Americans Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal, and Sarah Shourd were hiking the Iraqi mountains in July 2009 when they were arrested for allegedly illegally crossing the border from Iraq to Iran. Sarah was released in 2010 after more than a year in solitary confinement. After two years in prison, Shane and Josh were convicted of “illegal entry and espionage” and sentenced to eight more years in August of 2011. Then on September 21, 2011, they were released through an appeal and much political pressure. Their bail of $500,000 each and their escort out of Iran was paid for by the Sultan of Oman.
Evin Prison, where the hikers were held, is known for brutal torture described by former inmates, including: solitary confinement in 6 by 6-foot cells, beatings, and forced confessions. Political prisoners (mostly educated Iranian or foreign professors) are in confines with murderers and never allowed legal counsel.
Few people have to experience extreme circumstances like those that the three American hikers did in an Iranian prison. Their freedoms were taken away. They had no access to the outside world, no control over what they ate, and no resources for a fair trial. They had to maintain hope, physical and mental health, and determination against abuse and injustice. But even people who are not physically imprisoned can feel powerless and trapped. Many people face situations in which they feel they have no control or options. We can feel trapped because of other people and the power they exercise over us. God’s people have known that feeling too. As the Israelites fled from Egypt, they found themselves between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s approaching army. They cried out and God made a way for them, literally setting them free from their captors (see Exodus 14). The prophet Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den for worshipping God, but the Lord closed the lions’ jaws and Daniel remained untouched (see Daniel 6). Those miracles were accomplished (in part) so that God’s power and love could be revealed to all. God chose for God’s people to be free.
Freedom in Christ
Some people are imprisoned by others, but many of us also imprison ourselves. Our personal choices, attitudes, and behaviors can separate us from God and from others, trapping us and making it difficult to escape. Jacob was so jealous of his older brother that he stole Esau’s birthright and their father’s blessing. Later in life he approached his estranged brother in hopes that he could “buy” Esau’s forgiveness. But God and Esau showed Jacob mercy and forgiveness (see Genesis 32–33). Jesus told the story of a prodigal son (see Luke 15) who left his family, squandered his inheritance, and found himself homeless and starving—imprisoned by his own selfishness and egotism. Hopeless, he repented and went home. His father welcomed him with love and grace. And then there was Paul, who was in prison for preaching the gospel, but continued to praise God and preach Jesus’ message of love to those around him. He had the hope, comfort, peace, joy, and freedom that come from knowing and following Jesus.
These stories are “our story.” We are tempted by all that the world appears to offer and often stuck in patterns of behavior that lead us nowhere. Whether it is hopelessness, depression, bullying, stereotypes, selfishness, mean-spiritedness, recklessness, judging, lying, cheating, or something else, we imprison ourselves. We must unlock the door to Christ, accept Jesus’ open arms of love and forgiveness, and live a life of freedom by following God. Jesus was sent to save the world—not from earthly rulers—but from sin. Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is the way to freedom.