Imprisonment can take many shapes and forms. Of course the most obvious is to be deprived of your freedom and incarcerated in a physical prison or cell. But, as some discover, the human spirit can find freedom even in physical captivity while many people “on the outside” live their lives bound by shackles of shame, addiction, drudgery, fear, oppression or a thousand other things.
At another level there may be times in our lives when we all feel imprisoned. Perhaps through ill health, unemployment, the end of a season in life, or a number of other factors we come to a place where we feel helpless, hopeless, purposeless, inadequate and worthless. We may feel the meaning we had for life and living has been stolen from us – and we wonder what the point is in going on.
In a letter written to some of his friends from the captivity of a lonely prison cell one of the early Christians introduced himself in a very interesting and unlikely way. He did not, as one might have expected, introduce himself as a prisoner of the Emperor Nero or of the Roman State but as – “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus” [Philemon 1:1]
This brief but rather shocking introduction raises a number of questions. Was he being sarcastic or theological or mystical – for he cannot be speaking literally. So just what is he driving at?
The word in Latin for prison is Prensio – meaning “to seize or take hold of”. I believe that Paul had in fact learned a secret we all need to discover – that in every situation of life – the good, the bad and the ugly we can find contentment and peace in the realisation that God is in total control and that despite our weakness he will be our strength. It is in that knowledge Paul is able to rest and see himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ – not his circumstances! On another occasion he is able to write –
For I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Philippians 4: 11 – 13
There was a moment in the life of Paul when Jesus Christ apprehended him – seized him, took hold of him – and he knew that in his custody – he was forever loved, forever safe, for ever secure – even in a cold and dirty prison cell.
Some of us today may be in a very different prison to Paul. We may be in the prison of circumstances, the prison of loss, depression or loneliness. Please never forget that in it all Jesus is with us – he is still in control – he still loves and cares for us – and that even in our prison he can bless us, restore us and renew us. May I, may we all, be able to see life from that perspective.