5 lessons I learned in prison

“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”  Matthew 25:36 (NIV)

Been any place interesting lately?

As school wraps up and spring glides into summer, many of us dream of vacations to places like Florida, Texas, California, Canada, or even Puerto Rico.  Wouldn’t it be cool to visit those places?  No doubt!

But there’s a place I’ve repeatedly visited over the past year, a place different than any I’ve ever seen before: a state correctional institution.  In short, a state prison.

In a move that only God could have orchestrated, I serve as a spiritual advisor (read “pastor”) to a dear brother in Christ whom I’ve known for years.  And while I’ve long known that a prison hold convicts, I didn’t realize until recently just how many lessons a prison also holds.  Our update shares five of those lessons, and you may be surprised to see what God taught me.

Lesson #1: Everybody in here’s innocent

In the words of Oscar Wilde, “life imitates art,” and Lesson #1 is certainly proof of that.

One of my favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption, stars one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman, who plays the role of Ellis “Red” Redding, an inmate serving a life sentence at the Shawshank State Penitentiary.  Red first meets up with the protagonist, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing his wife and her lover.  Captured below is their introductory dialogue…

Andy: I’m Andy Dufresne.

Red: Wife-killing banker.  Why’d you do it?

Andy: I didn’t, since you ask.

Red: (scoffs and laughs) You gonna fit right in!  Everybody in here’s innocent.  Didn’t you know that?

Wow!  That dialogue has been cemented in my memory for over 20 years, so imagine my surprise as I saw it demonstrated in real life.  Of course, that made me think about human behavior.  What’s happening here?

Is it possible that everybody in prison is indeed innocent?

Nope, not a chance.

Or, could it be that some convicts suffered from a combination of being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd with the wrong lawyers and the wrong judge?

Nah, that sounds too much like a conspiracy theory.

Or, could it be that it’s just too painful, too difficult for us to admit we’ve done something so far over the line that we’ve been incarcerated, and it becomes easier for us to come up with outlandish explanations than to simply face the stark truth: I’ve committed crime(s), so now I’m being punished in prison?

I think I’m getting warmer….

As I’m reminded of the many times I’ve sinned and made excuses, lying to God, lying to others, and lying to myself, I realize this last explanation might be something I could easily fall into as well.

Maybe you’re a little like me in that way, too?

Without going in to any incriminating details, I can affirm Lesson #1 from my prison experiences: life truly imitates art.

Lesson #2: People at their worst

Even approaching a state correctional institute can be intimidating because of the…

  • dozens of armed correctional officers and glowering staff members;
  • imposing high stone walls;
  • miles of nasty razor wire;
  • whispers of conspiracy theories and escape plots, and
  • omnipresent cameras with everyone seemingly watching your every move.

 

What’s not to love?

And gaining entrance into the visitor in-processing room is like stealing into a dungeon.  After they “buzz” you in, a startlingly loud, mechanical ker-CHUNK sound releases a dead bolt, signaling you to enter.  You’re now one step closer to people at their worst: murderers, rapists, drug dealers, thieves, liars, and cheats to name a prominent few.

Just the type of people Jesus loved to hang around (Luke 15:1-2; Luke 19:5-7); more on that soon in Lesson #5.

Each interaction in prison can be – by necessity – traced back to a lack of trust:

  • Prisoners are referred to not by name, but by their prison number
  • Prison visitation begins only after you surrender nearly all of your personal goods and agree to adhere to a strict dress code (no, you can’t bring in your own Bible)
  • You walk through a metal detector where the correctional officers check you not just for firearms but also for illicit drugs. None of was more surprised than the middle-aged Mennonite woman who was denied a visit, because she flagged for trace amounts of marijuana!
  • Public displays of affection are limited to a brief hug and kiss at the beginning and end of each visit; hand-holding, lap-sitting, touching, etc. are all strictly forbidden, punished with a termination of your visit.
  • And, once you finally get to see your loved one, you are assigned a seat where you are monitored from beginning to end.

 

Ah, the intimacy of it all!

These few examples solemnly underscore an all-but-spoken lesson: prison reveals people at their worst.  But that leads me to a far brighter, somewhat unexpected lesson…

Lesson #3: People at their best

Yes, prisons, full of convicted felons as well as overworked and underappreciated correctional officers, can be pretty frightening.  But, if you ask God to for “eyes to see,” you’ll also catch people at their best: both visitors and convicts.

To state the obvious, prison is a unique environment, a place where God regularly works.  Could He have anything to do with people at their best?

Absolutely!

Time after time, I was humbled by the people I interacted with in the visitor in-processing area.  And we visitors had plenty of time to connect with each other: it was common to wait between 20 minutes to an hour before the correctional officers could arrange for your personal visit.  So, that gave me lots of time to talk to:

  • A retired farmer who initially felt overwhelmed by witnessing to prisoners about Jesus’ redemptive love – God repeatedly honored his obedience.
  • A former kindergarten classmate of mine, a convict herself, who variously visited her adult boys who were also serving time – a mother’s selfless, unconditional love speaks volumes.
  • A newly single mom with adorable toddlers who could barely contain themselves once in their daddy’s arms – children so easily look past our faults to see us at our best.
  • A grandfather who had custody of his grandson who had repeated his father’s mistakes – like father like son.
  • A group of local pastors who regularly held Bible studies for inmates – God’s Word is transcendent!

 

And, as I previewed, I didn’t just meet visitors at their best, I met and learned of prisoners at their best including…

  • A convicted murderer who later surrendered his life to Christ and who has served his fellow prisoners these past few decades as an ad-hoc pastor and worship leader.
  • A young, unmarried father who, sorely remorseful for his poor decisions, repeatedly asked my buddy for evidence of God – please pray for his salvation.
  • My own buddy who God has absolutely transformed in the short time since he entered prison – God regularly answers prayer and changes lives for His glory!

 

When God is involved, can we really be surprised that we find – regardless of our station in life – people at their best?  God is so amazing!

So, if God can change convicts and people like me, could God change you, so that people see you at your best?

Yes!

And that leads me to perhaps the most sobering of the five lessons…

Lesson #4: There isn’t much difference between them and me

I grew up in a small, Pennsylvania town where my parents’ combined earnings were, for years, just $50 above welfare eligibility.  God used this humble reality to set my life on a course to champion the downtrodden.  To this day, I’m still amused that my mom’s customized phone ring-tone for me was Garth Brooks “I’ve got friends in low places.”  It’s probably why God had my full-attention when He laid this critical lesson on me regarding convicts: there isn’t much difference between them and me.

“Wait a minute!” you say. “How can that be?”

There are crimes we commit in our heart, and crimes we commit in person.  But, as Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, to God, there is little difference between those crimes we commit in person and the crimes we commit in our heart.  For example, Jesus certainly doesn’t mince words in His teaching on adultery in Matthew 5:27-28:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Granted, the men I visited went a step beyond the “crimes of the heart” and actually were convicted for physical crimes, but – not to put too fine a point on it – are we really that much better than convicts?  Are we morally superior to them?

No!

What if circumstances had been different for them…or us?  Would we still have made the same good choices…or not?

It’s hard, but ask yourself this brutal question: Was there ever a time you “got away” with something?

  • How about that time years ago when you had too much to drink, but you drove anyway…and miraculously didn’t get into an accident that may have injured or killed someone?
  • What about that one football game your team lost, where you were so angry that you punched that obnoxious guy who you thought so desperately deserved it…but no one reported it?
  • And might there have been that one time when you were skulking around the internet, but stumbled onto a site that, if you had been under surveillance, could have led to charges?

 

Each of these situations, with a tragically different outcome, has landed people in prison.  Now, I’m certainly NOT saying we’re all convicts, but what I AM saying is that each of us is a sinner saved alone by God’s grace.  God’s awesome like that!  The more we visit with convicts and those “less blessed” than ourselves, the more we find God softens our hearts to their plight, so that in self-reflection, we can see the error of our own hearts and smell the stench of our own bad choices.  Truly, the ground is level at the cross, and if we’re outside a prison, God can use us to minister to those inside a prison.

Perhaps English evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford (circa 1510-1555), expressed this sentiment best as he watched criminals being led to the scaffold, “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”  That grace didn’t last long: he was burned at the stake in 1555.

And that leads me to the most critical lesson…

Lesson #5: Jesus is in prison

My last prison lesson focuses on Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 21:6).  And God’s Word provides breathtaking accounts of Jesus in His glory:

  • Shining like the sun: Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves.His appearance was changed in front of them, his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Matthew 17:1-2 (ISV)
  • Rider on a white horse: Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. Revelation 19:11 (NLT)
  • Lion of the tribe of Judah: And one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has overcome to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Revelation 5:5 (NASB)

 

As I write this section of our update, I have goosebumps and my heart’s racing, because I can’t wait to see Jesus in His glory – I can only imagine!

But as true as these accounts are of our Savior, there is a gaping reality, a stark contrast, we need to remember.  God would also have us recall the words of the prophet Isaiah who, in Chapter 53, verses 2-3 (NIV), so vividly depicted Jesus’ anguish on Calvary’s cross,

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”

At first glance, Isaiah’s description of Jesus seems so far removed from the numerous New Testament references to our victorious Jesus, shining like the sun, the Rider on a white horse who’s simultaneously heralded as the Lion of the tribe of Judah!  But this seeming dichotomy of Jesus is totally true: our King as suffering servant.  And the Holy Spirit brings that truth to bear now.  Brothers and sisters, Lesson #5 is this: Jesus is in prison.  Want proof?  Look no farther than Jesus’ words of Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

So if Jesus is in prison – and He is (Matthew 25:40) – He would have us serve prisoners, and in doing so, serve Him.  True to form, Jesus placed Himself last (Mark 10:45) as the model Servant, so that we can follow His example by serving others (John 13:17).  Our subservience to Him allows Him to do amazing kingdom work through those of us who are prisoners to our own sins.  Never forget: it is Christ and Christ alone who sets us free!

Lastly, for my small part, I initially didn’t think I would appreciate, much less enjoy, prison ministry, but God made it clear to me that He’s not done with me yet.  I’m still in prison, and my prayer is that you, a fellow prisoner, would join Jesus in ministering to our brothers and sisters in prison wherever that may be.

So here’s my CHALLENGE to you…

Dad, pray with your family, that your hearts would be open to those in prison and their families.  How might God involve you to minister to them?
A Faithful Dad’s mission is straightforward: Follow Jesus. Lead your family. Leave a legacy (1 Corinthians 11:1).  God enables us to come alongside men from all walks of life, so we can leave a legacy that reflects Jesus, a lasting legacy that will make Jesus proud.

Want to join us in equipping more men to connect through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?  Please visit afaithfuldad.org/donate.

On behalf of our board and serving Jesus with you,

Travis L. Zimmerman

Pastor and Co-Founder

traviszim
travis@afaithfuldad.org
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