Every week, a small group from my church family finds themselves in the midst of inmates from our local jail. What began over five years ago as a way of sharing our faith, has become a means of rehabilitating mine. I’ve been forced to chip away at every aspect of my belief system in order to offer a simple message of hope to those who may have never tasted the Lord’s goodness for themselves.
Sadly, I discovered a covert Pharisee living inside me. I didn’t like my performance-based brand of Christianity, so I began to read as if I knew nothing about Jesus, the cross, the Holy Spirit, or God’s resurrection power. I read, and read, and read again. The words Jesus spoke to the Pharisees of His day in John 5:38-39 convicted me with a mighty slam of the gavel. Jesus boldly told them, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think in them you have eternal life. These are the very scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Yes, I knew the Scriptures, but how well did I know Jesus? Did I truthfully know how to point others to Him instead of spouting out a nice little formula I had memorized? Maybe you have one of those too. Maybe you know your ABC’s of being saved, the four spiritual laws, or the five steps to salvation. Oh, I could talk a good game, but did I really know my subject matter, or my learners, well enough to teach them anything of lasting value? (Sorry, the teacher in me jumps out from time to time.) I needed to look at Scripture through the eyes of those held captive, before I could appreciate the magnificence of freedom in Christ. I needed to listen to the hearts of the inmates to better understand and connect with them.
After spending well over a year focusing fresh eyes on the Good News of Jesus, I made the following list of 10 things I’ve noticed about the inmate population:
1. Spiritual extremes are rare. There are few who admit to being atheists, and few who proclaim being committed followers of Jesus.
2. “Tell me about your spiritual life” translates as “Tell me about your church attendance.” I don’t remember asking any inmate to tell me about their spiritual life that they didn’t immediately begin telling me where they went to church growing up. The church they once worshipped with didn’t tell me anything about their relationship with God.
3. The most often mentioned and understood passage of scripture for inmates is Romans 7. This is where Paul admits that he wants to do good, but he finds himself doing the very thing he hates.
4. Giving up bad habits and/or bad relationships is impossible without God.
5. Reading scripture changes hearts.
6. Freedom terrifies those who sincerely want to change.
7. Those who try to change, need physical, spiritual, and emotional help.
8. We are all addicted to something.
9. Most admit they’ve done wrong, but feel trapped by their circumstances.
10. Most know who Jesus is, but haven’t recognized His love, grace, mercy, or power.
I first met with inmates hoping to offer freedom to the captives. I never expected to find it for myself, but that’s exactly what I found. Go back and look at this list again. Could all these things apply to our church families as well? Knowing only the Scriptures without finding Jesus in them forms a legalistic heart of do’s and don’ts that forces our submission. Forced submission is not freedom. However, using the Scriptures to know and love Jesus creates a thankful, transformed life that gives our willing hearts reasons to cheer! The freedom found in God’s grace replaces the sound of the slamming gavel with a new song of praise to our God!
I realize I’m a bit hung up on this salvation thing right now, but if my mission is to declare the praises of Him who brought me (and you) out of darkness into this wonderful light, then I want to share it with conviction and passion. If you’re not feeling so free, maybe you could begin your own reading project. If you know you’ve been set free, tell somebody! Philippians says to continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. I guess the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to tell us that because He knew that’s what would help us become better friends with Jesus. Then, we’d want everyone we know to meet our new friend!
Pretend you are sitting across the table from someone held hostage by Satan. What would you say to point them to freedom’s door? Think about that this week, and I’ll share my hope with you next week.
Enjoy the day!