Life on the Outside
By our (sinful) nature and due to our world’s (evil) nurture, we see ourselves as servants: not free, always failing, awaiting final judgments. We’ve lived long in the prison, where your sins are never forgotten and your punishment is never ceasing.
In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, a man named Brooks, incarcerated for almost his entire adult life, is released from prison. He is sent to a halfway house and employed at a local grocery store. He is free: really, genuinely free. But he continues to run back to the prison: asking his manager anytime he wants to use the bathroom, incapable of enjoying his ability to walk around in a world without walls. Eventually he kills himself, a tragic example of a man incapable of enjoying the gift of freedom. His fellow inmates hear of his death and realize that they too may suffer his fate: they have been institutionalized, and freedom scares them. They need the law. One of them, Red, puts it this way:
These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized . . . They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.”
Finally Red is paroled. He finds himself in the same halfway house and the same grocery store. He makes use of his time and sees the world. He learned from his friend Andy, who had told him, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Red clearly struggled with institutionalization, finding it hard to adjust to freedom. He tells us:
There’s a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside. All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole, so maybe they’d send me back. Terrible thing, to live in fear. Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all too well. All I want is to be back where things make sense. Where I won’t have to be afraid all the time.
But he went on, remembering Andy’s words and the promise of a new life. His fear was overpowered by faith in a promise of life: Andy pointed him to a stash of wealth and a new life in Mexico. Andy did not tell Red to earn his way to new success. He gave him resources and welcomed him into his own life in paradise. He found life outside.
The Bible tells us that we too live in fear, even as we are called to step outside in faith. Paul knows the struggle of the divided man (see Romans 7) and the divided church (see the whole of Galatians). We believe, yet we struggle with unbelief. Blaise Pascal said that all human problems begin with our failure to sit still, that is, our inability to receive. We suffer from institutionalization. By our (sinful) nature and due to our world’s (evil) nurture, we see ourselves as servants: not free, always failing, awaiting final judgments. We’ve lived long in the prison, where your sins are never forgotten and your punishment is never ceasing. We strive and sometimes win, thinking ourselves much before the world and God. We run and mostly lose, believing we couldn’t possibly be loved by others, especially by our Creator.
So the calling of Christians and the task of Christian community is to receive and remember. Like Red, we fear the unknown. Like Red, we need to hear the promise of new life and a new paradise. “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). It is not the upwardly mobile, the religiously impressive, the domestically capable, the psychologically balanced, the physically fit, and the socially accepted who are children in God’s family. Rather, those united to Christ by faith are God’s children. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28). It is not this ethnicity or that economic status, much less one’s gender or social standing, that renders one a member of God’s people. No, all those in Christ Jesus – sharers in his death and resurrection by baptism and faith – are clothed with Christ, identified not by their own life and death but by his own. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). No religious rites or legal observances mark out God’s own from those outside. Rather, those united to Christ Jesus by faith “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5).
Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget what’s been done, what’s now real, and what’s promised for the future. You aren’t a captive: taken hostage by sin and death, held bound by your own failures and foibles, anxiety ridden about what you will (not) achieve. You are free: died and risen in Christ, clothed in him, awaiting the hope of his glory and his righteousness. Red thought he couldn’t possibly survive life outside the prison walls—what we discover in the world of Galatians is that we live outside or we don’t live at all.
Michael Allen teaches at Knox Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he holds the Kennedy Chair of Systematic Theology. He has written a number of books, including Reformed Theology, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, and Justification and the Gospel (forthcoming, 2013).