Sunday, 5 April 2009

Setting the captive free

How familiar are the words "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel ,...... to proclaim liberty to the captives , set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18, NKJV)

"To proclaim liberty to captives" - that phrase always confused me when I was growing up. My thoughts were something like this: "Why would Jesus want to 'proclaim liberty to the captives'? - surely, those in prison (the word some other translations use) ought to be there and shouldn't be set free!" It was a few years before I understood the true meaning of that verse.
In our day the word sin is not very popular. OK, let's use some different words for a moment: what about addiction? That's a good one to start with. We don't have to look far to find an addict of heroin, or other drugs, or what about alcoholics? Well, they are the obvious ones, but there are lots of others that are usually kept hidden and secret and only we know about them ourselves. At least we think we do. These were the captives Jesus was talking about. Those addicted to sin. He came to set them free. It begins to make sense now.

Charles G. Finney, 1792 - 1875

Finney talks about this in the online sermon I read. Imagine a person who smokes and who is trying to give it up. The man or woman involved, tries to 'break the habit' by denying themselves cigarettes and motivating themselves to go through the withdrawal symptoms (I have heard it's worse coming off cigarettes than heroin, whether that's true or not I can't say). Now, I have huge respect for people who do this and I wish them well. But, in my illustration, we encounter a problem. A person can force themselves to stop the physical habit of smoking, but, what about the cravings? They are often still there, and sometimes so strong that they overcome the physical and mental desire to cease smoking. In other words, the physical habit is at one level and the cravings are rooted (and sometimes very deeply) in another. The addiction has gone beyond the physical into what the bible calls our 'spirit'.

So, back to Finney. He gets frustrated at some of the teaching in some areas of the Christian Church which says that you focus on the problem (the sin) and pray and pray until it breaks. Finney says that is absolutely NOT the way to overcome an addiction or weakness. It's trying to fight a spiritual problem at a physical level. In fact, focusing on the problem sometimes gives the problem more attention and it just grows and grows. Focusing on the addiction, or the habit just doesn't work. It becomes obvious, that a spiritual problem must be fought at a spiritual level. But, how do we do this?

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis, in one of the books in his Science fiction trilogy. In either Out of the Silent Planet or Voyage to Venus, the main character, Ransom, returns from one of the planets with a cut to his heel. One of his friends who meets him on his return is a doctor who attends to the wound. But over time, it doesn't heal - it keeps oozing blood and requires to be dressed regularly. The doctor is bemused at this because Ransom is an otherwise very healthy specimen. Then C.S. Lewis uses a phrase something like "a wound sustained in another world requires to be healed in another world" - and that's exactly what I'm talking about now. We try to fight addictions and sin at a natural or human level - and it just doesn't work. We need to look at the spiritual level. So, back to our question, how do we do this?

Well, the first part of the answer is quite simple, we don't do it! We live in the human, natural world. We can only attempt to meet problems on our own level. Only God can deal with matters sin the spiritual level. Jesus came to "set the captive free" - He is the Son of God, he came here to earth on a mission. He also says "Come to me....and I will give you rest!" And, the answer is that it's 'in' or 'through' faith in Jesus that we will indeed be set free. I am utterly convinced of the truth of this statement. Instead of trying to focus on a problem and fight it, rest in Jesus. Quietly, trust in him to face the addiction or problem for us. And suddenly there is peace! I have known this truth in my own life and have only to look very quickly around the Church to see people who were once (for example) drug addicts and been in hostels, rehabs, prison and psychiatric care now totally free and living wholesome lives and in several instances running their own successful businesses. What a living gospel we have!

So, let's add a few words. I said addiction, but, what about obsession, or compulsion? In other words, areas of our lives that are stronger than us and no matter how hard we try we can't get free of them. It could be lots of other things too, like a bad temper, bitterness, hatred, violence - or a fear or a phobia, and a whole lot more besides. This living gospel - the good news - is for us too. A living, loving Power come to set us free so that we may live the life we were born to live!

If you want to read Charles G. Finney's sermon (from 1874), click here.


  1. I've never been a particular fan of reading old sermons (too dense to understand the language) thanks for the interpretation, very true and understandable.