Outside of some “time-outs” on a particular chair in a particular kitchen I’ve never experienced the lack of freedom. Our recent Covid-19 stay-at-home confinement is perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to “prison-time” even though it wasn’t near as confining as that dreaded chair.
The most common experience and imagery of forgiveness is that of being released from prison or freeing someone. It’s an image that transcends Christianity but is also in-grained in our faith. Consider Jesus’ “mission statement” when He began His time of ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18–19, NASB95) Obviously forgiveness is not in that statement, but the imagery of forgiveness is there in proclaiming “release to the captives.”
We find similar imagery in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:21-35. In that parable there are images of forced slavery and prison because of an owed debt and freedom when the debt is forgiven.
The prison bars of unforgiveness and offense are strong and unbreakable. They separate us from others and constantly remind us of our pain. It has rightly been said that when we choose the path of unforgiveness we imprison ourselves more than the other person. So, one kind of cell is the one we create ourselves through our unforgiveness. However, the reverse is also true. As we choose the path of forgiveness, we free ourselves along with the other person.
So why don’t we choose the path of forgiveness more often? It could be that we find the prison bars comforting and protective in a way. Freedom means being vulnerable again. There is risk in liberty. So many choose the perceived safe prison of unforgiveness and bitterness to prevent future pain. In the process however they also lose the great benefits of love and joy which flourish in the vulnerability of liberty.
Another “prison” is the slavery of our guilt and sin. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:16–18, NASB95) Now it may seem that we simply traded one form of slavery for another. But the freedom “slaves of righteousness” have in Christ is enormous.
Forgiveness creates freedom and liberty, it’s really as simple as that. It’s like the joy of a small boy finally being told he can get off “the chair” and go play.