Behind bars

th-2Today’s thoughts come by way of one of our readers who spends a good deal of his time working with people in prison. What he finds out is that there is an advantage to being in prison when it comes to spiritual insight and daily walk.

First, you are at your worst. Certain conclusions about yourself are inevitable. It turns out these conclusions are actually true for all of us in a spiritual sense, but in prison they are obvious and unavoidable. “The best opportunity for God to demonstrate His grace and show Himself strong,” he writes, “is among the dysfunctional, weak, and hopelessly messed-up: people with major, impossible problems.” Well aren’t we all hopelessly messed up? We just have too many ways of hiding it out here, from ourselves and from others.

“We on the outside have it way too easy, and our ‘Christian lifestyle’ is too often simply the convenience and blessing of following spiritual laws that work, and not the product of being birthed (metamorphosed) into a new (spiritual) dimension through co-experiencing our death and resurrection with and in Christ.”

Indeed, this is the very thing we are learning right now from 2 Corinthians 4:8-12, that real ministry springs from sharing in both the death and resurrection of Christ. The death we experience every day in that we carry around the sentence of death in our bodies (the cross being God’s grand statement on the best we can do), so that we can experience his resurrection through the Spirit of God alive in our hearts every moment of every day.

“That’s why the New Testament teaches so much about the relationship between suffering and the kingdom of God,” our friend goes on the write. “Paul taught that ‘we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). Why? Because in the ‘comfort zone’ we don’t really know ourselves, too easily misjudge and criticize others, and have little motivation to seek to be intimate with God or getting involved in helping others.”

He goes on to point out that the greatest challenge to prisoners who have become Christians behind bars and have grown through studying God’s word and spending time with other Christian inmates, is not the challenge of being in prison, but the challenge of getting out. Will they maintain their daily dependence upon Christ without the constant reminder the prison environment gives them of how much they need it?

As for you and me, who live very day in an illusion of being outside of prison bars, we would do well to visit and observe a prison ministry, take part in one, or at the least, imagine ourselves behind bars today, where we all deserve to be for what we have done, and then imagine our inner freedom in Christ — a freedom that defies those bars, real or imagined, with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the only way we will begin to experience that spiritual metamorphosis our friend has written about. Transformation comes in going from death to life on a continuous basis.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:10)

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4 Responses to Behind bars

  1. Donald L. Williams says:

    A pastor friend loaned me his copy of Eric Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy. Your comments today echo something I read about Bonhoeffer’s comments when he spent a year, during his early ministry, in Spain. His preaching assignment there put him into close proximity and contact with “people whose businesses had failed, with victims of poverty and crime, and with truly desperate individuals, as well as with bona fide criminals. Through such experiences, Bonhoeffer’s heart for the first time awoke to the plight of the poor and the outcast. . .” Metaxas quotes him as stating: “I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace.” (Metaxas 2010, pp. 78-79).

  2. Andrew P. says:

    Good thoughts, John. I am reminded of the 20 years or so that Larry Crabb’s book “Inside Out” has been floating around my consciousness, and an insight that it led me to some 5 or so years ago: All motives are mixed. I find, when I bring this up, that many (probably most) people immediately reject the idea. They find it virtually impossible to believe that truly charitable, giving, sacrificial deeds could conceivably come from motives that had any mixture of bad with good, even in the smallest degree. Granted, if you’ve never given deep thought to Crabb’s thesis, then this will probably come as a shocking suggestion. You might say categorically, as a friend of mine recently did, “That’s incorrect.” Really? You sure? You really don’t believe the scripture that says the human heart is, above all, deceitful? You really know your heart completely, and the hearts of those who minister to “the least of these”?

    No, none of us do (know our own hearts that well, that is). Now, it could be true that some motives really aren’t mixed, but set that possibility aside for a moment and get down to street level. Surely a thoughtful believer can see that MOST actions bear mixed motives. A man helps with the housework because he loves his wife – but he also know things will go better for him if he does. One may help the homeless due to a real desire to contribute to shalom in the community and the betterment of the lives of others, but that same individual at least expects to get a good feeling from the effort (or perhaps “spiritual brownie points,” or in some cases the applause of other people). Mixed motives may be so inherent in the human condition that they are essentially inescapable – I’m not sure about that.

    If you reject the idea that at least MOST motives are mixed, it seems to me you truly are completely rejecting the notion that the human heart is deceitful, and therefore assuming the Bible is using pure hyperbole at that point. But after that long lead-in, let me finally make the connection to your observations, John: We should understand that those prisoners that your correspondent spoke of are probably a lot less inclined to be self-deceived anymore. No question – when they were committing crimes, many of them fooled themselves into believing they were doing nothing wrong. Having claimed the promises of Jesus Christ, I suspect they, more than most of us, realize how deceitful the human heart can be, and that makes them recognize all the more how much they need Jesus Christ.

    We need Jesus, not just to wipe our slates clean (continually!); we need to cling to Him always because even our most righteous deeds are as filthy rags, because we can never be completely sure when our hearts are fooling us. And when I think I’ve been fully rehabilitated, or am acting with fully pure motives, I may be at the most dangerous juncture of all. The convict who has also been convicted by Jesus Christ’s message probably knows that better than I do. He probably knows better than I do that transformation must be continual; the process is never complete. Praise be to the One Who will finish the good work He has begun in us!

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