For the past 14 years I have ministered in the local county jail. Ministry in the jail is a microcosm of ministry in any setting. It is a controlled environment, with fewer variables than in the world at large.
Ministry failure. . . the stumbling of the saints is in some ways easier to track in jail ministry, than in a more typical church setting. When someone drops off the radar screen in a regular church, we often do not know why. But in jail all too often we see a person return to jail. . . many times all too quickly, and that is a pretty certain sign of problems in the person’s life.
Rare is the person who leaves incarceration with the thought of returning. Most spend at least some of their time in jail, contemplating how they arrived there, and what they might do to avoid coming back in the future.
To see this in a series of time lapse shots it becomes sadly humorous, if that makes any sense. One particular fellow I remember got into trouble after a night of drinking in a motel with a couple of relative strangers. In the wee hours of the morning. . . in a way only sensible under a heavy fog of drugs or alcohol. . . it seemed reasonable to go down and attempt to rob the desk clerk. Before you laugh in derision at that, how common is it to do foolish things when inebriated? How many have had the experience of doing something totally out of character after a few drinks. . . the stereotypical dancing with a lampshade upon your head. Others in my acquaintance, have committed murder when intoxicated, woken up covered in another man’s blood, with only faint memories of what occurred. Men or women, who would be spoken of as one of the nicest, quietest people in the world when sober, became violent and evil, committed horrific crimes when intoxicated.
Well, anyway this person awoke to an attempted robbery charge in the horrible hangover from that night and in speaking to him, he decided that his difficulty arose from drinking with people whom he did not know very well. Really? Was that your problem? His charge was reduced as it was his first time in trouble and the next time I saw him it was for a DUI arrest. . . That time he learned not to drink and drive. . . The next time I saw him, he had gotten drunk and beat up his girlfriend. . . and on and on and on it goes. . .Never listening. . . Always wise in his own eyes. Solving the wrong problem. . .
Never making the same mistake twice, he was eliminating wrong behavior from his life, one crime at a time. . .The Indiana legal code alone, takes up some several feet of space on a bookshelf, to say nothing of federal and local laws. Live as long as Methuselah and you won’t have enough years of life to quit committing crime, one crime at a time.
He, and many others like him are trying to solve the problem afflicting their lives by putting Bandaids on problems which require heart surgery. . . treating the symptoms, and not the underlying disease. I had a condition which required heart surgery. If my doctor had treated my condition with Bandaids and aspirin, I would have died.
How then do we increase our chances of living holy and righteous lives? The jail environment is filled with rules. It is all about rules to keep right behavior and order. The inmates continually test the limits and interpretation of these rules and they try to get as close to the line as they can without stepping over. This leads to trouble, as invariably one staff member of the jail will interpret something more strictly than another, or be less tolerant than other staff, and an inmate will be surprised to be cited for an infraction that they thought was close to the edge, but OK.
This same type of thinking/behavior gets them into trouble on the outside. . . . we might call it, ‘skating too close to the edge.’ Through personal awareness of their weakness or more likely probation rules, the person knows that they cannot consume alcohol. A family member or close friend has a birthday party, and it is known that alcohol will be served there. He justifies himself going, by believing it important to attend this family function and vowing not to drink while they are there. Very predictably they may succumb to the temptation, and decry their weakness at not resisting, but the problem was completely foreseeable in their attendance of a party where they knew that they would be tempted.
The problem is that they view the rules as external adversaries, obstacles to be overcome, and not as helpful guides, positive structures for a holy and righteous life. Here is a Bible verse which speaks to this:
As long as the rules are external to you, then your view of them will be as roadblocks and or adversaries to be gotten around. That is what the tables of stone were for the Hebrews. The whole of the Mosaic Law was rules and consequences constructed to help the people live lives pleasing to God, and the people spent their time obeying the Law in letter, but not in spirit.
To internalize the Law, it is necessary for the Spirit of God to carry the Law to your heart and write the Law upon it. The view of the Law. . . the rules for holy and righteous living, then suddenly change from being adversaries, to being the means by which we maintain and deepen our relationship with God.
I no longer resent not being able to attend a party where alcohol or drugs will be consumed, as an external restriction of my freedom, but from within, I now abhor the thought of putting myself in a position where I might stumble and fall, and thereby wound, the One whom I love and who loves me.
Love conquers all. An example. . . as a young man in my middle teens, I saw older friends gain girlfriends, and stop hanging out with us. No longer found playing poker all night or pool all weekend, etc. etc. etc., they now were in a relationship which changed the things they did. I remember vowing to myself that I would not be so changed. . . until. . .until. . . until I met someone who placed a hook in my heart, then I changed in ways I would have never accepted from without. I would have resisted the changes if an external entity ordered me to change in those ways, but the changes came from within as a result of a relationship. . . born of love. Now for the sake of love, I was glad to change, not as a commandment from a judgemental God to avoid His wrath. . . not even I believe to avoid being sent to hell would I have done those things, but for my beloved heavenly Father. . . to draw closer to Him, and to make Him happy, I was more than willing and glad to change.
Before knowing God, in my pride I would have resisted changing in every aspect of holiness, modesty, temperance. . .etc. that I now delight in. Now I refuse to place myself in situations where I know that I will be tempted. . . not because I am holier and more righteous than others, but because my relationship with God is the most important thing to me, and nothing is worth damaging that.
Before I would see how close to the line I could get. . . Yeah drinking and driving is against the law, but I’m under control. . . I can handle it. . . or even Yes, there will be drinking at that party, but I can resist. Not now. . . I feel strong, and I do not feel that I will drink ever again, but why place myself in a position where a weak moment might strike me? It’s not worth it.
I had quit smoking for several years, when my daughter was born. At her birth I handed out cigars to celebrate, as the custom was in those days. . . I celebrated her birth by smoking a cigar. . . that one cigar lasted 23 years. . . She was 23 years old when I quit again. One beer. . . one cigar. . . one kiss. . . a small bit of money from the cash register drawer. . .one act in anger or greed. . .A small step away from God can last for an eternity. . . and nothing is worth the risk of losing this life. . this joy. .. this peace. . . this relationship with God that I have found.
Does that mean that I never stumble? No it does not. I battle different battles today than I did 14 years ago, but now the stumbles are exceptions. . .interruptions and not my nature. I do not justify myself when my pride. . .my selfishness. . . my anger. . . my laziness. . .my greed overtakes me for a time. . . and these are all as much sin as any other that you might name. . .now as soon as I recognize what I have done, I repent. . . I say ‘I’m sorry God’. . . I pick myself up. Dust myself off, and go back to trying to live a holy and righteous life.
I visualize God as the face my grandfather ever looking over my shoulder. I loved my grandpa, and he loved me. When I stumble, God sees all and it is as if I turn and spit in the face of God. . . I see my spittle running down the face of my Grandpa. I see a tear from his soft love filled eye, travel down the same path that my spit did a moment before. . . When you sin, you disrespect God. The God who loves you more than your own mother. When you sin, you sin against God. You stab His heart. Yes He is quick to forgive, but the wounding is there nonetheless.
The key is this relationship. This must come before anything else. If you attempt to apply holiness and righteousness to your life without the relationship with God, then you will likely end up a Pharisee. . . one who is narrowly focused upon the rules. . . one without a source of joy other than that of comparing their righteousness to others, and finding themselves superior.
My joy is based solely on the wonder of God and my closeness to Him. I gain nothing by belittling those around me. I am not in competition with them for God’s love. He loves us all beyond measuring. The only greater happiness I can have is by sharing God with as many other people as I can, and helping them to know God.
There can be no self-pride or self-righteousness in a Christian’s life. . . but humility and overwhelming gratitude for His grace, and love, and forgiveness, and sacrifice which made a way for me to be forgiven, where no way existed before. He opened a door for me, that was locked beyond any human ability to open. . .
I love you my God. . .
I thank you for everything You've done for me. . .