The Inner Captivity of We Who Are Free

. . . and what we can do about it

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.


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What do YOU think?

22 thoughts on “The Inner Captivity of We Who Are Free

  1. Been pondering a thought the last couple of days. The only reason we are shocked by our sin and continued failures to come out of the cages we have been freed form is that we have a high opinion of ourselves. When we continue to see ourselves not as winning at life, but hopeless losers the torrent passionate love of God moves us into a freedom that is both overwhelming and deeply addicting at the same time.

    Great thoughts Sam, Thanks.

  2. Sam I recently read something related to this that I would like to share.

    From Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child

    CHAPTER EIGHT F ORTITUDE AND F ANTASY Anthony DeMello in The Way to Love wrote bluntly: Look at your life and see how you have filled its emptiness with people. As a result they have a stranglehold on you. See how they control your behavior by their approval and disapproval. They hold the power to ease your loneliness with their company, to send your spirits soaring with their praise, to bring you down to the depths with their criticism and rejection. Take a look at yourself spending almost every waking moment of your day placating and pleasing people, whether they are living or dead. You live by their norms, conform to their standards, seek their company, desire their love, dread their ridicule, long for their applause, meekly submit to the guilt they lay upon you; you are terrified to go against the fashion in the way you dress or speak or act or even think. And observe how even when you control them you depend on them and are enslaved by them. People have become so much a part of your being that you cannot even imagine living a life that is unaffected or uncontrolled by them. 1 In John’s gospel, the Jews are said to be incapable of believing because they “look to one another for approval” (5:44). There appears to be a radical incompatibility between human respect and authentic faith in Christ. The strokes or the scorn of our peers become more important than the approval of Jesus.

    It is my belief that when we do come to Christ we do not feel the full peace and freedom he wants to give us because by tradition we have been led to belief the way to God is through the religions of man, which hold us prisoners to their denominational manifestos and thereby quench and replace the work of the Holy Spirit. I have found great natural desire for knowing, loving and following Christ outside of the organized religions of man. Placing full trust in God, and not in man or man’s religion. In His Love, Richard H.

    • Hey Richard,

      I like the Manning quote, but partly for the way it opens the door for all of us to all the things that “addict” us or imprison us. And I think those various prisons (or addictions) vary as much as the variety of personalities we have. For example:
      – Some, like Manning says, are captured by people’s approval
      -Others by their need to be wealthy
      -Others by their need to be successful
      -Others by the need to “look good”
      -Others by real, substance addictions
      -Others by our need to “be in charge” or dominate every discussion

      When all really need is God.

      I’m not down on churches; yes, some do try to control us; but then, some just naturally WANT someone to control us.

      Yikes, we really do need God!

      • Sam, thank you for responding. Man has twisted the biblical meaning of church as the body of believers in Christ, to a worldly meaning of a building and an associated profit driven business entity. In practice, these man defined churches take God’s name in vain to fuel their existence and the pride of their self declared leaders. The pride of man is so insidious that religious men truly believe they are acting in God’s will when they actually reflect the opposite of His Word and character. This is the “church” that I am down on for its worldly basis and false representation of the Truth before those who seek to know their creator. I believe it is the way of this world and is equivalent to trusting in man rather than in God. I believe the moment we think about how to do church rather than simply living in the Spirit we have been given, we are unknowingly placing our trust in the ways of man. It is so hard for us to recognize and accept because almost 2000 years of tradition has a powerful influence in establishing the rightness of any practice of man, whether truly right or wrong. To accept this is to step out of the world we have known. We will be rejected by those we love and we will experience varying degrees of persecutution. But this is true to the Word of what will happen when we stand for our Lord. I also believe this is hard to believe and accept for the reasons stated by DeMello and yourself above. All the points you make above are valid – they describe the carnal nature that we must recognize in ourselves and seek God to free us from our inner turmoils. I also agree with your comment that some “churches” try to control us and some people want someone to control them. Both of these are very sad, especially the latter, and neither reflect or honor the power and love of Christ. This what I am down on and fear for the many souls who in their Spirit driven desire to know and love their creator are swept up in these worldly based institutions of man, because by tradition, that is where one goes to know the Lord. They never experience the freedom of trusting in God alone but are held captive by man defined religious doctrines that demand conformity. I know that God uses the good and bad in this world to work to His good and for our good. My family grew and benefited greatly under a religious institution for many years before the wolves in sheeps clothing revealed themselves. It was only because of many years of maturity as a believer that I could find and walk the path I believe the Spirit has led me.

  3. Wonderful. Thank you, Sam. You have no idea how often you help re-direct my wandering, overly analytical mind.

  4. I’m am crying as I read this. I have a sister who was imprisoned by alcohol and drug abuse. She is in hospice right now. When I flew up to see her, she was barely there and said she was afraid of dying. I told her many of us are afraid of dying, but when you get to see Jesus you’ll have a new body and no more suffering. She smiled and the next day told her daughter she felt God’s presence.

    I am heavy-hearted right now and want to get away. This post has blessed my heart and helped me see my sister and myself as being “chainless,” one day soon.

    I used to do the self-speak to make myself feel better. Slowly I’m learning to just say, “Help me Lord, and thank you for paying for my sin. The self-speak goes away when I turn my eyes to what he’s done for me and off my self. I hear the clank as that metal hits the ground.

    Thanks for always speaking with your heart to my heart.

  5. Thank you Sam, I had to read that a few time today in between appointments. In response to one of the comments I like the part about not having a attitude of “winning at life” but the part about we are hopeless losers did not agree with me ,Ike taking a bite of a sour apple. As a new creature with a good heart does not seem to equate with hopeless this pride on my part maybe?
    I loved the word captured that you used and it reminded me of “Red” in the movie Shawshank Redemption.
    Thank you for sharing. God bless .

  6. Love this article, Sam, as it is a great analogy of why we need to go back to the cross, to see the love of God poured out for us.

    Thank you for the great read!

  7. We live in the shadow of the First Adam much more than we realise. Hiding, Fear, Shame, Nakedness and Blame surely are the roots of all human psychological reasoning. Why are we scared to be free? In my own experience, until you have been brought to the end of yourself-namely had your ‘false identity’ utterly broken and demolished which feels like death, then the shadow of the Adam and Eve complex will likely dominate our relational style.
    I believe we need His Grace to be loved in our brokenness in order to walk a journey of wholeness. Can you be loved in your brokenness? When we can embrace the bottom line reality of our profound powerlessness and helplessness revealed through deep suffering- the prison walls of the false self lose their power to define us….because we become like the fearless courageous woman in Luke 7v36-50 able to weep at His feet profoundly transformed, healed and liberated by His love……..’But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little’. Think how utterly courageous this woman was who had a ‘rep’ as the city hooker, to enter the house of a respected religious Pharisee. Think of how free she was in that company to weep unashamedly at His feet. It was this woman who taught the religious Pharisee about what really matters…..the capacity to be loved in our brokenness is the road to wholeness because of His love. His LOVE is EVERYTHING when you have been deeply broken. No one had ever loved her like King Jesus.

    • It really comes to the age-old tension between two theological terms: justification and sanctification. In justification, we are freed immediately from our past records. In sanctification, God starts to clean us up on the inside.

  8. May our love of God eclipse all of our loves we hold close in our inner chambers. This is such a great post, I must keep it and renew my mind daily. I’m freed from a prison of 132 lbs of obesity. But there are days I tend to still think like a victim, towards myself and accepting my new way of thinking thin. Lord help us all!

    • Hi Janelle,

      Great comment. I wonder though, sometimes, if it isn’t remembering God’s love for us that we most need, even more than our love for him. The more I remember God’s love for me, I start to love him more. And we NEED to love him more. But I think he takes the initiative!


      • I totally agree, God made the first move. And it takes a deeper understanding of His kind of love that keeps us close. We must let ourselves be romanced by His enduring qualities. When we get His grace, the depth of it, well it changes everything.

      • Hi Sam. This is the tough thing for me. And I think the source of many of my hang ups with Jesus. I don’t “feel” love for him. I became a believer out of fear of hell and through the years have been more or less convinced that The life Jesus calls us to is the most realistic, but I still don’t “love” him. I try to obey him and fail a lot, and my only motivation to share the gospel is to save others from hell.
        Somehow, I am not feeling the abundant life. Maybe because Jesus scares me with his bluntness. Or maybe just obeying his commands is loving him. But no feelings on my part aside from fear.
        I don’t hear Him despite trying to silently listen, he is just not real as a person to me aside from looking back and seeing blessings. Is that what I should expect? Granted, I do fear what he might say were we to meet face to face. This has been very hard lately for me.

  9. Sam –
    Thanks for this, I love the image of the inner walls crumbling when presented with a living breathing sacrifice to allow that to be possible. Very powerful and bracing.

    • Hi Brian,

      I keep wondering about how we grow more “holy” or loving, or (frankly) just better people to be around. Are we saved by the cross, and then just have to work very hard (just like the Pharisees did)? Or, are we saved externally by the cross, and then saved internally by it as well?

      I think the latter.