by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
See that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but at all times make it your aim to do good to one another and to all people. Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18 (Good News Translation)
What happens when you let a wild animal out of its cage after locking it up for some time? It likely is that the animal still untamed will go wild on everything in sight once set free. When considering the context of the twelve-step model, the men who behave like they are untamed and out of control, might admit that they are powerless against their drug use and criminal lifestyle. They might even suggest that their reckless lifestyle is a power greater than themselves rendering their lives unmanageable. When that is the case, incarceration turns out to be the power greater than themselves and their preoccupation with drugs and crime that restores their lives to manageability. Outside of understanding to this point is that if one needs prison to be restored to manageability, it is still an insane way to manage one’s life.
The key for people in prison is to do the work of recovery while in the cage so that they can begin to experience a sense of freedom while locked up. Coming into, or back into, relationship with God is pivotal to a restored stable life. If they do, when they are let out of the cage they exhibit temperance since they have been set free in their spirit.
There are men at the prison I work at who return to a healthy relationship with God while serving their time for crimes committed against people like you. They are guilty. They are ashamed of their behavior whether or not they were charged for it. The men in recovery returning to God in prison are neck deep in shame for what they have done and initially can have difficulty reconciling with God and accepting forgiveness. They realize they will have to live with the fact that the victims of their crimes are also loved by God and there will not be opportunity to reconcile with them (at least not in this life). The result can be unresolved shame that can continue to define and weaken the man hoping to get right with God in recovery. Essential to freedom from shame is for the man in prison to see himself the way God sees him, like the father who reconciled himself to his prodigal son, wearing the robe that is God’s Son, Jesus; the robe of righteousness.
I have heard these men in recovery from addiction, freed from their captivity, bound by their drugs of choice, memories of a shameful devastating past riddled with guilt, engulfed into a tragic life, proclaiming, “I’ve got my life back”, and “I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life”. Without exception, these men have experienced healing and deliverance into recovery empowered by God in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus actually shows up through the cloud of jaded expectations and touches their lives. It is my privilege to get to know these guys and play a role in their recovery into a new life experience.
However, I have a problem. His name is Hank, or at least that is what I will call him. Hank, an African-American in his late 40s, is a client (inmate) at the correctional center that I counsel at. Every morning that I come in to work I am greeted by Hank. He says to me enthusiastically, “Good morning Mr. Steve, how are you today?” I respond, “Good Hank, how are you?” His response to me on the prison block is, “I’m great!” This has been Hank’s response to me every day but one since I have known him. The one day is when Hank responded, “I’m alright”. It was an especially difficult day that day. And that is all I can say about it. Otherwise, Hank is at a high and lofty place that, even as a brother to him in Christ, I struggle to relate with. It’s a problem for me.
My problem is that Hank is absolutely genuine through and through. Hank loves his Redeemer. He expresses his love through the extension of God’s generous love wherever and whenever he can. He makes it a point to bless me every day I come in to work. While my challenge working in the prison setting is substantial, the rewards are eternal and touch me deeply. When I get around Hank, while I am blessed and encouraged, I am challenged in my spirit – in my attitude concerning my giving of my time and resources as an expression of gratitude for God’s gift of mercy in my life. Why don’t I seem to appreciate and love my Savior Jesus Christ the way Hank does?
You see, Hank is a recovering heroin addict that committed crimes again and again throughout his adult life to support his drug addiction at the expense of everyone he loves and that love him. He is sober in prison and has returned to a loving merciful gracious relationship with Jesus Christ. I am not his primary counselor so I don’t know his entire story. There were times when Hank did not realize his need for relationship with Jesus; times when if approached by Jesus the conversation might have gone something like this:
Jesus: “Hank, if you put your trust in me, I will change you and set you free from what imprisons you, and you will indeed be set free by this truth I give you.”
Hank: “Set free… set free from what? When was I ever imprisoned?
The man is IN prison! He has been imprisoned by drug addiction long before he spent even a second in jail.
So Jesus would have to tell him matter-of-factly, “Hank, you’ve been in prison for years… imprisoned by addiction to drugs and alcohol… imprisoned by life in the streets… imprisoned by expectations… imprisoned by the lies you’ve been conned into believing… imprisoned by your addiction to your selfishness. Anyone who has given themselves over to selfish sin is in prison. You are imprisoned by the streets. They are not your family. They have sold you into slavery to addiction in all of its forms. When you leave all that and turn to having relationship with me, I most certainly assure you that you will know, by experience, freedom into a real loving family like you have never known before.”
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. John 8:32-34 (NLT)
Hank has been in and out of relationship with Jesus before. What I mean by “out” is that in his addiction and crime, Hank will ignore who and what he is in relationship with Christ. For all I know, this is what has happened before; perhaps several times. Hank gets locked up, gets clean and sober, does so with the empowering support of his Lord and Savior, does his time, gets out and returns home, does alright for awhile going to meetings, is in loving relationships with his family and friends, and then… one thing leads to another, and Hank is overwhelmed by the temptations that trigger relapse, he lapses from his recovery routines, and relapses deep into his addiction. Deep into his addiction, his relationship with God suffers, he suffers, his loved ones suffer, and then society suffers when he “has” to commit crimes to accumulate enough resources to finance his hell into the bondage of heroin addiction.
In his addiction, Hank is in a kind of hell. He is lost in his insanity, in a world he so prefers not to live in. He hates his life there. As he has gotten older, Hank is aware that his life is a tragedy. He, like Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7, is doing the things he hates. But he cannot stop! Like Paul, Hank is miserable; wretched.
The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. Romans 7:14-15… 21-25 (NLT)
Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)
Thank God (for Paul, for Hank, for you and for me) that there is no condemnation for those in relationship with Christ. While Hank’s spiritual life was suffering, it was not dead. Thank God! You see, Hank is not alone in his story of addiction, repentance, recovery, and relapse. Scripture is loaded with stories that follow along the cycle of addiction for the person who professes to love God. I have written before about King David’s life of temptation, sin, addiction, repentance, recovery, relapse, repentance, recovery, relapse, repentance, recovery, relapse… you get the gist.
“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Luke 7:47 (NLT)
Hank gets this on a level that is beyond what I can comprehend. Even though, in the eyes of God, his sin is no more egregious than mine – sin is sin; and even though Jesus, fully human, suffered the same torture and condemnation for my sin as He did Hank’s, I do not seem to appreciate this opportunity I have to live my life in Christ the way Hank does his… and HANK IS IN PRISON!!!
In my quest to more fully understand Hank’s zest for life in the face of his circumstances, it is finally dawning on me, at least on an intellectual level. Hank lives to serve! Hank lives to show real genuine gratitude for what Christ has done for him, not only because he is forgiven and reconciled back into right relationship with God, Hank is FREE! In prison Hank is free. He has been set free… yet again… from the hell that is his addiction. Hank’s peace and joy is authentic. It is realized in his opportunity to serve. And look at the population of men God has put in Hank’s path to serve. (Excuse me while I clear the lump that just came in my throat. I more deeply understand this on a much more emotion level even now as I pound away at the keyboard.) I wonder if that is why David was a man after God’s own heart. As wrecked as he was by his addictions (read 2nd Samuel and Psalm 38), I wonder how David may have served while he was in that repentant place, as a humble man, but also using his position as king to love on his people.
I think Hank is doing great because he is in a way, experiencing God’s righteousness – that being God’s most and best in his life, a kind of heaven – even in prison. The following is something I heard recently that might describe how we realize heaven and hell while we’re on this earth (I tried researching but cannot conclude where it’s from). I have taken the liberty to modify and embellish according to my take on it.
As I prayed, I said to God, “I have friends who are not afraid of hell because they think it’s going to be one big party and everyone who’s anyone is going to be there. What do you say hell is?” Then God responded by giving me a vision of hell. I saw a sea of people sitting around a banquet table as long as the eye can see. At the table was a feast of the highest quality. Steam was still coming off this freshly cooked feast and the aroma coming off each entrée was to die for. Each plate was stacked high as if these people would be doing nothing but eat of the best cuisine they’d ever laid their eyes on. I didn’t understand. Nobody was eating. Then I noticed something peculiar. They all had forks that were three feet long. They all sat helpless looking at their food. Occasionally, I would see someone stab at their food hoping the next time they would somehow miraculously put it up to their salivating mouth but the result was the same. The fork was too long. They were helpless. They all sat their starving and thirsty, groaning in pain as their bloated stomachs ached for something to eat, and oh for just a drop of water on their tongue. Eventually the food would rot and rats climbed up on the table for their own feast. Then all of a sudden the table was cleared and newly cooked food appeared, and the cycle of discontent and desperation started all over again, repeating itself again and again, for what felt like an eternity. These people were devastated, lonely, and in despair, wanting to die… desperate to die. It was obvious where I was in that place. Though it wasn’t what I expected, that was hell.
Then God gave me a vision of heaven. Once again there was this sea of people sitting around a banquet table as long as the eye could see. At the table was a feast of the highest quality. Steam was still coming off this freshly cooked feast and the aroma coming off each entrée was to die for. Each plate was stacked high as if these people would be doing nothing but eat of the best cuisine they’d ever laid their eyes on. What I did not expect all at once amazed and confounded me. They all had three-foot long forks as well. What? They have three-foot forks in heaven, too? But these people were all eating and loving every second of the fellowship of each other’s company as they served one another, feeding each other. They were having great conversation, laughing, enjoying the feast of a lifetime and having the most incredible time. They never seemed to get full and the food and desserts just kept coming. It was breathtaking. These companions all had love in their eyes as they served one another as if it was an honor and a privilege. They all loved each other so much. The love and the grace on display were most evident. It was obvious where I was in this place. This was heaven.
Some cynics will read this allegory and miss the point. They’ll ask, “Why couldn’t they put down their three-foot forks and eat with their hands?” For the rest of us this is powerful. For me when I heard it, it was one of the most powerful things I’d heard. Those folks in hell in their selfishness didn’t even have it in them to think of how they could help each other. All they knew was to mercilessly struggle to help themselves when the solution – servanthood – was right there in front of them. We were put here to be stewards of God’s resources and care for one another as we would ourselves. Instead, we have chomped into the forbidden fruit of what God said would kill us and we ate without regard for consequence. What we sow we will reap.
I have written a lot about ambivalence in recovery God’s way. Ambivalence is my internal disagreement between conflicting desires – between what I might understand intellectually versus what might be driving me emotionally (both impulses are selfish though my feelings tend to be more impulsively reactive). The desires are in conflict, or disagreement, because they represent a moral dilemma, though the issue of morality isn’t necessarily based on an absolute standard, but founded in the standard of the one having to choose. I cannot have both of what I want. To have the one thing means not having the other unless I am willing to face the consequence trying to obtain both. So I must decide.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” —C.S. Lewis
I want this and I want that but they are opposite of each other. To have this means I cannot have that, and to have that means I cannot have this. My core belief of entitlement, though, says to me loudly that I can have it all so let’s risk it all. The reality however is as follows: this thing leads to life and that other thing leads to death. This is richly and eternally satisfying, while that brings instant gratification for a season that is fleeting and temporary, but is in the end futile and unfulfilling. There is no satisfaction in that, but like Hank, I still find that attractive, alluring, and I proceed to indulge in that yet again. I can’t take my eyes off me. This is heaven and that I have come to recognize as hell but in the moment I think I see some heaven in that and I proceed yet again to go to that hoping it will be different this time. But no, I am dissatisfied still with that.
How insane is that? Like Hank, David, and Paul, I knowingly continue to choose that which I don’t really want since I remember that that leads me back to hell but willingly I go there anyway. It’s as though I keep reaching for my three-foot fork and think that at some point my way will work. It never does but still, I can’t take my eyes off me. That repeats itself again and again for what feels like an eternity. I am at times devastated, lonely, and in despair, maybe even wanting to die. It should be obvious where I am in that place. That is hell. So why don’t I choose this, which is heaven for me in this life, serving the pleasure of the One who willingly sacrificed and saved me from hell?
What is my problem with Hank?
I envy Hank’s generous and willing spirit. He lives in prison and he’ll be there for awhile, but he lives in the experience of joy. I have so much yet I am a taker. Hank seemingly has so little yet he is a giver. What’s wrong with me?! I can’t take my eyes off me, that’s what’s wrong. Hank has taken his eyes off himself and he has targeted his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, focused on whatever He has called him to do. Jesus says to Hank in His Word… SERVE, so Hank serves with deft willingness. Hank serves with a humble spirit, in the unspeakable joy of his Lord. Humble service is where the peace and the joy come from for Hank. Hank, committed to the plan and purpose of God from a heart of gratitude to Him who has delivered him from hell through a resurrected life, serves His Master obediently. Hank lays down his life as His Lord Jesus did, and serves at the calling of His Master. That’s right I just used the inference a second time of a black man offering his life to his Master. But this time it is good. It is right. Just ask Hank. Ask Hank how he’s doing. I can tell you his response… “GRRREAT!!!”
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ Matthew 25:34-40 (NLT)
My pastor likes to say it like this, and I am paraphrasing:
“While you cannot on your own make the world a better place,
you can find your own place in the world and make it better.”
Hank may be stuck in prison away from the people he loves, but he and so many others like him are serving the Lord from hearts of gratitude and love, doing what they can in their place in the world and they are making it better. This world is a better place with Hank in it. And with that I have no problem.