Richard Lovelace, 17th Century English soldier and poet, was twice imprisoned for his royalist sympathies during the time of Oliver Cromwell.
During the first of these sojourns in prison he wrote the poem, To Althea – From Prison, which includes the famous lines:
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
The poem is about the way in which the human heart and spirit can be set free by the power of love and so transcend the particular circumstances of a person’s life at any given time.
The poem concludes with the words:
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.
Paul and Silas had a similar experience when they were imprisoned in Philippi. They too were surrounded by stone walls and iron bars, their legs locked in chains.
In spite of their predicament, the inner freedom of the spirit they enjoyed was expressed through prayer and the singing of hymns.
By God’s power, they were also set free from the physical confines of that prison and were able to continue their apostolic and evangelistic ministry.
And there were others who were also freed from their personal prisons at that time. A young woman was both healed and released from the bondage of slavery, and a prison guard and his family came to faith in Christ and were baptised.
Eighteen centuries later, Charles Wesley drew on the images and metaphors of that story from Acts 16 in order to testify to his own experience of the freedom that faith in Christ brings to our lives.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
These stories remind us that there are varieties of prisons. There are the prisons that society constructs for the purpose of punishing those found guilty of breaking the laws of the land.
There is major focus in this issue of Journey on that kind of prison. We have to have them, but there are critical issues regarding their management and effectiveness that cry out for urgent attention.
There are also the psychological, emotional and spiritual prisons in which human beings sometimes try to confine each other.
That happens when people are subjected to discrimination or prejudice that is motivated by differences in race or culture or religion or personal circumstances.
It happens when individuals are denied natural justice or find themselves at the mercy of insensitive and uncaring bureaucracies. It happens when the innocent and the vulnerable become the targets of bullying and abuse. It happens when people are persecuted for their beliefs. And there are the prisons of our own making.
We can be locked in and limited by our inflexibility and unwilling-ness to change, by the smallness of our faith, by our contempt for those whose convictions are different to our own, by our refusal to forgive those we feel have offended us, by our greed and materialism, by our fear and insecurity.
The Bible includes many stories that illustrate the nature and impact of all three kinds of prisons.
These stories are illuminating and confronting because they reveal with disturbing clarity how God’s ways are so different from our own.
God’s purpose for us in Jesus is that we should be set free to enjoy the fullness of life that is his free gift to us.
By God’s grace, we can embrace and experience that freedom in every area of our lives. People incarcerated behind prison walls can know that freedom. People subjected to the willful and destructive behaviour of others can know that freedom. People locked into prisons of their own making that can know that freedom also.
Why? Because “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (II Corinthians 3:17)
Photo : Qld Synod Moderator Rev Dr David Pitman