozed. And yet . . . we still fear our bosses, speak harshly to friends, dwell on anxious thoughts, and obsess about ourselves. Why is that?
Years ago I read an article written by a counselor who worked with concentration camp victims shortly after World War II. The sheer breadth of the war’s destruction restricted the Allies’ ability to help feed and shelter people, so refugee camps were built for the victims.
The counselor noted that many of the victims in the refugee camps acted as though they were still in prison. While they had been freed from the camps, they asked permission for the smallest liberties, such as a nighttime stroll outside their dormitories. The therapist made this observation:
We took the victims out of the camps in an instant,
but it may take decades before the camps are taken out of the victims.
Their story is our story. God has opened the prison doors on the outside, but we still need him to free us from the prisons walls within.
The inner prison dilemma
Do you ever wonder why we still do what we do? We’ve been given new hearts, but we ignore our friends or we bristle at their tiniest correction of us; or we scratch and claw for recognition or succumb to that enticing temptation for the seventeenth time this month. Or week.
When we recognize how badly we just acted, what is our typical reaction? We either try self-speak or we despair. (Unless, of course, we simply refuse to admit the pain we inflict on others.)
First we try to buoy up our sinking spirits with an inner, positive pep-talk. We say: “I’ve been born again,” “I have a good heart,” or “I’ve been baptized in the Holy Spirit.” Our self-talk works for a time, but the feelings don’t last. And pretty soon we’re criticizing our spouse again.
Or we despair when we read, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). We honestly acknowledge the darkness of our walk—and the pain it causes others—and we stagger into gloom.
The concentration camp counselor experienced the same problem with the concentration camp victims. She repeatedly told them that the camps were demolished and that they were free. Yet the former prisoners continued to defer to the therapists as though they were prison guards.
Like us at times, when the pep-talks failed, the therapist despaired.
And then . . .
One day a maimed Allied soldier visited the refugee camp to find a long lost cousin. When the former prisoner saw his cousin’s debilitating wounds, something inside just broke. He whispered, “You suffered for me? You sacrificed your body to set me free?”
The therapist noticed an instant change in the former prisoner: he stood taller, he acted less subservient, he took more initiative, and he smiled more. Inner walls had begun to crumble.
The therapist began to ask other grievously wounded soldiers to share their own stories of hard-fought battles, and she took busloads of former prisoners to Allied gravesites. And bit by bit, victim by victim, inner prison doors began to open. What they had only heard about became real.
The former victims shook off victimhood, and their fears morphed into peace.
So what does this have to do with us?
Sometimes all we need is a gentle reminder of the truth: We’ve been made into new creatures with God-given hearts and the gift of God’s Spirit dwelling within us.
But usually we need that truth to penetrate a little deeper, for its roots to reach our inner being, to be captured again by the love of the one who set us free. We need it to become real. It’s his love that frees us (over and over) not our self-talk.
The way to gain inner freedom is to visit his gravesite and gaze on the wounds of The Soldier who set us free. It’s not the self-proclamations of “I’m free” and “I’ve been made new” that we need; at least not as much as a deep heart knowledge of the love of the one who did it.
We need to know the love of Jesus. It’s what set us free in the first place, and it’s what continues to set us free from our inner prisons. John Donne wrote a sonnet that answers our need for inner freedom. He ends it with,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.