Two weeks ago a close member of my family was sentenced to a three and a half year prison sentence for drugs related offences. Although it wasn’t a complete surprise, nevertheless the news when it came was still naturally shocking and distressing. As I’ve had some time to process things I thought I’d write a little about some of the things the Lord has been teaching me over these weeks.
- A newfound appreciation of the sovereign wisdom of God. For years we have been praying for this family member to be converted, and our prayer has always been, ‘Lord, do whatever it takes to save him.’ In the last five or ten years, as we’ve watched him go from bad to worse and seen his stubborn unwillingness to change, it’s become increasingly clear that unless God graciously stopped him in his tracks by conversion, only something like a prison sentence would be enough to get him off the road of self-destruction he was hurtling down. And so, ever since he was charged with these offences back in March and the likelihood of a prison sentence loomed, we haven’t really been praying that he would be acquitted, but rather that God would do what was best for him. A prison sentence might seem like the worst possible thing that could happen to a young man in his thirties, but to be allowed to continue in the life he was living would have been a far more terrible sentence.
In the days after his sentencing I would keep trying to imagine the horror of being locked in a small cell, deprived of liberty and family and friends. When I went for a walk or cycled in the countryside, when I drove to the shops or sat down to a meal with my family, I thought about how wretched it would be not to be able to do any of those things. And then it occurred to me that he’d been living for years in a kind of voluntary prison. He had chosen to surround himself with violent people, he had cut himself off from his family, he hadn’t taken advantage of his liberty but had allowed his world to shrink to the confines of a dingy apartment.
After several drug-related brushes with death over the last few years, it was only going to be a matter of time before this young man, this image-bearer of the living God who had so much potential, would be completely destroyed.
And so, having prayed for years that God would do whatever it took to humble him and bring him to repentance and faith, having been praying earnestly that God would deliver him from his miserable life of addiction and debt and fear, we see this sentence not so much as the climax in a crescendo of miseries, but as God’s gracious answer to our prayers. He is now in a wing for drug abusers where he will be forced to reduce his dependence on drugs. He is safer than he ever was left to his own devices on the outside. Most important he is, for the first time in a long time, facing up to the consequences of his actions. He had been protected and cushioned from them so long that he felt complacent – invincible even. People who feel like that tend not to cry to God for mercy. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. He needed his bubble of pride to be burst and to be brought low, and that is what is happening now. We pray that God will continue this work to the salvation of his soul.
- A newfound appreciation for the importance of prison ministry. One of the things that has come home to us in the last two weeks is the inaccessibility of prisoners. This seems like an obvious thing, but the experience of it brings it home on a whole new level. Especially in this age of instant communication with anyone, anywhere, anytime, not to be able – not to be allowed – to reach someone by text or phone or email or Skype or any number of communication apps is an alien and jarring experience. The prisoner is taken straight from the dock to the prison without being allowed to say goodbye or give a hug to a loved one. The barrister might take a brief verbal message to him, but nothing more. Apart from one short phone call (less than 2 minutes long) no communication is possible. It was 10 days before the first visit could be arranged – one of only 3 per month allowed. Otherwise communication can only happen by letter. It’s a very disorientating feeling. I know how agonising it was for my wife and me the first time we left one of our children at church camp for a week and weren’t able to easily get in touch with her! How much more this. No matter how much you might want to, you don’t know what he’s experiencing inside those walls. You can’t talk to him about the gospel. You can’t bring comfort or encouragement. You can’t pray with him.
How good it is then that there are Christians who work within the prisons—chaplains who are available to talk to inmates, who are able to go where we can’t. Who are able to give counsel. This young man has already met the chaplain and appreciated his kindness, and has made an appointment to talk to him at greater length. What a tremendous ministry – not glamorous, to be sure – but how gracious and important; to be available to men and women when God has brought them low and to be ready to preach good news to the prisoner. We’re thankful for the work of the Gideons, who ensure that there are Bibles available in every prison, with a guide to direct biblically ignorant readers to key passages. This family member has already been reading and quoting several verses in his letters. At the moment this may be as much for the benefit of the prison authorities who are reading his letters, but the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, so he may get more than he bargained for by reading it!
- A newfound appreciation for the love of God for sinners. This young man’s mother was in court to see her son pleading guilty and being sentenced and taken away. My wife comforted her with the thought that God knows what it feels like to watch his Son in court pleading guilty and being sentenced. Although Jesus had no sins of his own to plead guilty to, as the sin-bearer for his people he accepted liability for the guilt of our sins. If it was heart-wrenchingly painful for a mother to see her son getting exactly what he deserved on his own account, what must it have cost the Father not just to witness his Son getting what others deserved, but to be the one who passed and executed the sentence upon his beloved Son?
- A newfound appreciation for the terror that the Day of Judgment will be for the unbeliever. This young man went to court on 1 June expecting to plead guilty and then return home while the judge considered his sentence. He thought it would be several weeks before the sentence was handed down, and he was expecting that it would be a suspended sentence, and that life would carry on as usual. I can hardly imagine the cold rush of dread that must have swept through his heart when he realised that the sentence was being passed there and then, when he understood that he was going to prison that very day, when he realised there was no more time, no way out, no-one to save him from the consequences of his actions. It was done and there was no more hope.
What a fearful picture that is, in miniature, of the Day of Judgment. How many billions of our fellow human beings will be going about their everyday business, when suddenly, either through death or the Lord’s return, they find themselves in the dock before the Judge of all the earth. They had left the house that morning fully expecting to return later that day. It will be too late for repentance then. There will be no arguments to plead – ‘every mouth will be stopped.’ There will be no defence. There will be no-one to intervene and save them. The sentence will be passed and they will be taken away – not to a three-year term in the relative comfort of a jail cell, but to an eternity of ceaseless torment in the fire of hell, where there is no hope of parole, reprieve, appeal or release. How this thought should spur us to greater efforts in our prayers, our evangelism, our mission to the lost.
- A newfound appreciation for the importance of prayer. As I said, I can’t easily visit this family member, except by letter. But I can pray for him, and my prayers can reach where no-one else can. Prison bars and gates and walls can’t keep out prayer or restrict the power of the Holy Spirit in any way. God’s Word exhorts us to pray for all kinds of people, and since 1 June there is a whole new ‘kind’ of person that I’m conscious of – all those involved in the prison system: the guards, the inmates, the doctors, the chaplains, the wardens.
We are all addicts and prisoners by nature – addicts to sin and prisoners to our sinful nature. Any time we hear of a criminal being convicted of a crime we should echo the words of the godly John Bradford: ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ The saintly Scottish Minister of the 19th century Robert Murray M’Cheyne once wrote in his personal journal, ‘The seeds of all sins are in my heart.’ That’s true of us all, whether we see it as clearly as M’Cheyne or not. All it takes is the right circumstances and watering and they will sprout and grow and bring forth their bitter fruit. If we are not in prison today, it is only by the grace of God restraining us from following through on all the anger, envy, lust, pride, selfishness and evil that lurks in the heart of every son and daughter of Adam.
The good news of the gospel is that we can be released from the prison of our sin and guilt, to be forgiven and freed to serve the Lord in newness of life, never to see the inside of the dungeon of hell. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High… He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of men! For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron… The Lord sets the prisoners free. (Psalm 107.10-11,15-16; 146.7)