Jesus came to set prisoners free. The day is far spent and we are still not free of the prison.

We can all identify with the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. In fact, it is our life story. The question is: How do we get out of the prison cell to freedom?

Realization

The first step on the road to freedom is realization. “But when he [the Prodigal Son] came to himself…” (Luke 15:17a). Paul writes, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). The problem is that people have crept into the church and have tried to rob us of our heritage of freedom. That makes God angry. That ought to make us angry too.

Are you tired of feeling guilty all the time? Are you tired of feeling bound by rules? Are you tired of being manipulated by every religious guru that comes down the pike? Are you tired of carrying the baggage of your past into your present? Are you tired of empty platitudes? Are you tired of trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations?

If so, shout out, “I’m mad as heaven and I’m not going to take it anymore!” If you are as mad as heaven, then you have taken the first step.

Recognition

The process moves from realization to recognition. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough to spare, and I perish with hunger!’” (Luke 15:17).  This step can be called “denying the denial.” Recognition is deeper and more insightful than realization. Realization is knowing that it hurts. Recognition is understanding why it hurts.

You must never fail to tell yourself the truth. One of the problems with most of us—especially as Christians—is that we work so hard to pretend to be something we aren’t. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to pretend anymore? The Bible says, “There is none righteous, no not one,” “The heart is desperately corrupt, who can understand it?” and “Everyone has turned to his own way.” You are not the exception. You don’t have to pretend.

The point is this: On the road to freedom, you must take a hard look at the reality of sin and pain in your life…and call it what it is. It is a scary process, but not as bad as you may think. I always knew there were “sleeping dogs” in my life. As I began to work through some of my own issues, I discovered, as one of my friends said, “When you confront those dogs, you’ll find that they don’t have any teeth!”

Responsibility

The third step is responsibility. “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…’” (Luke 15:18). The principle is this: Most people who are in prison think that it is someone else’s fault. It is time to own up.

One time, I spoke at a women’s prison and afterwards one of the sweetest elderly ladies came up to me. She was soft-spoken, her hair was in a bun and her eyes twinkled when she spoke. She said, “Mr. Brown, would you pray for me?” I told her that I would and then she said, “You know, I’m not guilty of anything, but I am a Christian and have decided to accept my sentence as a call from God to have a ministry in this place. My family—I love them anyway—is the cause for my being here. As the Bible says, ‘They meant it for evil…but God meant it for good.’” My friend—a former prisoner, now in prison ministry—stood over in the corner of the room, laughing. Later I asked him why. He said, “Steve, do you know what that woman did to get in here?” I shook my head. “She owned a nursing home, doused one of the elderly women with gasoline and set her on fire.”

When you do your life evaluation, after each item, say, “I take personal responsibility for every act, for every sin, for every bit of aberrant behavior.” After all, understanding is not another word for excuse.

Repentance

The next step is repentance. “‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants’” (Luke 15:18-19). This is the most important step on the road to freedom. While our sin has been forgiven—past, present and future—we confess simply because the life of power, freedom and wholeness is a life of repentance and the sign of repentance is confession.

Repentance is a wonderful, biblical word, but we have allowed neurotic Christians and angry pagans to define it. In the Old Testament, “repentance” actually means “to comfort.” In the New Testament, the word means “to change one’s mind.” So repentance means nothing more or less than “agreeing with God” about who you are, what you have done and what needs to be changed.

Repentance is a wonderful, biblical word, but we have allowed neurotic Christians and angry pagans to define it.

In the case of the Prodigal Son, repentance involved going to the father. Likewise, for us, repentance is going to the Heavenly Father. It is going to God, allowing God to be God and accepting his judgment—his loving judgment—on yourself. Of course you don’t measure up, but never stop going to him with a heart of repentance. It is the key to everything. Repentance prevents you from being judgmental of others, it opens the gate of power, and, eventually and slowly, it is the method whereby we change.

Remorse

The next step on the road to freedom is remorse. While the Prodigal Son story doesn’t say it, human nature and other passages in the Bible teach it. “Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). “‘Now, therefore,’ says the Lord, ‘Turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’ So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness…” (Joel 2:12).

There is a 5-step process of grief that takes place when you face a tragedy (cancer, for example) in life. When a person moves from the prison to freedom, that person goes through exactly the same process: Shock (“I’m not the person I thought I was. My parents were not as good as I thought they were. My hero isn’t a hero.”); Anger (“How could they do that to me? I have been betrayed. How could God let this happen to me?”); Depression (“I’ll never be different. How could I be so stupid, so sinful and so ignorant?”); Bargaining (“God is a miracle worker. I’ll just pray and my ship will come in.”); and finally Acceptance…“Father I am not much, but I’m yours. If I were you, I wouldn’t spend much time on me. But for whatever reason, you have loved me and forgiven me. You have promised that, even if I never get any better, you will still love me and accept me. If you can do that, I guess I can do that for myself.” The prison may not be nice, but it is all we know. It is far easier to keep saying to yourself that you are a nice, good person than to face the truth. Freedom is, at least at first, a place of high anxiety and very little security. Prisons, in fact, can be rather warm and comfortable.

For freedom from the prison cell, there must be remorse or grief. As my friend, Larry Crabb, points out, we must go through the pain before getting to the healing. The pain is the surgeon’s knife.

Relinquishment

Then there is relinquishment. “And I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants…” (Luke 15:19). If you are familiar with the 12-step programs, you know that the first of the steps is to admit that you are powerless over the problem. That is important for the prisoner too. Given the nature of the world, the need to please, the generational guilt, the pressures against us and our “bent” desire to stay in the prison, there comes a time when you must turn to a higher power than yourself for the strength to get out of the prison.

The American folk religion says, “God helps those who help themselves.” The Bible says, “God helps those who can’t help themselves and who know it.” Relinquishment is the only way a Christian ever gets out of the prison. It is letting go of the need to control.

The American folk religion says, “God helps those who help themselves.” The Bible says, “God helps those who can’t help themselves and who know it.”

Prisoners who think they can get out of prison by themselves stay there forever. You can trust God to run the universe, your family and your life. As long as you want to run it all, he will let you. But be warned: Your control will only build more bars in the prison cell.

Resolution

The final step from the prison cell to freedom is resolution. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fattened calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry, for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry” (Luke 15:22-24).

The price has been paid. You don’t have to pay it anymore. Realize that the prison cell is a prison cell. Recognize why you are there. Take responsibility for your being there. Repent by agreeing with God’s assessment of the cell. Experience remorse. Then relinquish control over it all.

At that moment, God will open the cell door…and you will run free.

Time to Draw Away

Read Luke 15 & Romans 8:1, 14-17

Are you still a prisoner? Are you tired of feeling guilty, being bound by rules, and carrying the baggage of your past…all the time? The cell door is open. And the Father is waiting there with open arms. Just run to him.

Looking for more hope and grace for Prodigals? Be sure and check out Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.