I looked down at the note card filled with writing and then back up at him. I saw eyes full of pain, scarred from a life of bad decisions and suffering inflicted on him by others. I saw genuine repentance in his eyes. I saw a heart that seems irreparably broken into pieces by a lifetime of living a life that he was not made to live.
It was a normal night with the prisoners, like the many I had experienced over the past four years. I spoke on Ezekiel 37, the same passage I preached from my last Sunday at Beulah. There are some things that God just sears into your head, never letting you forget. And from time to time, it becomes necessary to speak those same passages over others. As I talked about the grace of God, a God who does better than simply making us to be good people, but instead brings us from death to life and continually issues the charge for his people to prophesy to the ruah (breath, wind, spirit) and let the power of God bring the dead around us, the dead in us, to life again, I looked out, wondering if the words I believed were from the Holy Spirit held any weight or could hold meaning for anyone in the room.
And I caught one man’s eyes. He may have been in his mid thirties and had tattoos all over exposed skin. He looked lonely, quiet, and like he didn’t really feel comfortable. We broke up into groups and the man I locked eyes with came up to me and asked if he could speak to me away from the group. Hesitantly, as to not want to leave my partner alone, I went to the corner with him where he handed me a note card with prayer requests written all over it. In it, he talked about a lot of things that were going on in his life. The rest of the details were very personal and it’s not my place to share, but on it he wrote, “please pray for God to help me change into the man that he wants me to be.”
We talked for maybe 20 minutes and he began to cry. He kept saying it felt stupid to cry, and I encouraged him to do whatever he needed to do. The Spirit then prompted me to intercede for him out loud, so I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for Jesus to overcome him with need. Need for him, daily, purposefully, an ever consistent longing for the presence of God that will break the chains of addiction, depression, and the need to be self-sufficient.
We were not made to do life alone. And from the college campus on which I currently reside to a homely old prison chapel made of cinderblock walls and pews creak and groan when you sit on them, God has a funny way of placing people in our path that need his mercy.
I need his mercy, every day of my life.
And this man, who told me that he didn’t believe he could even construct a pure thought if he tried, was so overcome with his need for a Savior that I looked at him and smiled. From somewhere deep in my soul, I smiled and told him that maybe the purest thought we could ever have is in our need for God. We spoke about a lot of things last night, and he pretty much spilled his whole life story to me in the span of a few minutes and I was reminded of why Prison Fellowship has been such a huge learning experience for me.
I let him know that, though I’d never struggled with some of the things he has dealt with, I know what it feels like to feel so incredibly lost that the only words you can speak to God are “help me.” I understand that most days I value myself and my desires above my desire for Christ. I know what it feels like to be addicted, lonely, and afraid. But that he is not alone.
That Jesus Christ is the only desirable thing in me, and the sole objective of our lives is to make him the sole desire of our hearts.
He told me he missed feeling the Spirit on him, and I told him that I do too.
He told me he wanted to become the man God wants him to be, and I told him that I do too.
And as he spoke, I saw the spark of desire in his eyes and knew that he was so close to seeing what I strive (and many times fail) to see every single day.
God wants a broken heart, a contrite spirit, he wants us to be men and women that are primarily concerned with desiring him more fully. He is not content with half-hearted devotion, but instead wants everything from us.
A decision to follow Christ is not about the perks you can amass, it’s about finding your greatest treasure buried in a field and selling everything to buy the field so you can have the only thing that consumes your heart. It’s about coming to end of yourself in a jail cell and realizing your need to be saved. It’s about sitting across from a self-proclaimed loner/addict/criminal and seeing his desire for Christ and reminding yourself that he and you aren’t so different. It’s about growing up in a Christian home with loving parents and being so consumed with doing the right thing that you lose your way and become a slave to legalism and secret sins that rip your soul to shreds and coming to the end of yourself in a college dorm room your freshman year and realizing your need for Christ and knowing that you are nothing without him.
If those guys at prison and I have anything in common, it’s that we are united in our inability to save ourselves.
Humanity’s common denominator is its collective brokenness.
May Christ raise us up to be men and women who seek him, who desire him above every worthless thing and every worthless lie we have believed.
I pray that for me, that I could be the man that God wants me to be.
And I pray that for my brothers who have lived a life they weren’t meant for, that God would call each and every one of them to repentance and into a relationship with Jesus.
I’ve heard so many people talk about “jailhouse religion” and it frustrates me to no end. That may be true for some, but to doubt that God meets us at the end of ourselves and brings the dead to life in Jesus is to doubt that he is who he says he is. And, like I told my new friend, I don’t presume to know your life, to understand the depths of who you are, and I in no way mean to belittle the struggle that is this life, but God loves you. He loves you so much that he sent his son to die for you so you would be set free. Acceptance of this doesn’t make life easier, but it makes it better. It bends it toward purpose and makes you into the man or woman God desires for you to be as you desire him more and more every day.
I will keep my new friend’s note card. And I will pray for him daily, that God would undo the shackles he has placed on himself, and that at the end of the day, the desperation he feels would point him to Jesus, and if the only cry he can muster is “help” that God would honor that and draw him to himself. That his desire for Christ would overwhelm every vain thing that tries to take its place in his heart.