There is a prison that you have been released from…and you are never going to have to go back or even need to fear going back to that prison. The prison cell already had a prisoner…a different prisoner from yourself…who served your time and went down that long lonely hallway and was put to death for all the crimes you have or ever will commit.
The freedom from that prison is really a freedom that means…you can live the life of a reformed prisoner, who contributes to society and works to right all of your previous wrongs. But it also means that you can screw it up (like a lot of real prisoners do) and find yourself doing things you did before. You may even be trying not to do those things, but some habits die hard if they ever die at all.
The thing is…if you really don’t believe that you can screw things up again, and again, and again…and you still won’t go back to that prison…
…if you still have an uncomfortable feeling that if you were to go off the deep end, you might wake up behind bars with the warden looking at you, shaking his head in disappointment…
…if you just want to be seen and be known as a good person because you just can’t take the idea that you might be a bad person who would be in prison in the first place. Your sense of self would be devastated by this kind of admission that you aren’t as good as you should be and that you can’t really work your way into being that good…
…if you really have reservations like this that linger, even small ones that are buried deeply into the inner working of your emotions and shadowy, fearful doubts that maybe you aren’t 100% safe no matter what you do…
…if anything but absolute freedom from ever possibly being found guilty and setting foot in that prison again is alive in some tiny spark of a way…
If these “ifs” are there…than any work that you do to be good and to be that reformed prisoner is actually work that you are doing to keep yourself from going back to prison. You are actually trying to save yourself by your behavior from that deep, tiny, seed of a fear that you and your goodness is what keeps you out of that prison. In other words…in Christian words…you don’t believe that you are really saved by what Christ accomplished. You believe that you are free but only if you maintain a standard of goodness. That you’re actually on some kind of spiritual probation that can be revoked if you step out of line.
What if I don’t look like the reformed prisoner that I SHOULD be?
What kind of valuable life would I be living if I didn’t work to make my life mean something?
What will other prisoners think if they see me acting like I did before I was freed?
The thing that these kinds of fear based questions forget…is that the freed prisoner was freed while he was guilty. His worth and status and innocence are not something he accomplishes AFTER he is free…they were accomplished WHEN he was freed. Already given…already acquired…already forever bestowed. Free status can never be revoked. Innocent status can never be changed back to guilty. Valuable status was given before he had accomplished a penny’s worth of success. And the other prisoners desperately need to know that they can be freed from their prisons while they still have their current status as prisoner. They are still guilty…they need to see that it is free because they have no other way out! They need to see that the freedom being offered is not the freedom that results in the prisoner running for his life again. They need to know that the replacement prisoner died for them and that the sentence has been served. There is therefore now no need for any more sentencing. Freed prisoners are guaranteed to never be imprisoned again.
But there is another way. You may simply want to be a good person in order to do good. The problem with this approach is that all of us, every one of us has been put into prison. The only exit is to walk through the open cell door and deal with this idea of freedom and the debt being forever paid. Because simply being a person who is good has a major problem. Only the most perfect, blameless, absolutely goodliest (my word), spotless record will be acceptable. I mean infinitely better than Mother Theresa herself. Nothing less will do.
So you may find yourself doing a whole lot of good in your life, and accomplishing some pretty great things, thinking that you are in freedom…only to find in the end that you have still been in that prison the whole time, while others have long since been dancing in real freedom. The only thing that keeps freed prisoners from waltzing out of their prisons is the continuing idea that freed prisoners aren’t really free. That “being good” is, on the whole, just as important a part of the story as the whole “prisoner dying for and freeing the prisoners” part. There will be a lot of prisoners who sure looked a lot like they deserved to be free and a lot of free prisoners who sure looked a lot like they deserved to be in prison still. That’s because deserving is not a part of the whole “prisoners dying for and freeing the prisoners” story.
So what do you do about this prison thing? The only answer is that the prisoners don’t do anything…but they are given everything. The good that the reformed prisoners do comes as a result of the work that has been done for them, not their selfish, fearful efforts. The freedom that is lived in is the soil which love uses to build love within the freed prisoners, not the fear of return to prison, nor the desire to look like what a “good person” looks like.
The reality about freed prisoners is that they often still look like undeserving prisoners. What glorifies the one who freed them more than for them to say…yes, I am guilty and undeserving…and He saved me anyway. It points to Him…and never to the freed prisoners, to their lives and accomplishments, to their work and commitment, to anything but their need for the One who freed them and took their place.
Simply put…freed prisoners were loved before and after they were in prison. The difference now, first and foremost…is that they’re free…forever.
So if you’re really free, you can live in that freedom…whether you get it right or get it wrong. And you can do it all in freedom and not fear.