In “The Panther,” Poet Rainer Maria Rilke imagined a great, muscular panther pacing in a cramped cage at a Paris zoo:
From seeing the bars, his seeing is so exhausted
that it no longer holds anything anymore
to him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
bars, and beyond the bars, nothing.
That wild, beautiful panther had looked at those imprisoning bars for so long that they were all he could see; his eyes and his heart were weary. He had sight of a world beyond the narrow confines of the cage. He no longer had the hope of fields in which to run, cliffs from which to see the valley below, and streams from which to drink cool, flowing water. All he could see were bars. All he can do, Rilke says, is pace and stand—pace and stand, “stunned and numb”
There are a lot of people who are like that strong but sad panther. They’ve lived narrow, bound, limited, and constricted lives for so long that they can no longer imagine themselves free. To deal with the pain of their diminishment, they’ve stopped thinking of what might be, should be, and could be. To cope with the cage, they’ve surrendered their dreams of running, dancing, playing, and being.
But, God does not intend anyone to be content with a cage, to make peace with a prison cell, to settle for slavery. God is a Liberator and Emancipator who is tirelessly and relentlessly at work among us, often in the unlikeliest of people, the most unexpected places, and the most surprising ways to make us completely, wondrously, and joyfully free. The God made known in the history of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is always flinging open the cages, opening the prison doors, shattering slavery’s shackles, and setting the oppressed—however they are oppressed, whether in body, mind, or spirit—go free.
As we live with the God who works for freedom, we come to realize that, often, not always but more often than we acknowledge, we’re imprisoned more by our fears than by the actual conditions.
We’re locked in by guilt for which we can’t seem to forgive ourselves, by shame which holds us back from risk and adventure, by unrelenting and unreasonable expectations, and by the demands of institutions which seem more interested self-perpetuation than in serving and caring for us and others.
We can despise the cage but stay, because the voice of pretend power, soul-chaining power, seems even more daunting and intimidating than freedom. We may, however, listen instead to God whose strong and tender voice drives out our neurotic anxieties and teaches how to subvert the forces which enslave us.