A familiar childhood prayer closes with these words, “If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.” Now consider this modification: “If I should die before I live, I ask, O Lord, what then?” One can only shudder with fear when contemplating the Lord’s answer.
Come with me to the Scriptures to learn from Prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus the Son of God.
Five things had to happen to Isaiah before he could become a faithful messenger for the Lord (Isaiah 6:1–9a):
1. He needed a vision of the awesome, overwhelming holiness that is the Lord, of His glory that fills the earth and of His power that shook the very framework of the temple (vss. 1–4);
2. He needed to be convicted of the dreadful sin in himself and in those around him that brought total ruin to his life (vs. 5);
3. The hot coals from the altar had to touch his mouth to effect “your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for” (vss. 6–7). (So must the hot coals from the altar of Calvary’s cross touch our hearts and minds before we can be Christ’s messengers);
4. He had to totally surrender his heart and mind to the will of the Lord: “Here am I, send me” (vs. 8);
5. He had to be chosen by the Lord to “Go and tell this people” (vs. 9). (In the New Testament, Jesus changed “this people” to “all people and nations”).
Paul defines what real living is all about with these words, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). He was united with Jesus Christ in a profound intellectual and emotional relationship. His passionate love for God, his genuine love for sinners and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit inspired him to “preach Christ and Him crucified” to sinners far from God. Isaiah said, “Woe is me. I am ruined.” Paul said, “I am compelled, yea, woe is me if I preach not the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16).
Jesus humbled Himself in obedience to the Father’s will by dying on the cross to save sinners. In His final and most excruciating hours of suffering He chose to hang between two criminals PRISON INMATES! He even admitted one of them into His heavenly Paradise! What kind of love is this?
In the early sixties the problem of racism dominated this nation’s attention. Although some progress was made in achieving integration, journalist M.B.Zuckerman wrote in the May 1996 issue of U.S. News and World Report, “The racial divide that once promised to narrow now appears to be widening.” Be that as it may, from my perspective I observe a far more vicious discrimination that also embraces the church. It is unholy, deadly, and lodges deep within the heart. It completely ignores Jesus’ summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.” I refer particularly to the prevailing, discriminatory attitude, denial not withstanding, toward prisoners. This type of bigotry is not a matter of skin color. It is a spiritual bias, an inner, deep-seated attitude rooted in pride and hypocrisy. It totally disregards the warning found in Ephesians 2:1 and 3a which says, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. All of us lived among them at one time,…objects of [God’s] wrath” (emphasis mine.)
The self-righteous Pharisees had a bigoted attitude toward others. They hated and reviled Jesus because He associated with sinners and even ate with them. They took delight in exposing other people’s sins. One day they brought an immoral woman to Him for sentencing because they were the champions of law and justice—as if Jesus wasn’t! But Jesus focused His attention on them and with one simple command, exposed their false piety. On the other hand, His command to the woman, “Sin no more,” came wrapped in amazing grace and love.
The anti-prisoner Christians (an impossibility) throw up a smoke screen that runs something like this:
1. “They broke the law and should be punished.” Who says they should not?
2. “Prison conversions are all too often temporary.” Sad to say, that’s true, but think again. There are countless people who sit in church every Sunday who betray their commitment to the Lord every other day of the week. So we close the church doors and stop preaching the Word? Of course not. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” without adding, “except to prisoners who could be faking it.” Furthermore, the results are determined by the Lord. God says, “my Word will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire” (Is. 55:11). Therefore, we must and will “go” with His Word in our mouth and His love in our hearts. The road is often difficult and discouraging. At times it may be lonely and even risky to one’s image or physical safety. While that never stopped Jesus or the apostles, we must bear in mind that Jesus had perfect knowledge and wisdom and He often spoke audibly to His apostles. We must seek His guidance by means of the Word and prayer. We must always bear in mind that our first concern must be obedience to the will of the Father. Is the passion of our life devotion to Jesus or to the needs of men? If to Jesus, then no matter what God-ordained sufferings, trials or sorrows come our way, it will be worth it all when we hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
3. “Lock them up and throw away the key. They deserve it.” Who are we, once bound by shackles of sin (or weren’t we) to talk about disservice? God the Father could have said, “Serves them right. Let them burn in their hell-cells forever.” Instead, He sent His Son to die on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins. What kind of ungrateful, insensitive wretches are we? Jesus had a word to say about these things in Matthew 18:32–35.
4. Here’s the clincher: “Hatred and ill will are fueled by the exorbitant rising cost of housing and feeding an increasing number of prisoners which explodes into, “And we have to pay for this with higher taxes!” That is true and it appears to be getting worse instead of better. But one cannot help wondering how many prisoners would not have found themselves in prison if we as the Body of Christ had been more faithful in the bold proclamation of “The wages of sin is death” and “Whosoever believeth in Jesus shall be saved ” (emphasis mine).
All of this is not to say that the church is doing nothing to reach the unsaved. In fact, there are fantastic programs being implemented that require thousands upon thousands of dollars and rate regular public progress reports. Surely this is in obedience to: “Go ye out into the world.”
What then is the burden of my heart? To whom has the Lord directed my attention and why? The answer is found in Psalm 107:10–15:
1. “Some sat in darkness and deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains” (v. 10);
2. The reality of their rebelling against God (vs.11);
3. The necessary, God-ordained consequences (vs.12).
What is the hope and expectation of my heart for today’s prisoners?
1. That they too will cry to the Lord and be saved from their distresses (vs.13). But how can they cry to someone they don’t know about and how can they know about that Someone without a messenger to tell them (Romans 10:14)?
2. That they will be brought out of the dark bondage of Satan into the glorious freedom and light of the Lord’s loving rule in their lives (vs.15);
3. That a multitude of Christians will rejoice and give thanks to the Lord for His boundless love and mercy to prisoners (vs.15).
A disturbing question: Why, in the majority of churches, is there such a lack of concern for prisoners? How often, if ever, are prayers offered in the worship services particularly for criminals? How often are jail chaplains, for instance, given an opportunity to present the spiritual needs of the inmates?
Some people just aren’t aware of the opportunities available and neither are all qualified to be preachers and teachers. However, organizations like Crossroad Ministries, Forgotten Man Ministries and Prison Fellowship offer many opportunities for service.
Seeing people who are created in the image of God with hard hearts and evil characters is a humbling experience because, as Martin Luther said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Getting to know people, who like us, weep, laugh, love, hate, and hurt and are often treated as less than human is part of the agony of this ministry. You see the suffering in their eyes and hear it in the words they speak, and yearn to have them come to the Savior for healing (Psalm 101). Doesn’t it break your heart? It should. Don’t you hear Jesus’ agony as He cried, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem” (Matt. 23:37)? Can’t you just hear Him cry out, “O criminals, repent and believe; receive My love and forgiveness and find rest for your soul!”?
Addressing His Father, Jesus said, “I have brought You glory on earth by completing the work You gave Me to do.” Will we be able to say the same thing when our life comes to a close?
Yes, Paul, to live is Christ. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we too will seek to persuade men. Though we may sow in tears we will reap with songs of joy…carrying sheaves with us (Psalm 126:5, 6).
What is your response?
“Here am I, send me…but not there”
“Here am I; I’ll go wherever you want me to go, dear Lord.”
Nell Tjapkes, a member of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, MI, is involved in Crossroad Bible Institute’s Prison Ministry.