A Lesson From Prison
No, I haven’t “served time” in prison. However, I have had the opportunity over the past several years to teach the Bible to prisoners and observe the behavior of men incarcerated. Also, it has been my privilege to read reports from other men who work in prison programs, and to correlate things learned with God’s word.
One of the very obvious behaviors one sees is a marked immaturity in many of those in prison. Every person has stresses and trials in his life. Every person has to determine how he/she will respond to those trials. One man who told me his story described an occasion where he happened to see his little sister being sexually abused by his stepfather. He determined to kill his stepfather and was eventually able to carry out his plan. After telling me his story, he asked, “What would you have done?” Obviously, he felt justified in how he dealt with that terrible event.
Most men in prison have become very skilled in wrong ways to deal with trials in life. God gives us the perfect way to think about, and to deal with trials, and even describes a certain joy that God wishes to give us through trials. In James 1:2-4 we are told:
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
Many men in prison have responded to trials including conflict by violence (as in the preceding example). Many have responded to trials in other ways—avoidance, isolation, drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc. When relationships become strained or challenging, they react in the ways mentioned above, or simply move on to another relationship. When something hurtful (trial) happens, they react by taking drugs and hiding from the pain. Needless to say, their behavior results in a downward spiral in their lives.
Trials are designed to produce in us endurance and steadfastness. If we do not let trials complete their work in our lives, then we never develop into strong Christians. We never gain the confidence that only comes when we work through a problem and come through on the other side. We do not experience the “victory that overcomes”! Failing to get the “full effect” of enduring trials, we do not become “perfect” and “complete”—to use the words of James “the bondservant of God.” Strong personal relationships with others is an additional benefit we receive when we endure and then share with others who have endured similar trials. The Hebrew writer combines several Old Testament passages as he portrays the blessings that may come from trials. Trials, at least some of the time, may be viewed as discipline, or “chastening of the Lord.” In Hebrews 12:4-7, the writer reveals:
“You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.’ If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?” God chastens (allows trials in our lives) for “our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:10b-1. God is wise; we need to really trust Him as we experience trials. The words “joy”, “love”, “perfect”, “complete”—are all words used to describe the benefits we receive when we endure with the help of God!
The failure to successfully endure trials not only is a leading cause of imprisonment, but also is a main cause of recidivism. Recidivism is the tendency for men with criminal habits to return to their former patterns of behavior. The last statistic I read for the state of Alabama showed a 50+% recidivism rate. That is, about half of those men in prison have been there before. When they are released, and trials/temptations come, they resort to criminal behavior again and must be incarcerated again. Daryl Townsend, a brother in Florida involved in prison work wrote about the men he has taught and converted:
“What often happens with these men is that they get out of prison wanting to serve God, but eventually, sometimes the first day and sometimes months later, a difficult trial comes. A relationship gets tested, many times with me or someone significant from their past, a tragedy happens in their lives, or just the cares and worries of life begin to test them. They have never endured through these things before. They get overwhelmed and revert to what they know—run from the trial. They give up and relapse, or they find a woman to make them feel better, or they just leave because it gets too hard. They never grow because they refuse to endure the pain and see the trial through to the other side. Therefore, they never become complete. They never become perfect! They stay teenagers their whole lives unless they muster the courage, the faith, the strength to endure. The men that finally decide to trust God even in the pain finally grow. We all at points in our lives must ask ourselves if we will trust God when we hurt? Will we endure this trial His way and not the way I have always known? Our ways do work in the short term, but usually bring hurt to others and they never work over time. God knows that the only way we will grow is enduring the test.”
We will all have trials in our lives. Jesus is our perfect example of the benefits to be gained from enduring trials. Two passages in the book of Hebrews attest to this experience:
“For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” Hebrews 2:18; and
“though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. 9 And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him,” Hebrews 5:8-9.
May God help us to allow Him to bless us and “see us through” every trial!