Whether or not you have taken a course in British Literature, you probably have heard the quote: “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.”
This is the best-known line from “To Althea, from Prison” by Richard Lovelace, a Cavalier poet. Often on the wrong side of those in power, he was imprisoned for supporting King Charles I.
The poem recounts an imagined visit from Althea, believed to be Lovelace’s fiancé Lucy Sacheverell. He discusses healing thoughts of “Althea’s” beauty and love, and then concludes:
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.
Or as the misbehaving little boy sent to sit in the corner said, “I’m sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”
Inmates can be imprisoned justly or unjustly, deserving to be incarcerated for a crime, or entirely innocent.
The Bible has several stories about prisoners, some with accompanying stories of deliverance.
Joseph was imprisoned [Genesis 39] because the Pharaoh’s wife lied about him.
Samson was imprisoned [Judges 16] because he finally gave to Delilah’s wiles.
Jeremiah was put in prison [Jeremiah 32] for prophesying Jerusalem would be taken by the king of Babylon.
John the Baptist was sent to prison [Matthew 14] because of a whim of the daughter of Herodias.
Paul and Silas were in prison [Acts 16:31] for continuing to preach the Gospel.
[It is perhaps interesting to note three of the above examples were the result of conniving women.]
The Bible also contains several promises to those who find themselves hemmed in, bound by trials and heartaches.
Psalms 69:33. For the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.
Psalms 79:11. Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee; according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die;
Psalms 102:20. To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death;
Psalms 142:7. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.
Psalms 146:7 Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners:
The Bible also includes stories of people who were in prisons of their own making.
King Saul. Though anointed by Samuel and the recipient of excellent counsel from him, and ample warning about where his poor behavior and choices might lead, Saul entered and remained in a prison of his own making.
He was every bit as trapped, a victim of his own anger and jealousy, as David whom he was hounding.
Ultimately, Saul’s decisions destroyed his own house, including the life of his sons.
King Solomon. Though in the favorable position of being David’s son, and having been granted his request to be blessed with the gift of wisdom, Solomon became a prisoner to his own lust and multiplied wives and concubines to himself, and they turned away his heart from the Lord.
Possessing wealth and influence beyond what the world had yet seen, Solomon became a victim of his own insatiable appetites.
In Romans 7, Paul describes needing deliverance from the “body of death;” i.e. the sinful nature.
[19-20] For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  O, wretched man that I am ! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,” but all too often we can incarcerate our own selves.
Unforgiveness. How many weary souls have confined themselves in the prison of unforgiveness? No matter how many blessings surround them, no matter how many good people and positive experiences have populated their lives, they still cling to the one unfortunate incident—intentional or not—they allow to define and restrict their lives.
The parent who failed. The institution that mistreated. The bad break. The snub. The unfulfilled expectation.
By refusing to forgive, we keep ourselves in prison, confined with the very person, who offended us, because every waking thought is of that offense and the one who committed it.
Today: Get out of jail free. Forgive the one who wounded you, whether he intended to hurt you or not, whether he asks you to forgive him or not.
Stop concentrating on that one hurtful comment and reflect on the dozen or hundred which were positive and affirming.
Failure. “Nobody’s perfect.” Not even you. “We all make mistakes.” Even you.
Do you wake up “in prison” every day because way back when you took a wrong turn? Did you fail as a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, or father, husband, brother, son for whatever reason?
Does each new day send you to grip the bars of your cell and think, “Oh, if I only I had—”
Get out of jail free.
If you can make amends, if the problem can be fixed, then discuss it, admit you were wrong, and move on. Learn from the experience. Do better next time.
You have to start from where you are.
Grant the same tolerance to yourself as you do to others.
And if you do not grant tolerance to others, start doing that today.
If today you are in a prison of your own making, let yourself out. The key is in your hand.
Lamentations 3: 22-24. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.