i am drowning in awareness,
and yet never quite aware
that the chains i fashion every day
are the very ones i wear.
Some sat in darkness and deepest gloom,
miserable prisoners in chains.
They rebelled against the words of God,
scorning the counsel of the Most High.
That is why he broke them with hard labor;
they fell, and no one helped them rise again.
—an anonymous songwriter, exploring the desperate
condition of God’s people (Psalm 107:10-12)
I heard a story about a king whose brother tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him. As punishment, the king imprisoned his brother in a room with a window facing the sea. The room had a normal-sized door that a normal-sized person could walk through. They must have built the room around the guy, though, because the king’s brother wasn’t normalized at all—he was way overweight.
So all he had to do to be free was lose enough weight to fit through the door. But every day the king’s servants brought platters of fine food to him. They set the food in the window. That was his sentence—overcome his addiction or die in that cell.
And he died in that cell.
Just as the king knew he would.
And the person in the story I can identify with most is that imprisoned brother, staring at the gulls and the open water, eating another mouthful of rich food and telling himself that tomorrow he’ll deal with his problem and walk out the door. Yeah, he’ll start tomorrow. Or someday. Whichever comes first.
But neither ever did.
Through Abraham and his descendants, God’s promises traveled throughout the Middle East until they landed in Egypt, in the hearts of the Israelites. But in time, “The Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves and put brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down under heavy burdens” (Exodus 1:11).
In the ensuing enslavement, God orchestrated the birth and training of a boy who would become a powerful deliverer. His name: Moses. He grew up in the palace, then spent a good chunk of his life in exile as a shepherd after killing an abusive Egyptian guard. God chose this fugitive to set his people free. I think maybe God chose a murderer to lead his people so no one could ever accuse the Almighty of playing favorites.
When Moses returned to Egypt after encountering God at the burning bush, he had fire in his eyes and miracles in his hands. The plagues came quickly then: water turning into blood . . . frogs . . . locusts . . . hail . . . darkness . . .
Each plague more devastating than the last; each plague stronger than the corresponding gods the Egyptians worshiped. Hopi, the god of the Nile, couldn’t stop the water from turning into blood; the frog goddess Heqt couldn’t stop the infestation of frogs; Apis, the bull god, and Hathor, the goddess of cows, couldn’t stop boils from growing on the bovines; the revered sun god Re couldn’t remove the darkness.
It made Pharaoh insane with rage. How could this scraggly, stuttering shepherd bring mighty Egypt to its knees? How! How could his God be so strong?
So Pharaoh refused Moses’s request to free the Hebrews, and he wouldn’t acknowledge Moses’s God. After all, he didn’t want to lose his Israelite slaves. But as anyone who’s ever fought with God can tell you, God doesn’t lose, and he doesn’t surrender.
So then the final plague came. A ghastly judgment on a land of people who’d hardened their hearts, a people whose hard hearts were about to be broken.
God’s instructions to the Jews were these: kill a one-year-old lamb with no deformities and smear the blood on the door frames of your home. Then roast the meat with bitter herbs and serve it with bread without yeast. Dress for a trip and eat quickly, because deliverance is on its way.
Okay, I admit, it’s a bit weird. But there was a deeper significance to the lamb’s blood. God was weaving a tale that would make sense much later, on a dewy dawn by an empty tomb. But for now, here’s what God told his people:
The blood you have smeared on your doorposts will serve as a sign. When I see the blood, I will pass over you. This plague of death will not touch you when I strike the land of Egypt. You must remember this day forever. Each year you will celebrate it as a special festival to the LORD.
That night, not a single Egyptian home was spared. The firstborn sons died, and the grief-stricken mothers wailed. Yet the Hebrew families were saved because of the blood of the lambs. God’s judgment passed over his people. The blood on their door frames mapped the movement of his grace through the land. And this yearly celebration of the lamb and the blood became the backbone of the Jewish festival calendar—a meal called the Passover.
The two threads continued to intertwine: darkness and light, rebellion and grace, pain and deliverance.
what do i need in my life
to keep the shrieking at bay?
what do i need to do
to get your anger to pass
The next day the Hebrews began their desert journey toward the Promised Land, but along the way their faith faltered. Their newfound freedom became laced with blood and treachery. Compromise, unbelief, and idolatry swayed their hearts. They left the land of slavery, but they took their chains along. A shadow had ensnared their souls.
In their hearts and ours is a deeper slavery, a stronger chain than any Egyptian slave driver could wield. Sometimes others enslave us, but most of the time we’re the ones who enslave ourselves. Choice after choice. Bite after bite of forbidden fruit. Someday I’ll overcome this and be free, we tell ourselves. Someday.
Jesus put it this way: “I assure you that everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will indeed be free” (John 8:34-36). Sinners become enslaved by their sins. And freedom can only come through Jesus.
God knew about those fatal chains on our souls, stretching back to a choice in a garden. And he had a plan to snap them once and for all by sending his Son.
God knows all about our addictions to power and pride and gambling and pornography and cocaine and depression and anger and Cheetos. He knows how quick we are to hold grudges and how slow we are to forgive. He knows about our tendency to worship what we create. He knows how much we like to take what isn’t ours, say what isn’t true, distort the truth to our advantage, take credit for what we haven’t done, have our way at any cost, belittle those who disagree with us, step on those who get in our way, evade, excuse, attack, justify, rationalize, indulge in our fantasies, and look for loopholes.
Paul explained our condition like this: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16 NIV).
Every choice we make forges another invisible link on yet another internal chain that leads either toward freedom or death, toward heaven or hell.
You can’t tell the history of Israel without mentioning chains. You can’t tell the history of humanity without mentioning blood and terror and longing and slavery. And you’ll never understand Easter without first seeing the chains in your own heart.
Here is the paradox of the thing we call freedom: the farther we wander from God and the more we try to break free from him, the more enchained we become. Every step we take away from him leads us farther from the freedom of Jesus and closer to the cruelty of Cain.
Whips and fists and tears and chains are the chapter headings of the human story—a story that’s still unfolding, still being told. A tale in which darkness is alive, and hell is all too often at high tide.
But there’s one thing stronger than the chains on our souls: the love of a Jewish carpenter.
The crack of dawn at Easter was really the sound of chains falling away.
touching the unseen
i’m a caged bird,
rattling the bars of my cage
with furious flutterings.
break my chains!
free my spirit!
let me fly with the wings you have
drawn upon my soul
with heaven-dipped ink.
dusk is fast approaching.
where are you?
when will you come to
smash the lock upon my heart
and free me, at last,
i am my own prison
and you are the only key.