In the early 1970s, a social scientist named Philip Zimbardo led a team of scientists from Stanford University in an interesting experiment. The team built a mock prison in the basement of the University’s psychology department. The scientists placed advertisements in the local papers looking for volunteers who would participate in the experiment. Zimbardo and his colleagues selected twenty-four people to participate, choosing the ones who appeared to be the most emotionally stable and healthy.
Half of the group was randomly selected to be prison guards. They were given military-style guard uniforms and dark glasses. They were told their responsibility was to keep order.
The other half of the group became the prisoners. They were arrested in their homes, cuffed, brought to a real police station, fingerprinted, and then blindfolded for the trip to the mock prison. They wore prison clothes with numbers on the front and back of the clothing.
The number became their identity.
They were only allowed to refer to themselves and others by their numbers. In post interviews with the prisoners in the experiment, they confessed that when their identity became a number, they felt helpless and hopeless. Four of the prisoners were pulled from the experiment early because of emotional breakdowns including extreme depression, crying, rage, and anxiety. Other prisoners incited rebellions and riots against the guards.
When the mock prisoners forgot who they really were, they became depressed. Their self-perception impacted their thinking, attitude, and ultimately their behavior. When they believed that they were criminals, they began to live like criminals.
The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but Zimbardo shut it down after six days because of the chaos that was ensuing. When he was dismissing some of the mock prisoners, he needed to remind them that they were not prisoners, that the scenario was not real.
Unfortunately for many people, life seems like a long and painful prison experiment. Though Christ has set believers free from the prison of sin, many Christians live as if they are in bondage to guilt. Many Christians live defeated because they believe the lie that they are prisoners of sin.
The reality is that Christ has set us free from sin.
In fact, the word sinner is never used in the Bible of a Christian. While we still sin, and will struggle with sin, our identity is no longer that of a sinner. We are brand-new people.
Just as the guards in the prison experiment bombarded the mock prisoners with messages about their identity, there is an accuser who constantly bombards you with messages. Satan is the accuser. In fact, Satan’s name literally means accuser. And day and night he hurls accusations about you (Rev. 12:10). He knows that if he can cause you to believe you are a prisoner of sin, you will live that way.
You have heard the accusations. . . .
- There is no way God could forgive you for what you have done.
- Your past is so dark that God will not use you.
- Other Christians never struggle like you do.
- Look at the mess you have created. There is no way God can love you.
- God is ashamed of people like you.
While the enemy hurls inaccurate insults your way, God reminds you of the truth of your new identity in His Word. The accuser tells you that you are guilty; God says that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). The enemy says you are nothing more than a sinner; Christ declares you are no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:6).
While the accuser tells you that you are filthy and unclean, God says you have received His righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). The accuser points to prison walls; God says you have been set free (Gal. 5:1). The accuser points to all your previous sin; God declares you righteous in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).
You have been set free from spiritual prison; so don’t live as if you are a prisoner.
Please do not misread me. I am not suggesting that thinking you are free makes you free. If you are not spiritually free, no amount of thinking will alter the reality that you are a slave to sin, in spiritual bondage. If you are still in spiritual bondage, your heart needs to be transformed, not your thinking.
However, I am suggesting that you remember the reality of who you are, that you understand what God declares to be true about you. You are not thinking yourself into a state of being forgiven, as if your thoughts changed reality. You are not telling yourself you are free to cope with the spiritual prison. You actually are forgiven and free.
Zimbardo was compelled to tell the mock prisoners that the prison was not real. The nightmare was an experiment. God is compelled to tell you the same thing; the prison is not real. You are free. You are forgiven.
Adapted from Identity (2008, B&H Publishing Group)