finding freedom from the prisons of the soul: the prison of despair Tom Cowan Interim Lead Pastor English Congregation Vancouver Chinese Baptist Church Vancouver, British Columbia Sunday Sermon for 5 June 2011 Series on Philippians Scripture Passage Philippians 1
Here is the word that Jesus read when he took the sacred scroll and stood in the synagogue:
1. The prison of despair
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…
3. The prison of pride
Some years ago in Victoria, one of the young people in our church got into some trouble around Christmas. They ended up in juvenile detention, or “juvie” as it is known in Victoria. We decided it would be nice to go in and visit them. We took our daughter Jennifer who was just a little girl then. We did not tell her where we were going. When you got to the doors of juvie, you waited until a large steel prison door opened, and then you stepped into a holding area. The steel door clanged behind you and then another large steel door opened in front of you. This meant that you were trapped for a few seconds in this holding area under the watchful eye of a guard. Jennifer was very quiet; she looked around and then quietly asked, “They can’t get out of here can they?” I said, “No.” Then she quietly asked, “Can we get out of here?”
The context and background to the warm book of Philippians is in Acts 16. There, we have an account of Paul’s ministry in Philippi. Here are some of the stories from Philippi.
Most of us have never been in prison, but this morning, even at this very moment, many of us are in fact prisoners. There are invisible chains that are binding us, unseen chains that are shackling us. They are what we will call the prisons of the soul.
So a very deep bond of friendship was forged between Paul and this church in Philippi which was also a Roman colony.
One of the few remnants of poetry that I recall from school. The poem is called “To Althea From Prison”, and it begins: Stone Walls do not a prison make Nor iron bars a cage In one way or another many of us have become trapped by those invisible chains that bind the heart and imprison the spirit. Today can be your day of freedom. This morning we start a short six-week study in Philippians. It will take an unusual path which the background of Philippians will explain for us. This will be a unique way to work through this letter. I encourage you to bring your Bibles each Sunday. There is a study guide to complement this series. We will see how we can find freedom from six emotional and spiritual prisons.
2. The prison of selfishness 4. The prison of mediocrity 5. The prison of worry 6. The prison of discontent
There is someone called Lydia, who sells purple cloth. The city of Thyatira was famous for purple. There is a slave girl who is healed, a girl with a demonic ability and she is being used by her owners as a psychic prostitute. They are not selling her body; they are selling her mind. Her owners are furious with Paul because by her healing, their profit is gone. They are really pimps; they do not care anything for her as a person. They just want what she can earn for them. Then, a man in charge of the jail is converted and his whole family follow him in the faith.
Ten years have passed and now Paul is writing to them. His letter is filled with thoughts of love and affection. The Philippian church had sent a man called Epaphroditus with a gift for Paul. He had stayed and helped Paul, but in then course of his stay, he had almost died. So Paul is now sending him home and wants the church to know that in no way had Epaphroditus failed. In fact he had served well above the call of duty, and so they should give him a warm welcome home. 3 4
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. But it is vital to know where Paul is writing from. 7
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and
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confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. Now Paul often described himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. The word “servant” used in Phil 1:1 is actually the word for “slave.” Now Paul often described himself as a spiritual slave of Jesus Christ. But in his letter he is adding another level of meaning—as well as being a spiritual slave belonging to Jesus—he is also a physical slave. He is in prison in Rome. This period of his life is recorded for us in Acts 28. His situation is what we would call being under house arrest. Acts 28:16 describes this period: “When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.” The epistle is full of the highest and best thoughts of love and joy and warmth, but you would never guess by the tone of his letter that he is under arrest or is confined. This is the idea we need to grasp for this series: Paul is in prison, but remarkably free in his spirit. On the other hand, we are free, but we are often bound and enslaved by invisible chains. Remember: Stone Walls do not a prison make Nor iron bars a cage… As we work through this letter in six studies, we will find a number of spiritual prisons from which we need to find freedom. We will look at the prisons of selfishness, pride, mediocrity, worry and finally discontent. Charles Wesley says, He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free. Today, we will see what it means to find freedom from the prison of self-pity that easily becomes despair and depression. There is a deadly attitude that has pervaded our society and is worse than any flu or pandemic. It encourages us to wallow in the “poor me” syndrome which traps us in the prison of self-pity. If we are not careful, it is a short and easy step from self-pity into despair and depression. But we must acknowledge that when self-pity is allowed to run rampant and unchecked in our lives, it is the beginning of sin. In fact, self-pity is sin!
I understand that the roots of depression and especially clinical depression are both complex and deep. I am not trying to reduce it to a simplistic diagnosis. I have lived and suffered in its dark prison. What can we do to unlock the doors of this invisible but deadly prison in our lives, shake off its chains, and step out into the light of the freedom of God?
THERE ARE NO CIRCUMSTANCES IN OUR LIVES WHICH CANNOT BE USED BY GOD. REALIZING THIS FREES US FROM THE PRISON OF HOPELESSNESS. Self-pity invites us to wallow in the mud of hopelessness and to exclaim: This is hopeless! We need to sit with Paul in prison, under house arrest and listen to what he says. Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. 12
He says, I want you to know that what has happened to me has actually opened up a new road for the gospel. The gospel has actually been pushed forward by his imprisonment. We need to know who the palace guard is. They were known as the praetorian guard; they were instituted by the Emperor Augustus. They were the sons of the leading Roman families. They were the flower of the Roman army. They became the emperor’s private body guard. Like most groups that are close to the seat of power, they started to be a problem. They were centered in Rome, and there was a time when they became the king-makers. Their nominee usually was chosen to become the new emperor. They had the ability to force their power over the Roman senate. This was the group to which Paul was handed over for house arrest. Night and day for some two years, Paul had one of these young king-makers chained to him. This was a group of leaders that you would never get access to in a door-to-door visitation campaign in Rome. They would never sign up for
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Alpha. But one by one they have to stand guard with the apostle. Imagine Paul saying, Hi, can I tell you about what happened to me one day on the Damascus Road? The poor guy can’t get away! For the next 8 hours or so, he is chained to Paul. Think for a moment: who really was the prisoner?
REALIZING THIS FREES US FROM THE PRISON OF USELESSNESS.
But not everything is that simple or fair.
Some people had different motives. Some worked out of jealousy, hoping that Paul’s situation would be made even more unpleasant because of their efforts. Others were spurred on by genuine motives.
We are told that we have cancer. In a split second a car accident changes the course of our lives. Someone is diagnosed with MS, diabetes, heart disease The sudden shadow of unexpected and unwanted death looms across our lives and family and darkens everything. We are chained to these events and circumstances as surely as Paul was chained to his guard. We cannot get away. We are caught in their invisible but powerful grip. If anger and resentment turns inward, it will become our silent and invisible jailor and we will become its prisoners. Or, with our faith stretched beyond where it has ever been before we can begin to ask the deeper question: Dear Lord, what is the promise that is hidden in these events? That is a hard question. It will take all of our faith to ask it, but it is perhaps the only question that begins to free us from the prison of despair. It is the only question that will stop the downward spiral into paralyzing sorrow and depression. If we do not ask that question, we will become a prisoner. Two people can face the same struggle in life. One is trapped by its web and its chains and becomes a prisoner in its grip, unable to set themselves free. The result is spiritual imprisonment and emotional bondage. The other person finds freedom, and the unwanted and unasked for circumstance becomes a new window to find the heart of God. What is the difference? The difference lies in our ability to believe that God can use any circumstance in life to accomplish his work in us.
THERE ARE NO INDIVIDUALS WHO CANNOT BE USED BY GOD.
Paul could have so easily thrown in the towel. That’s it. My life is over. I am done! My ministry is over.
So he could have said. That’s it. Some people with some pretty bad motives are trying to make my situation even worse than it is. I am not going ahead until they sort that out. Paul’s concludes, What does it matter? Who cares? Leave it to God. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. 15
We all get hung up over the actions and motives of other people, what they did to us and what they did not do. If we focus on that it will drive us to paralysis and uselessness. Paul says, leave all that stupidity to God.
WE SERVE GOD OUT OF WHO WE ARE. We get all tied up in knots when we think that we have to be someone else for God to use us. That renders us spiritually useless. It leaves us in the spiritual doldrums, the place where the wind of the Spirit does not blow in our lives. God can use you no matter who you are. You don’t have to become someone else. In fact, God doesn’t want you to become someone else! He knows exactly who you are, and he actually loves you that way.
WE SERVE GOD WHERE WE ARE. A group of military leaders and their families were influenced towards the gospel and the kingdom because a funny little Jew, probably with bad eyesight, who was sentenced to prison. There
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was no way that this group would have found their way into church, so God planted someone in their world. I think constantly about our city, apartment blocks, high-rises, emergency services people, hospitals, people in retail, how can we get them to hear the word of grace? God has placed everyone of us in a strategic place and location. Where you live is a place of ministry and you are the minister. We serve God where we are.
WE SERVE GOD BY WHAT WE DO. Colossians 2:23: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men… The work we do and the way we do our work— everything from punctuality, attitude, service, quality—it all stands as a testimony to our Lord. Catch the closing words at the very end of this letter, Paul says, all the saints send you greetings especially those who belong to Caesar’s household. Stop and think about how those who worked and served in Caesar’s household got to be saints. It was through a man under house arrest. There are no individuals who cannot be used by God no matter who they are, no matter where they are. Realizing this frees us from the prison of uselessness.
THERE ARE NO SITUATIONS IN WHICH WE ARE SEPARATED FROM GOD’S LOVE. REALIZING THAT FREES US FROM THE PRISON OF LONELINESS. Imagine the first night Paul spent in chains. Perhaps for a moment his head drooped and he thought to himself: I am all alone. Then what he had written to another church began to flood back into his mind and he had to hear how own words echo in the darkness. Romans 8:38-39 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
He lifted his head and he knew; he knew that he was not alone. The spiritual prison he was experiencing flooded with the light of the love of God, and in an instant, he was free. One of the places where we can feel those invisible chains of self-pity begin to tighten around us is when we start to think, to feel, to believe that we are abandoned to endure and to suffer some circumstance all by ourselves in some selfimposed loneliness. This becomes more than prison; this becomes the worst kind of solitary confinement. At those moments, there are truths that we need to come and flood our souls, bringing shafts of light into our darkness, bringing warmth into our souls to chase away the cold blasts that sweep across us. We need to read words like this, and hold onto them with all our might. Romans 8:35-39 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. No matter what life throws at us, we must know that nothing, nothing can eclipse the light of the love of God. When we sense people are walking in loneliness, one of the ministries we have to one another is to ask, How can I walk with you during this time? It may be to write a card, to call, to visit, just to be with them and not say anything. In one way or another we just need to let them know that they are not alone. One of the temptations that people who are trapped in the prison of depression is the automatic reaction to say, leave me alone! Some practical words I trust they will be helpful: 1. Avoid being alone. When you are stuck in the quicksand of withdrawal, the first temptation is to withdraw.
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That only deepens the darkness. Don’t pull away from people and end up in solitary confinement.
2. Allow people you know and trust into your life. In this time do not neglect the power of the Scriptures and the Spirit of God to speak into your life. Stay at it – especially in those dark and lonely days when you don’t feel like it. An honest word if you are married to someone who like me is prone to depression. Please don’t scold us. That seldom helps. Don’t tell us to snap out of it because we cannot. Simply tell us that you love us. l simply would not have made it through some of my darkest days without Harriet’s deep and unwavering love for me in those days when I could not love myself. Remember: Stone walls do not a prison make Nor iron bars and cage. Paul came to that truth in a Roman prison. In fact he wrote some of his best material in prison. So did a man called John Bunyan. In the enforced silence of Bedford Jail in England he penned perhaps the greatest bestseller in the English language other than the Bible; it is called Pilgrim’s Progress. So also did a pastor in Germany in jail and later in a concentration camp where he was hung just days before the camp was liberated. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So did another man whose involvement in American politics created a scandal that brought down a United States President. It took this man to jail where he found freedom in Christ and he also joined this great army of slaves of Jesus. His name is Chuck Colson. So imagine, with one hand chained to a Roman guard and the other hand writing as fast as he could, Paul tells us that, even in prison, he is truly free.
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