September 29, 2020

Monkshank Redemption

“This is one of my favorite movies, Dad.” I was sitting down to watch Shawshank Redemption with my oldest daughter, Rebekah. “It reminds me of the children of Israel.”

“Really? How so?”

“Well, when they were set free from Egypt, they couldn’t handle freedom. It scared them. Most of them wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt. It was what was familiar to them. Same thing with the prisoners who had been in Shawshank for a long time. They were so afraid of being set free. They preferred the walls and bars they knew to freedom they didn’t know.”

My daughter was maybe 16 or 17 (she’s just shy of 29 now) at the time she made these observations. To say she has keen insight is an understatement. She was so right. How many of us right now prefer the walls and bars of legalism, of “doing religion” rather than living in the freedom provided us by Jesus?

I wrote this morning about legalism being a prison many of us find ourselves in. How that I am at a place where I had to decide whether to let God be in full and total control of my life, or I would take the reins myself totally. God doesn’t share what he wants for himself. To trust God fully with one’s life sounds like a no-brainer, like the only right decision to make. Yet so very, very few do so. Why is that? Why do we have so much trouble with grace?

“If we just say we are saved by grace, then doesn’t that give us permission to go and live any way we like?”

Since when have you not had permission to live any way you like? Even in the prison of legalism, you are free to act and think and do anything you want. It just comes heaped with guilt. And guilt is not a way God speaks to us. Guilt comes from doing something you think you are not supposed to do, whether that goes against tradition or against what you have always been told is wrong or it goes against what religious teachers tell you is wrong. Guilt is based in fear, and fear is not of God. Fear is based on the thought of punishment. And if we are really and truly totally forgiven, then there is no more punishment ahead.

That’s what makes grace so dangerous. It sets you free, and you can now freely live any way you want to. And for many, that freedom is just too much to handle. Looking at the kingdom of God as the Garden restored and hearing God say, Come, live! is a lot scary than staying in the prison of legalism. There you know exactly what is expected of you. You know right from wrong. You know what you do and what you shouldn’t do and what will happen if you do what you shouldn’t. In the Garden, well, everything is good. Everything is given for you. And that just doesn’t feel right.

“So you’re saying that if we walk out of the prison of legalism we can do whatever we want to do?”

Yes. But think about it. All things are ok for you to do, but they are not all profitable. Sure, you are free to eat what you want. But if all you eat are pork rinds and Twinkies, just how are you going to feel? You are free to do what you want. You are also free to not do what you want. In prison, you are not free. You must do this and must not do that. Through grace you are free to choose not to do what is not good for you.

In grace alone are we enabled to truly follow Jesus. It is not a case of, “Well, now you’re free so you had better not screw up again.” Or as I heard often growing up, “Your life is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.” Sorry. God has given me a museum masterpiece, and I return to him a clay ashtray? No, I don’t think so. In grace we are free to receive God’s masterpiece he has for us and live in that without trying to impress him with our less-than-great efforts.

The prison environment is designed to keep you from ever thinking that you can be set free. You are not to even question whether there is life on the other side of the walls. Questions in general are frowned upon. Just do what you are told and all is well. Unfortunately, most find this not only acceptable, but preferable to living free.

We don’t come out of our prison by our own efforts. The doors are opened, just as Lazarus’s tomb was opened, by the call of Jesus. He is the firstborn jailbreaker. We follow him to freedom. And once outside, he is still calling us. He wants to lead us further up, further in. Sure, there are those who once set free start in on doing things that are unhealthy for their souls. These will gradually work themselves back behind bars—freedom just won’t feel right for them. But some—a very few, but some—will follow Jesus further up, further in.

It’s your choice. You can spend your life in jail, telling yourself just how good you are doing in your efforts to obey the Bible and be a good person. Or you can follow Jesus. The Jesus portrayed in the Bible, from Genesis thru maps, is not one who keeps score of how well you do. He has already won the game. Now he wants to go out for ice cream and celebrate the victory. But only those who are free can do so. Those behind bars are the ones telling Jesus just how wrong he is to be eating ice cream with people like me.

Perhaps the most dangerous phrase ever spoken by a man or woman of God, a phrase that drives legalists spare, was uttered by St. Augustine more than 1600 years ago: “Love God, and do what you will.” Now that is someone who knows freedom. Just try saying that to someone who insists we must be doing more to please God and watch them quickly slam the bars of their cell.

At the end of Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins’s character knows that he will never be free until he really truly escapes from not just the prison, but the country that holds his prison. He invites Morgan Freeman to join him in a fishing village in Mexico. That’s where they go to spend the rest of their days in freedom. Once God has set you free and you walk out of that prison, you are going to need to get far away. I don’t know how that will look for you. I don’t even know how it looks for me. In all my travels I have found very few churches that did not seek to stick me back behind bars. I know of a really good church in Middletown, Ohio. And one in Reigate, England. I like to think my church here in Tulsa is one where grace reigns, but perhaps I am too close to make a good judgment.

However freedom looks to you, be aware that at first it will be very scary. You will think you are doing it wrong. You will feel guilty. You will be very tempted to return to the walls and bars of running your own life. And most everyone around you will tell you that you have to come back into the prison. Just know this is going to be the case. The promised land is very frightening; Egypt really wasn’t that bad.

As for me, you’ll find me on the Pacific coast in Mexico. I am not going back.


  1. Comes to mind my favorite quote from the movie ‘Shawshank Redemption’:

    “I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged.
    Their feathers are just too bright.
    And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice.
    But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone.”

    This was from the character ‘Red’, after his friend Andy escaped.
    There are lines in movies and books that you hold on to.
    For me, this one was worth keeping.

  2. All right, I’ll play. Then why is “church” structured like jail–authoritarian, monotonous, and inflexible?

  3. You realize that if this gets out and folks start really believing it, there will be a revolution. I only have one thing to say about that – Viva la revolution!

  4. I have a love/hate relationship with analogies. They are very useful until I start parsing out the details, which isn’t really what analogies are for, and which I can’t seem to resist doing. For instance, I can’t help but think that there are rules and regulations and expectations and patterns outside of prison, too. There’s more freedom out here, but I wouldn’t call it free.

  5. My pastor says this, “Now that you DON”T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING…what will you do?”

    Luther said, “We are free Lord’s, subject to none…and dutiful servants, subject to all.’

  6. I just posted this on Jail Break but I guess it applies here as well:
    The practice of freedom is the practice of ‘being gods’. What is The Father doing? Who is He asking about which way He should go? This relates back to the will of God discussion. What is Your will for me Father? He may well ask what our will for Him is. After we have grown to solid food we begin to act; to choose; to determine. We become miniature creators. We are people of authority. Authors. Freedom is not a willy-nilly opportunity to sin like bratty kids. Freedom is the giant responsibilty to author the kingdom of Heaven on earth. Jesus wants us to take charge like Him. He wants us to heal like Him. He wants us to minister like Him. Where does sin enter into that equation? Sin is what we do when we get off the track. Our freedom is about being little #1′s. Little Alphas and Omegas. That is a scary freedom because we are the ones steering the ship. “I no longer call you children (the law) but friends (ye are gods). If you want to experience freedom in Christ make a decision to do something beneficial for someone else and do it . Without fanfare. Freedom.

    • Or, as the case may be, something beneficial fo yourself.

    • “Our freedom is about being little #1′s. Little Alphas and Omegas. That is a scary freedom because we are the ones steering the ship. “I no longer call you children (the law) but friends (ye are gods).”

      Not so sure about that. I think we re free to be what we were made to be. God’s creation and His children. I don’t want the responsibility of being a little Alpha and Omega. I just want to be me. And because of Christ and His work on the cross, I believe I am free to be me, and live, without the fear of a God who is keeping score.

      Just my 2 cents.

      • Just a clarification – The scripture is “I no longer call you servants…..”
        I’m not sure how I’m coming across here but when you speak about a God who is keeping score it sounds foreign to what I was trying to get at. I agree completely that we are born to be His children and need to be fully ourselves as He created us to be. I’m just stretching the point some because we often regard following Christ as queuing up behind Him and tagging along. He is calling us, as His body on earth, to lead the queue and I think most of that work involves us finding ourselves in Him. Simply being who we really are. I just think that what we are, in the universal scheme of things, what He has in mind for us, is much bigger and more important than we often imagine it to be. To suspect that freedom means an oppotunity to sin and get away with it is just silly. Our freedom is the room to navigate through the miasma of this world ‘Till we have faces’. Freedom to become friends and co-heirs, not servants. The scripture says that we will judge angels. Really? Me? You? It sounds megalomaniacal, maybe my whole rant does, but all I am saying is that He has big plans and that we have the freedom to grow into our spiritual shoes and take part in those plans.

    • this sounds a lot like “theosis” to me, though my EO imonker’s could weigh in on that thread with more authority than I. Interesting post, ChrisS

      • Thanks for your thoughts greg r. I looked up theosis and that gives a name to what I am saying. That led me to Meister Eckhart and more interesting thoughts of the same ilk.

  7. David Cornwell says

    “Love God, and do what you will.”

    Come to think of it, that’s how I loved my parents.

    • One more Mike says

      …and they’re always glad to see you when you come back home. Which is how I love my own kids. Always glad to see them when they come back around whatever they’ve been up to. We are all both prodigal sons and fathers and if we’re wise we’re not the legalistic older brother.
      Thanks for that great insight David.

    • “Love God and do what you will” It has never been said better or more concisely.

  8. These are great insights Jeff. It’s worth pointing out that Christianity should NOT be a guilt-based religion, because the concept of guilt was mostly foreign to the collectivist, honor-shame culture of the first century (and most of the non-western world today)! First-century Christians would have been motivated by the desire to accrue honor for themselves and God by carrying out Christlike behavior as taught in the NT, and avoid acts that would shame themselves and the credibility of their faith. In other words, Christians wouldn’t have felt at liberty to do just whatever the heck they want (as some could potentially mis-construe a post like this) but have various cultural checks and balances within and outside of their faith to keep them in line, so to speak. For us, the tricky part is trying to find the right balance in our guilt/individualistic society.

    DeSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity is a great resource for more on this.

    • One is either free…or not. we are totally free in Christ. Can we do anything and still be one of God’s children? Yes we can. Do we want to? No we don’t.

      This kind of freedom has never been popular and never will be. The law is written upon our hearts and true freedom is very foreign to us.

      Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

  9. Legalists tend to be the ones who fall into gross sin. It makes sense, because when we try to fulfill the law through our sinful nature, we are still in bondage – in prison. Grace brings true freedom of the will.

    Jesus said that those who are forgiven much love much, and those who are forgiven little love little. This, too, explains why legalists fall so hard into sin: they are self-made, with no need of forgiveness. Their deeds are not motivated by love, so they tend to be thin and hypocritical. Those who know the forgiveness of God have a deep love. Regarding the story of Simon and the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Paul Tillich wrote, “It is not the love of the woman that brings her forgiveness, but it is the forgiveness she has received that creates her love. By her love she shows that much has been forgiven her, while the lack of love in the Pharisee shows that little has been forgiven him” (from “The New Being”).

    In this context, St. Augustine’s statement makes perfect sense. Loyalty flows freely from love. Loyalty never truly flows from legalism.

    • Ah, but what if she doesn’t think she needs forgiveness? Then when you forgive her, she’ll just flip you off. You just told her she was sinning, you see, and she doesn’t buy it.

  10. “Those behind bars are the ones telling Jesus just how wrong he is to be eating ice cream with people like me.”

    I like that line, Jeff.

    I also like Augustine’s statement of “Love God, and do what you will.” At the same time, from having read his Confessions, I know that he struggled with how much he should eat and he struggled with sexual desires. So, was he struggling against something he SHOULD have been struggling against or should he have just eaten what he wanted and thanked God for providing the food? Augustine’sConfessions was an amazing book! His long section about thoughts and memory alone was worth reading the book

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      When it comes to sexual morality, Monica’s son Auggie probably had a lot of baggage that ended up showing through, for better or for worse. He was a real horndog in his younger days, and a celibate monastic afterwards. In neither case would he have had a chance to relate to women as people, only as (before) sex objects or (after) forbidden fruit. Add in guilt for the former during the latter and Auggie must really have been hurting; unfortunately, what personal baggage he brought into the equation (and mixed into his impressive & influential theological work) ended up influencing Christian sexual morality for a long time afterwards.

  11. The one thing that gets my goat every time is a legalist telling me or someone else what I or they “ought” to be doing. Every single one of us is on a journey and not any one of us is in the same place on that journey. This post and the jail break post, along with some of the comments made me want to tweak the Sixth Sense famous line……I see legalists. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re legalists.

    I have an aquaintenance who is very legalistic, this person is very steadfast in their beliefs and a very “know it all” kind of person. I met them shortly after coming back to Christ and most of our conversations would create some kind of angry reaction from me because I felt, again, like I was having a noose tightened around my life.

    As dumbox wrote about those who have been forgiven much love much, those who have been forgiven little, love little. I also believe that is a mindset, if someone hasn’t fully excepted their sinfulness and just thinks God’s forgiveness through Christ is some shallow religious thing, they’ll continue on in their sinful lifestyle. But…..if you have had a full on face to face encounter with Jesus Christ, and you know exactly how much He has forgiven you, how deeply He loves you and the amount of grace that makes those 2 things possible……nothing, and I mean nothing, will EVER get you back to your old life again.

    I’ll be with Jeff in Mexico…..I refuse to go back!

  12. I can agree with and appreciate the role of guilt in keeping Christians bound, but I think love plays a part, specifically loving the acceptance and security of belonging to a group. Taken too far it becomes what John described as “lov[ing] praise from men more than praise from God” (Jn 12:42-43) which kept some leaders from confessing their faith in Jesus because they feared the Pharisees would excommunicate them.

    Legalism is extremely popular. It comes in many forms, from mild to extreme, and many people join and remain in a church because its particular legalistic structure appeals to them for the boundaries it gives and the fellowship around agreement on those boundaries. In other words, they like the rules and the people who like the same rules they do.

    When some people come to the difficult decision of leaving a church they may just exchange one form of legalism for another, the latter form now being more suitable for whatever reason(s). I think one reason for the profusion of denominations and sects in America is the American love of having choices, and that includes choices about the content and extent of religious rules that comprise their faith. When someone feels the rules are cramping their style, they pick up and go elsewhere. I don’t like to be cynical, but love for God himself may have little to do with it.

  13. @ Jeff D: while you are wearing the clarifyer’s hat and robe: put 17 writers/thoelogians in a room and get 19 diff views of what it means to “die to self” or “be dead”. I’m not trying to be dodgey, but in simple english (cuz I can be stupider than a bag of hammers), would you wax on about this ?? I’m not looking for religious nuance, be as blunt as you like. I’m with Amanda in some ways: this post is cool and all, but leaves me a little confused.


    • Greg, this would require a much further response (and your question is a very good one) than I can give right now. Here is the short version: Dying to self is a daily laying down of our identity as sinners and embracing our identity as sons and daughters of God. It is not our efforts at “dying to the flesh” or trying to become holy. We stink–really–at doing that. Galatians 2:20 makes it clear that we are dead and the life we now life is by the faith of the Son of God. It is nothing to do with us, and everything to do with Jesus.

      I am going to post a link tomorrow in Saturday Ramblings to one of the most incredible and most dangerous messages I have ever heard. While it is not strictly about dying to self, it does address what the gospel truly is. I think you’ll like this.

      Greg (and Amanda and all others), thanks for your insights and your questions. Perhaps we will pose the “dying to self” verses as a Difficult Scriptures post soon. And perhaps I can try to answer this further. (I’m actually working on a book dealing with this subject…)

      • I guess the big issue is that I don’t see “dying to self” as leading to anywhere different than other forms of responding to Christianity. I see legalists, and they mean well. They really do (well, most of them). They’re just trying.

        Legalism didn’t set out to get its proponents goose-stepping in time. It started out as a call for people to love their neighbors and love God, and the fruits of that love will come. Then they listed the fruits, as Paul did. So those are what people see and expect from themselves and other people.

        When those fruits don’t come naturally, people started to push themselves, feel guilty that they weren’t coming naturally, that it was actually really hard work. They started faking it to make it, and they looked around to see that other people were doing so well, unable to understand that those people were faking it, too. So they started pushing themselves more to produce the fruits because it wasn’t happening on its own and look at all those people who are doing better. Then it started to become a competition as a way to reassure oneself that the fruits were there. That’s legalism – the competition and the higher and higher expectations on self and others. But it started out with just the desire to love Jesus and love one another.

        I don’t see how dying to self and still sinning will get us any farther from that tendency to want to bear that fruit and trimming back the weeds and thorns, then having to cut more back. I don’t see how dying to self isn’t also a call to change, a call to action. I see this rally to die to self ending in the same way: a different form of legalism that started with good intentions.

        Strip away the fat, strip away the programs, don’t do church this way, don’t *do* church at all! Strip away your expectations, become God’s fool, don’t be beholden to the trappings churchianity places on you. *This* is what Jesus *really* meant.

        Do you see how this can go as horribly wrong as evangelical Christianity?

        I don’t mean to jump into IM and start preaching – that’s the last thing I want to do. Instead, I bring before the altar my confusion, my frustration, my hurt, all the broken glasses of all the different ways people want me to see the world and this religion. I’m only responding here because I like IM, I care about what it’s trying to do, but sometimes it just seems like what is offered is just another flavor of Kool-Aid. Maybe that’s because I’m too blind to see what you really mean. Or maybe I’m just too cynical of human nature, or maybe just my own.

        • Amanda, your hurts, your confusion, your frustration are all welcome here. We are all stumbling along together. We are richer for having you with us.

          I hope to write further on this topic in the weeks to come.

      • thanks, JeffD, I’ll look for the link tomorrow. Your musings, questions , and struggles are a push to me in so many ways.


  14. Even in The Garden, the place where everything was good, there was a rule, and it was a doozy.


    But Adam and Eve were completely free, just like you and me and Jeff. Free to obey God and free to disobey God.

    As I told my children many times and now tell my grandchildren, Actions have Consequences.

    Of course you are free. But be careful what you do with that freedom.

    • Boo-boo. THREE = TREE

    • That’s what I said, Bob. There are many who, when set free, will engage in behaviors and activities that will lead them right back into their prison. Freedom is costly (to Jesus) and dangerous (to us). The only way to walk in safely in freedom is to have our eyes focused on Jesus Jesus Jesus.

      The tree in the Garden is a great representation of legalism: Knowing right and wrong. Focusing on “am I doing what is right?” is focusing on self. Self-righteousness is at the heart of sin. God now invites us once again to eat of the Tree of Life. Once we have, why would we ever want to go back to knowing good and evil? I would rather just live than analyze. And living means Jesus Jesus Jesus.

      Call me a one-trick pony if you like, but that is what it is all about. Jesus’ blood on the cross setting us free.

      Good points, Bob. Thanks.

  15. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    To trust God fully with one’s life sounds like a no-brainer, like the only right decision to make. Yet so very, very few do so. Why is that?

    With me, I’ve seen a few “Holy Spirit Lobotomies” turn off their brain and sense completely after Being Saved (TM), with destructive results. And the more stifled and restricted and smaller they got, the more “Godly” they described themselves. Getting out of Koinonia House Christian Fellowship and into a D&D gaming group was like going over the Berlin Wall into the West.

    Yes. But think about it. All things are ok for you to do, but they are not all profitable.

    i.e. “Don’t be stupid. Don’t get Stuck on Stupid.”

    Guilt comes from doing something you think you are not supposed to do, whether that goes against tradition or against what you have always been told is wrong or it goes against what religious teachers tell you is wrong. Guilt is based in fear, and fear is not of God. Fear is based on the thought of punishment.

    Image: Jack Chick’s This Was Your Life, where God has his tape recorder and video camera running every second of your life and rubs your face in every bit of it at the Great White Throne before pronouncing your doom (“BEGONE FROM ME, YE CURSED, INTO EVERLASTING FIRE…”). Big Brother, watching from every Telescreen for any hint of Thoughtcrime. THAT is an image of God — helped along by a LOT of American Born-Again Christian culture — I have never been completely able to shake.

  16. “…Jesus. He is the firstborn jailbreaker” I love it! Just booked my flight to Mexico.

  17. @Jeff Dunn:
    I have to confess to being pretty hard on you and the site recently, both in my mind and publicly in my comments here. I apologize for venting my spleen at times. Regardless, the last couple of posts represent back-to-back homeruns in my scorebook.

    Keep some Tecate on ice for me when I get to the beach…

    • Gee Justin, my skin must be getting thicker. I haven’t noticed you riding me too hard. Glad these essays hit home with you. I feel God stirring a revolution in my heart–and in others as well.

      Tecate will be waiting for you, my brother…

  18. Fantastic post–thanks Jeff!