Recently I was given an incredible speaking opportunity. I love to preach, and rarely turn down a chance to do so . . . but my most recent set of messages was delivered in a very unique setting. At one level, the setting was quite familiar . . . inside a church, after singing a collection of Chris Tomlin songs, and standing alongside a baptistry. At a deeper level, however, I felt like I was playing a “road game.” It is not every day that I have to show my ID before speaking. It is not everyday that the entire congregation is wearing the same clothes. It is not everyday that I have the opportunity to preach in a prison. Two weeks ago, however, I had the chance to do just that, delivering four messages in five days to a thriving church of inmates inside one of Oklahoma’s correctional centers.
In my time over five days with the men on the inside, I had an amazing time of ministry. God simply showed up each night, and it was a joy to watch Him move within this group of believers. It was a true church experience. I brought my gift (preaching the message) but others brought theirs as well (encouragement, prayer, praise and worship, etc.) I really think that I received most of the blessing from my week there. Each night I spoke to a mostly packed room of men who have become somewhat defined by a bad choice(s) they have made. Over the course of five days, however, I developed a very strong affection for these men.
I met all these men after their arrests, and know virtually nothing of what they did that led to their incarceration. Because of that, I did not relate to them as an inmate, I related to them as brothers in Christ. When I looked at them, I did not see them for what they had done wrong . . . my brief time visiting the prison had convinced me they were “doing their time” for the crimes they had committed. When I looked at them, I saw simply the Body of Christ . . . and it was beautiful.
As I left there the second night, I wondered how I would feel about these men if it was my child they had the inappropriate relationship with; if it was my parent they had defrauded; if it was my friend they had sold drugs to. If I am honest, I would have to say that my emotions would have certainly been mixed at best, jaded at worst. I would have wanted some measure of justice or revenge. As I pondered this point, however, I was overcome by the fact that because I met them as the church, I was looking at them more concerning their future than their past . . . more about their Savior than their sin. I knew they had screwed up, but I did not care. At that moment, we were worshipping together on the level field at the foot of the cross.
I am a sinful man and my vision of people is almost never clear, however, on that night I think God pulled back the curtain to let me know a little bit of how He looks at you and me. We are all people who could very easily be identified by the bad choices that we make. The Bible tells us that we are all sinners and all fall short of God’s glory. Each one of us like sheep have gone astray. Our sin should define us. This is what hell is all about . . . an eternal prison where we do unending time for our bad choices as God’s justice is being satisfied. However, when God looks at us, He does not see our past, He sees our future with Him. Because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, those who are trusting in Him are defined by our Savior and not our sin. Jesus has already “done the time” that our sins deserved, so we are free to walk out of the imprisonment of our failure and into the freedom of His grace. He sees us as the Body of His Son . . . and He loves His Son.
So, if you are trapped inside the prison of guilt and despair because of your bad choices, know that the key to unlock the gate of your failure is resting in the Hand of One who loves you. He offers to set you free through His death on the cross so that we are not defined by our wrongness, but by His righteousness.
My perspective changes based on what I know, but His perspective never changes because He already knows it all. In His grace, He chooses to see Christ in us, our hope of glory. May we as His followers have His vision for all people . . . including ourselves.