October 1, 2006

THE PRISONER’S FRIEND

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” Luke 4:18

Bad things happen when you go to prison. Your freedom vanishes. You can’t go where you want. You can’t make your own schedule. You’re in danger from prison gangs, from racial attacks, and from homosexual rape. And those are just problems inside the prison.

Problems on the outside may trouble you even more. If you’re married, you may be divorced before you get out. If you have children, they will be raised by others. Your family may visit once in a while, unless they’re too far away, or too poor, or just don’t want to see you.

You might be among the many prisoners who never have a visitor, who never get a letter. If you want to talk with your people on the telephone, you have to call collect. When the operator says to the person on the other end, “Do you accept the charges,” the answer might be, “No, I don’t accept the charges.” There you are, a phone in your hand and an ache in your heart.

When you apply for parole, you may need to have a job lined up in order to be released—but how do you get a job if you don’t know how to write a good application or do a good interview or don’t have the right qualifications? Even if you have some skills, many businesses aren’t eager to hire an ex-prisoner.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Trapped, lonely, hopeless. But it might not be as hopeless as it seems. Someone wrote me and said, “I was going to kill myself when I first came to prison. I was tuning the radio that day. I heard a message about Jesus. I gave my life to Christ, and now I have the will to live and share the love of God to others who have been where I’ve been.” Even someone on death row can have a future. A convicted murderer awaiting execution wrote to me and said, “I am on death row, but since I came to know Jesus, I am also on life row.”

The same thing has happened to many prisoners. So if you’re locked up, I want to say to you: don’t just think of yourself as a loser. Don’t think you’ll never be happy again. God hasn’t forgotten you, and God’s people haven’t forgotten you either. The Lord Jesus can turn your life around and make it worth living. He sets prisoners free. When Jesus walked this earth, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus is the prisoner’s friend. If you are in prison, you need to know this.

A Heart for Prisoners

Even if you’re not in prison, you need to know that Jesus is the prisoner’s friend. The Bible reveals that Jesus has a special heart for prisoners, so if you follow Jesus, you’ll have a heart for prisoners too. Jesus takes personally the way you treat prisoners, so you should show love to prisoners the way you would do to Jesus himself.

Jesus says that on Judgment Day he will divide all people into two groups. One group he will welcome into his kingdom of joy; the other group he will send to hell. Among the things Jesus will say to people headed for heaven is: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When these people ask when they ever visited Jesus in prison, the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” One of the things Jesus will say to people in the hellbound group is: “I was in prison and you did not visit me.” They will ask, “Lord, when did we see you in prison and did not help you?” King Jesus will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (see Matthew 25:31-46). That’s how personally Jesus takes our treatment of prisoners: what we do to them, we do to him.

So even if you’re not in prison, you need to hear the Bible’s message about Jesus as the prisoner’s friend. In Hebrews 13:3 the Bible says, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner.” Some prisoners the Bible talks about were locked up for their faith in Jesus. The Lord wants us to care about prisoners in many places around the world who are there unjustly because their government persecutes people who believe in Jesus. But are those the only prisoners God wants us to care about—heroic people of faith who are persecuted by evil powers? No, the Lord also wants us to care about prisoners who deserve to be in prison because of bad things they have done.

Jesus identified with sinners and died for sinners and rose again for sinners. I need Jesus to forgive my sins just as much as a convicted criminal needs Jesus’ forgiveness. People behind bars aren’t the only ones in prison. The Bible says, “The whole world is a prisoner of sin” (Galatians 3:22). So if Jesus didn’t care for prisoners, we’d all be sunk, because we’re all prisoners of sin. If Jesus is willing to be my friend, even though I am a prisoner of sin, then he is willing to be the friend of every kind of sinner, including those behind bars.

Facing Painful Facts

Now let me again speak directly to who are locked up, while those on the outside prison listen in. When I say that Jesus is a friend of prisoners, I’m don’t want to make it seem that crime doesn’t matter. I’m not going to lie or play games with you. Jesus is not just a quick fix to make you feel better. If you really get to know Jesus, you may feel worse about some things before you start to feel better. You’ll have to face the seriousness of your crimes without making excuses.

Maybe you’ve had a hard life. Maybe a lot of things have gone against you that weren’t your fault. If you’re like many prisoners, you may have had no father at home to show you how to be wise and good. Or you may have been beaten and treated with cruelty from an early age. If you’ve suffered terrible wrongs, it can make you more likely to commit dreadful wrongs yourself. That’s all true, but it is still no excuse. You still have to take responsibility for who you are and for what you’ve done. Don’t blame your crimes on parents who failed you or on friends who got you into trouble. They must answer to God for their actions, but you must answer to God for yours. If you’ve been scarred by a troubled past, my heart aches for you. I want you to know that you’re not worthless and that God still cares about you and opens his arms to you. The Bible says, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Psalm 27:9). You need to know how much you matter to God. But you also need to take responsibility for your own actions and not blame your sins on other people who wronged you.

You have to face the damage you’ve done and the hurt you’ve caused. That can be painful. A man serving a life sentence for murder wrote, “The hardest part isn’t the prison’s racial riots and violence. The hardest part was facing my victim’s survivors and listening to how their lives were impacted.”

Another man, serving a 20-year sentence, wrote, “I have been a burglar most of my life… Two weeks after my arrest I became a Christian. Several months later my cell was shook down. For some reason the guards took everything and scattered it all over the floor, including my sheets and blankets. When I walked in to straighten everything up, I saw and realized how all my victims must have felt when they came home… I felt so ashamed, and I knew then I would never do it again.”

Jesus does not pretend that crime doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. It hurts people a lot. Jesus doesn’t pretend that changing your ways is easy; its not. You can’t make up for the all the damage you done. You can only ask forgiveness. You can’t change yourself. You need the Lord to transform you. Your sin is great, but God’s love is greater still. You’re in a tough situation, but God’s power is tougher still.

In Psalm 107 the Bible says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” One situation where people experience that love is prison. Psalm 107 says, “Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains, for they had rebelled against the words of God and despised the counsel of the Most High. So he subjected them to bitter labor; they stumbled and there was no one to help. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men, for he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron… Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord (Psalm 107:10-17).

Jesus doesn’t just love people who are loveable and always do the right thing. Psalm 107 talks about people who “rebelled against the words of God” and got themselves thrown into prison. But when they prayed, God did not say, “Too late! You wouldn’t listen to me, so you’re stuck forever.” No, God loved them, he listened to their prayer, and God cut through bars of iron to help them and liberate them.

Isn’t that good news? Just because God lets you fall so far that you end up in prison doesn’t mean he’s given up on you. And if God hasn’t given up on you, you certainly shouldn’t give up on him. Jesus said he came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” and he didn’t just say it. He poured out his blood and died to make it possible.

Can I be blunt? Sometimes serving time in prison is called “paying your debt to society.” But you’re not paying a debt to society. You’re costing society a lot of money. Sitting in prison can’t undo the damage you’ve done or pay the debt you owe, and neither can anything else you do.

If you stole or destroyed something and you have the chance to pay back some money, by all means do so. But that still won’t undo the feeling of being invaded and violated that haunts a person you’ve robbed. And what about other crimes? You can’t undo the harm to a person you’ve beat up. You can’t remove the nightmares and the filthy feeling from a person you raped or a child you molested. You can’t magically take away the addiction of someone who got drugs from you. You can’t bring back a person you killed or take away the grief of loved ones who were left behind. The damage is done. Nothing you do can make up for it.

Sitting in prison doesn’t pay your debt to society or God, and it doesn’t make you a better person. Some prisons are called “correctional centers.” But apart from God, prison seldom corrects; it often makes people worse. Some studies find that four out of five crimes are committed by ex-prisoners. You don’t go to prison to pay a debt or to have your faults corrected. You go to prison because society wants you off the street and wants to punish you. If you want your debt paid, someone else will have to do it for you. If you want to become a better person, then you’ll need something beside your own willpower or the correction of the so-called correctional center.

A Clean Record

The good news is that there is Someone who can pay your debts, Someone who can undo the damage even of death itself, Someone who can really transform and change your life.  Jesus hung on the cross of Calvary and poured out his blood and suffered the terrors of hell to pay the debt we could never pay and take on himself the punishment we deserve.

And when I say “we,” I mean “we.” Not just you, but me as well, and everybody else. You may be in prison because you committed certain crimes, but all of us, even those of us who never end up in prison, have committed many sins against God and against other people, sins we can’t undo, sins for which we can’t ever pay the debt. I’m a sinner just as much as you are, and so is everybody else who’s listening. The Bible says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

I can’t erase the ways I’ve wronged others, I can’t pay my debt to God, and neither can you. However, Jesus can pay the debt for us, and he has. If you doubt whether Jesus would pay the price for a convicted criminal, just read the Bible. When Jesus was sentenced to death, a killer named Barabbas was set free. Jesus died in place of a killer! And when Jesus hung on his cross, a convicted criminal hanging next to him asked Jesus to remember him, and Jesus promised the dying criminal a place in paradise. How could the Lord make it any more obvious that he is willing pay our debts and save people who are guilty of even the worst crimes, even those who receive the death penalty?

When you put your faith in Jesus and trust his blood to pay for every wrong you’ve ever done, he sets you free from guilt. Jesus makes an exchange: he takes your record on himself and pays the debt for it, and he give his perfect record to you and all the benefits that go with it. He gives you the status before God of someone who has never sinned or done anything wrong. Your prison conviction might stay on your government record as long as you live on this earth, but your record with God is absolutely clear. Jesus’ blood wipes it clean.

When you trust Jesus, he pays your debts, he clears your record and gives you a new status of being fully accepted by God, and that’s not all. He also changes your life.

Free Inside

When you go into prison, your biggest concern might be how soon you can get back out again. But even if you do get out of prison, what good is it if you never get prison out of you? Even if you make it back to the outside, your inner self will still be in a cage, and before you know it you’ll be doing something that will land you back in prison all over again. You need to escape the prison of your addiction to drugs or alcohol, the prison of anger and hatred, the prison of lust, the prison of whatever sinful tendency got you arrested in the first place. Only then will you really be ready to leave your prison of steel and concrete and not end up coming right back.

A “correctional center” can’t correct you, but Jesus can. He sends his Holy Spirit into your heart to start changing you from the inside. The Holy Spirit brings your conscience back to life and helps you to hate sin and start loving other people. The Holy Spirit also brings back to life your sense of being made in God’s image. Maybe you’ve been told all your life that you’re a loser, a failure, that you’ll never amount to anything—and then you ended up in prison and it looked like all that negative stuff came true. But the Holy Spirit of Jesus reminds you that even at your worst, you still have traces of God’s image in you, and he assures you that when you put your faith in Christ, God adopts you as his own child.

That means you need to start thinking and acting like you’re a child of the king. No matter how down you feel about yourself, no matter what anybody else says about you, Jesus makes you a child of God, he gives you power to fight against your deadly habits, he gives you hope to see beyond your troubles, and he gives you new life.

The Lord can set you free! He can turn your life around! Even if you don’t get out of prison for a while, you’ll be freer on the inside than you’ve ever been in your life. Even if a lot of the people around you are still far from God, even if your own family doesn’t want anything to do with you, you can be sure that God is very close to you through his Holy Spirit.

A big part of your new life will be prayer. Your prayers don’t have to be fancy. You can just tell God what’s on your heart. And you can call him any time of day or night, and he’ll be listening. When you pray in Jesus’ name, you are calling the Lord collect, and he won’t refuse your call. He’s already accepted the charge, and he’s paid it in full. And as God listens to you, he responds. He gives you the love and peace and power you need to become the person he wants you to be.

The Holy Spirit of God works in you as you pray, and he also works in you by giving you healthy food for your mind and healthy relationships to support you. He gives his own inspired Word, the Bible, to feed your mind, and he gives relationships with fellow Christians to help you live by his Word. The Lord may give you some opportunities for this right within your prison. Build relationships with fellow prisoners who are Christians and with a good Christian chaplain if you have one. Also, build relationships with the church outside prison.

Seize the Opportunity

If you’re in prison right now, God hasn’t forgotten you, and God won’t let his people forget you either. The way is open for you to have a relationship with God and with his people. Maybe you’ve already experienced this. You’ve already turned to Jesus, and you’re already growing in faith and in fellowship with other Christians. If so, then I rejoice with you.

But if not, what are you waiting for? If you haven’t turned away from your old life and put your faith in Jesus, then I urge you to do so—right now. Admit your sins. Accept that Jesus paid your debt. Ask him to send his Spirit to live in your heart and change your life. And keep growing closer to him and to his people. We’re all brothers and sisters in Jesus.

Does that sound like just a lot of talk? Well, I’m not just offering talk; I’m offering you a real opportunity. If you want to know God better and study his Word, but you’re not sure how, and if you’re looking for a friend to help with your questions but you’re not sure who, then I’ve got great news for you.

There’s an organization that’s worked closely with the Back to God Hour for years; it’s called Crossroad Bible Institute. Crossroad exists to help the church outside prison to connect with people inside prison. In fact, as some listeners know, I have accepted a position with Crossroad and will be speaking on the Back to God Hour for just a few more months. Over the years I’ve seen what a blessing Crossroad has been for prisoners, and it’s becoming my fulltime job. My friend David Schuringa, the president of Crossroad, feels the same way I do about prisoners, and so do the thousands of Christians and churches who work with us. Currently more than 38,000 inmates are involved.

If you’re in prison, you can take courses with Crossroad. Here’s how it works. You study Bible lessons through the mail. Christian friends on the outside read what you write for each lesson and answer questions you might have. With each lesson you complete, they will send you a personal letter of friendship. The lessons are written especially for people in prison. The Christians who’ll be writing back and forth with you are Christians who have Jesus’ heart for people in prison.

So when I talk to you about growing in faith and being encouraged by Christian brothers and sisters, I’m not just offering empty words. I’m offering you a real way to make that start happening. If you or someone you know is in prison and wants to learn more from God’s Word and wants to enjoy the friendship of Christians outside prison, be listening at the end of the program for how to contact us. We’ll help you enroll in Crossroad, and soon you’ll be studying the Bible in a way that brings you closer to God and to Christians who care about you.

On Fire for Christ

Let me close by encouraging those of you who want to make a fresh start with Jesus. Some of the most enthusiastic, joy-filled, devoted Christians I know are people who came to Jesus in prison. Why is that? Well, one brother wrote me from prison and said, “I believe that inmates may seem more ‘on fire’ for Christ and outspoken due to the fact that most inmates have so much to be forgiven of, that we really understand what the forgiveness of God can really do.” Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). The opposite is also true: he who has been forgiven much loves much.

When the apostle Paul was young man, he hated the name of Jesus and helped to hunt down and murder Christians. But then Jesus changed his life. Paul never forgot how bad he had once been, but that didn’t keep him from rejoicing in what he had become by God’s grace. Paul said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:13-15). “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). Paul became one of the most effective Christians in history.

I know of a prisoner who heard me on the radio and enrolled in Crossroad and enjoyed it. Before long fifteen more people from that part of the prison had enrolled, thanks to the witness of their fellow prisoner. The person made a positive impact on other lives. If you’re a prisoner who turns to Jesus, he doesn’t just forgive you. He makes you his partner, his fellow worker, his ambassador to others.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, thank you for creating us for friendship with you. Thank you that your love does not stop even when we sin. Thank you for sending your Son Jesus to die for our sins and to rise again so that we too can live forever. Thank you for being the ultimate friend of prisoners. Help all of us prisoners of sin to find forgiveness and freedom through faith in you. Fill us with your Holy Spirit, and use us who trust you, whether inside or outside of prison, to be your partners in bringing hope and salvation to others, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.