I've had several opportunities to interact with people in prison who have reached out to me via letters. I love getting letters from people in prison because they always ask important questions - about seeing real, practical change in their lives.
It's my honor to respond and (I hope) provide some valuable teaching and encouragement to people who I think Jesus would have always made time for in his schedule.
Recently, I received such a letter. It was the first letter from a person who got my info from another inmate. As it was closely connected with a topic I've been wrestling with in my own life recently, I've decided to share the contents without revealing any personal information of my contact.
The topic is simple: my new friend wants to live a healthier life - "finding God and sticking to it!" is how they phrased it.
I nodded my head, because I feel the same way. I'm tired of all the talking about faith I do. The most important aspect of Christianity is not talk, but rather transformation. I've been doing an inventory and looking for places where I don't see the results of the transformation of the Holy Spirit. It's difficult and very necessary. Without doing this, I can quickly and easily become nothing more than an empty shell - the very definition of a hypocrite.
With that perspective, here is what I wrote, which, while being addressed to the person who invited me into a conversation, is probably aimed at myself more than anyone else:
I received your letter this past week. I’m glad to have heard from you. Having visited the church where I am a pastor, I’m certainly glad you felt you could reach out to me in your desire to build some healthy relationships and community around you.
I wish I had magic words that would give you exactly what you’re looking for: sticking to the healthier life Jesus calls us toward - away from our selfish, sinful desires; and instead toward true happiness and peace and joy. Unfortunately, I don’t have words which make it easy.
I’ve learned in my life that there are no shortcuts when it comes to being a follower of Jesus. I think Jesus really means it when he says, “The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
But it’s not hard for the reasons we tend to think. See, God isn’t watching us a long way off in heaven and just getting ticked every time we screw up, shouting ‘Come on! What’s wrong with you?’.
Instead, Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. He solved the problem that we were never going to be able to solve: to not only stop doing wrong, but to somehow makeup for all the wrong we had already done.
So the ‘gateway to life’ Jesus talks about isn’t about you or me or anybody else being perfect from now on. We’re broken people, and that just isn’t an option.
Instead, this narrow gateway to life is about us accepting what Jesus has done for us, and letting him fill our hearts with his spirit. In other words, we have to give up our control over our lives and ask God to transform us from the inside out.
I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at not being in control. I want to make all the decisions about my life. I’ve never personally been in jail or prison, but I don’t think I would like being constantly told what to do very much.
Yet, the writing in the Bible makes it clear that I’m going to have to get comfortable with the idea that it’s not about me, but it’s about God.
A man named Paul (he was an apostle) wrote this:
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Galatians 5:22-23)
Paul doesn’t say I do these things. He says that the Holy Spirit does these things. So my challenge isn’t to be more loving or joyful or peaceful...it’s to let God create these things inside of me.
I think that following Jesus is sometimes a whole lot of talk. I can talk a good game about how awesome Jesus is and how much I love Jesus, but if my life isn’t changing - if these ‘fruit’ of the Holy Spirit aren’t showing up in my life, then all I’m doing is talking.
The Holy Spirit transforms us. So if I’m not being transformed, then I’m not actually allow God to work in my life. I’m just a bunch of hot air. Let me tell you, I can be the king of this - sounding good, but not actually connecting with God. All flash, no substance. When I’m in a place like that, I’m always miserable; because the Kingdom of God isn’t just a bunch of talk. It’s real and it’s more powerful than anything I can do on my own.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t do anything. Don’t try to be more patient or kind, etc’. I’m saying that if I’m doing it, it’ll fade quickly. You talked about having that same problem - that when you get out, you go back to unhealthy habits. I would respectfully suggest that what this shows is that you were in control. You were trying, and I believe you were trying really hard and genuinely to change - but you and I don’t have the power to do that. Only God’s Holy Spirit can really and honestly change us.
I definitely think you should read the Bible, but if we don’t ask God to work in us through what we read, what good is it?
I definitely think you should pray, but if I’m not becoming the man who God has created me to be, I think I’m missing out on the point.
I definitely think you should attend a church or service as often as you can, but if all I’m doing is putting on a front for an hour a week, who am I helping? Certainly not myself, or God or anybody else.
If I am truly transformed by God, I’m going to be at my best in the most difficult of circumstance. I’m going to minister to friends instead of being corrupted by them. I’m going to be kinder to people in prison than I would be in a church service.
Now at this point, maybe you’re shaking your head at me. This is all kind of ridiculous talk...and I would have to agree. If all I’m doing is talking, it’s probably way off base. But if we’re talking about being changed - transformed - by the Holy Spirit, we’ve got to throw away our old standards of what ‘doing pretty good’ looks like. We’ve got to throw away ‘what’s happened in the past’ as a measure of how we’re doing.
If I’m changed by the Holy Spirit, I’m not going to be a better version of myself. I’m going to be a different man. A new man.
I think that’s what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote this in 2 Corinthians 2:17: “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
So, I don’t have magic words to help you (or me!), but what I do have I give you: hope that Jesus isn’t full of crap. That he doesn’t just give us a bunch of rules about being loving and generous and sacrificial, but rather that he gives us his Holy Spirit and it’s a game changer. Literally. We stop playing checkers and we’re playing chess instead.
The old ways we did things just don’t apply any longer.
I hope any of this will be helpful to you. If you have questions or thoughts, I would be most glad to hear them.
Let me know whether you already have a bible. If not, I’ll get one shipped to you immediately. I think the Bible helps us understand this ‘new life’ that we’re called to have. If I’m going to switch from checkers to chess, somebody is going to have to explain how it all works!
God Bless, and I look forward to chatting with you further.