August 23, 1973 was a normal day at work for employees of Stockholm, Sweden’s Kreditbanken—normal, at least, until Jan-Erik Olsson entered the bank with a gun. For six days, he and his friend Clark Olofsson held four employees of the bank hostage while making the typical demands to authorities (money, guns, and a fast getaway car—among other things).
The robbery ended in the expected manner—that is, not well for the robbers. Olsson and Olofsson surrendered half an hour after being exposed to a gas attack on August 28, and all four hostages were safely released.
Then the unexpected happened and threw the world for a loop: The former hostages hugged and kissed their captors. During their six days of captivity, the four employees had developed some strange emotional attachment to the two men who had used their lives as nothing more than bargaining chips—to the point that one employee later visited Olofsson several times after the ordeal.
This unexpected attachment was dubbed “Stockholm syndrome” by criminologist Nils Bejerot, and has since become the subject of much debate and interest in the realm of psychology. However, a 2007 article published in the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin entitled “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” explains that a hostage experiencing Stockholm syndrome eventually “views the perpetrator as giving life simply by not taking it.”
While law enforcement and psychology professionals have a hard time agreeing on how exactly Stockholm syndrome develops in the mind, the same article goes on to provide the consensus on the conditions that make it possible, namely:
- The victim is incapable of escape. The captor is in complete control of the hostage’s very life.
- The captive is isolated from other people and is only provided with the hostage taker’s perspective on events.
- The captor threatens to, and is perceived as being able to, kill the captive. The captive considers it safer to comply with the hostage taker than face death.
- The hostage perceives the perpetrator displaying some level of kindness, even if it is only a lack of abuse. (The Stockholm syndrome cannot develop without this perceived kindness, as it engenders feelings of appreciation toward the captor.)
To summarize, Stockholm syndrome requires an isolated captive being inundated with only his captor’s warped perspective on events, all the while knowing that same captor can kill him at will and yet mistaking the occasional lack of abuse as kindness.
Starting to sound a little familiar?
“Kindness” from the enemy
The Bible states in no uncertain terms that Satan, the “god of this age,” has blinded the minds of this world to God’s truth (2 Corinthians 4:4), holds them in captivity (2 Timothy 2:26) and is inundating them with his perspective exclusively (Ephesians 2:1-3) all the while holding “the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). Our adversary flawlessly meets the requirements we saw laid out in the first three bullet points, but what of the last? What of perceived kindness?
In that bullet point, examples abound. From the opening pages of the Bible, Satan did Eve the “kindness” of offering her divine cosmic knowledge—at the price of disobeying God. From his introduction in Genesis to the present day, that has been his game plan—to dress up self-destructive sin as something desirable instead of repulsive. Satan is far more clever than any other hostage taker, because he has convinced his captives that his weapon is actually his kindness. The same attractive-looking sins the world rushes to commit are the very sins he uses to bludgeon them into submission. The more they are beaten, the more they beg for additional bruises.
Many don’t recognize Satan as an actual being and aren’t aware of their part in the longest-running hostage situation in the universe. Despite being deeply embroiled in the worst case of Stockholm syndrome in the history of time, they don’t even know they are being held captive.
The other side of the fence
And then there’s us. As Christians who have repented of our sins, been baptized into God’s family and received His Holy Spirit, we can see more clearly the deception we have been rescued from. Paul writes that “God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5-4). Certainly not a rescue we deserved, with the Son of God taking on the penalty for our sins in our place, but a rescue we accepted nonetheless.
And now, of course, having been rescued, we are now flawless and perfect with no need to improve ourselves.
Hahaha. Hah. Haha.
Okay but seriously. With Passover approaching, a reminder of both the day God freed His people Israel from slavery to the Egyptians and the day He freed us from our slavery to the death penalty of sin, it’s only fitting to consider Israel’s example. After multiple centuries enslaved to the cruel Egyptians, God sent Moses to redeem His people and take them to the Promised Land. There He would establish them as an example to the whole world of what a nation looks like when it submits to God and follows His Way.
Or rather, that’s what He would have done—except Israel developed a textbook example of Stockholm syndrome. When God began using Moses and Aaron to perform the miracles that would ultimately end in Israel’s freedom, Israel complained that things were just getting worse (Exodus 5:21). Once they finally had freedom, they gripped every step of the way, longing for the meals they had been given in Egypt (Numbers 11:4-6), conveniently forgetting about the lashings and the taskmasters and the enslavement. And then, at the very border of the Promised Land, they panicked and tried to elect a leader to return them to slavery in Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4).
Israel didn’t want freedom. They wanted to remain hostages in the hands of people who would only use them as tools—and even when the path to freedom had been clearly opened and offered to them, they drug their heels the entire way. Israel had Stockholm syndrome.
Returning to slavery or proceeding to freedom
The implications for us are straightforward. We’ve been called out of our own, personal Egypt: our own sins. Like the Israelites, we have the option to proceed under God’s guidance toward the Promised Land of the Kingdom, or turn back in our hearts and long for the slavery we left. It’s certainly not a new parallel, but I hope we haven’t let it become so cliché that we think ourselves immune to its warnings. Just because we’re baptized doesn’t mean Satan can’t touch us. Until you and I accepted Christ’s sacrifice and had our sins washed away through baptism, Satan held us captive. We were hostages until we let God rescue us. And while we may be free from Satan’s rule now, we’re not free from his influence. We still must face, every day, the choice to stand firm against “the sin which so easily ensnares us” (Hebrews 12:1) or to give up our freedom and return to slavery.
Satan will do his best to blur the lines, too. Never forget that his title was not always “the devil.” Once upon a time, he was the “anointed cherub who covers,” “the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:14, 12). He knows full well how to fake the appearance of good, and regularly does. “And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). He won’t tempt you to do something you’re morally opposed to. He’ll do what he does with the rest of the world—take something in an area you see as grey, dress it up to look acceptable, and hope you follow it further and further across that line. It’s a gradual process, but it will get us there just the same as a sprint when all is said and done.
Every decision we make in this arena leads us down a road. Are we marching toward freedom or slavery? The Kingdom or chains? And which one, deep down in our heart, do we really want? Because if we, like the Israelites, get to the border of our Promised Land and can’t stop looking over our shoulders at what we left behind, we won’t make it in either. The pull of the spiritual Stockholm syndrome can be a strong one, but the farther we distance ourselves from it, the less attraction it can have on us.
Therefore, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:8-11).
Until next time,