Prisoners of Hope
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. Return to your fortress, 0 prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you. (Zech. 9:11-12)
How grateful I am to the Lord Jesus Christ that he would have me share in the work of his kingdom, particularly in prison ministry!
How I Got Involved
I began prison ministry several years ago when I was casually invited to East Jersey State Prison (EJSP) by my pastor. That evening, I gave my testimony to the inmates there. They were overjoyed to have other Christians come and share the love and power of Jesus Christ with them. I remember vividly the words of one of the inmates that evening: "Many people have forgotten us behind these walls-even our own families. People think that there are only animals in here, but they need to know that Jesus Christ has changed some of us! He's given us new life! We're not the same anymore. We were animals once, but now we're children of God! Please tell them, won't you?"
The next week I went back into that prison, alone and nervous. Being frisked and having those steel-bar doors lock behind you is intimidating at first. Yet after a few minutes with the congregation of inmates at the chapel, I experienced an abundant peace in Christ. These men were indeed my brothers in Christ. These men, who knew beyond mere intellectual assent the doctrine of total depravity, exhibited the grace of God in a profound way. They knew very well the depth of their own wretched sinfulness, and in that they realized the great length of God's saving arm (Num. 11:23; Rom. 5:20-21). It reached into a lifeless pit of utter hopelessness, redeeming and restoring. How my heart rejoiced in the glory of God's grace! How my faith increased by witnessing the faithfulness of the Lord as he made tabernacles out of the taverns of these men's lives!
Following that meeting, I realized the Lord had answered a prayer I had prayed in faith some ten years earlier. As a young Christian, I had been impressed by the Holy Spirit to pray for his leading in ministering, especially to people who were demonstrably broken and ruined by sin. Here now was God's gracious answer. Praise his name! Since that evening, I have been involved in prison ministry in various ways. I ran a summer program at EJSP, and a year later I got involved with Prison Fellowship, which eventually turned into a yearlong internship. I have regularly visited East Jersey State, Garden State, Midstate, Bayside, and Northern State Prisons, the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center (specifically for sex offenders), as well as various county jails. On the surface, these are dismal places-undesirable places that the government tries to keep far from sight, and which most people try to keep far from their thoughts. Yet the reality is growing and becoming more apparent. We can't deny it any longer as new prisons are being built closer to our own communities.
The Hopeless Prison System
The prison system in our state is terribly overcrowded and no wonder! Ninety percent of our state's residents will at some time be the victim of a crime against property, while 80 percent will be the victim of a violent crime. The incarceration rate in our state is said to be higher than that of the Republic of South Africa during the height of its civil unrest.
A view of the prison system clearly indicates the insidious nature of sin. Sin is both intensive and extensive. Fallen man lives in a society where sin is systemic. It outwardly reflects the inward state of apostate man's heart, with its multiplicity of evils. And a man's sin is never an isolated event. It touches others. As a criminal is arrested, he or she becomes a displaced parent, and often leaves behind a dispersed family. Among households with an incarcerated spouse, the divorce rate is 85 percent. The children in such homes are especially prone to gangs and violence, illegal drug use, sexual promiscuity, and abortion. The cycle of sin is perpetuated to the next generation. Eighty percent of the typical prison population experienced sexual or physical abuse as children themselves. Eighty-five percent are drug abusers. The cycle of such bondage is not easily ended.
After an inmate serves his stipulated time, the rate of recidivism is over 80 percent within the next four years. Often, life in prison only hardens an individual and prepares him for reentry into prison.
Some never make it out of prison. Many have AIDS, and rape is often commonplace. There is racism, corruption, and the worship of naked power. Prison life is often violent and dehumanizing. Even the tough guys live in intense fear-not only for themselves, but for their loved ones. An inmate feels so isolated. I remember men who longed to be with a dying parent or who grieved over a child who died while they were in prison.
Inmates also become institutionalized. The vast majority of decisions are made for them. They become dependent on the system doing their thinking for them. This reality was vividly revealed to me as I worked with a young man who had been imprisoned for seven years. The first time he went into a fast food restaurant, he was literally in shock. Never before had he been given such a choice as to what to eat. At first, he could not handle the responsibility.
The One True Hope
As the government pours hundreds of millions of dollars into building new prisons, criminals appear to be getting younger and their crimes more heinous. It is a dismal sight. Psychological programs and social welfare policies are not really working. It's an abysmal and even fearful scene, especially given the projected patterns. Yet it is exactly in such utter darkness that the gospel of Jesus Christ shines so brightly, achieving what nothing else can accomplish-the salvation of men's souls (Rom. 1:16). Here lies the one true hope! It is the only hope there is for the offender and his family, the victim and his family, the court personnel, the budget personnel, the prison personnel-EVERYONE.
The gospel has been placed in the hands of the church. Every Christian is to be salt and light in this dark and dying world (Matt. 5:13-16); every Christian is to be a minister of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-21). These statements cannot be generalized and remain anonymous. You and I are answerable. There are so many areas for Christians to serve effectively in the particular harvest field of prison ministry.
Of course, there is ministry in prison. You cannot imagine how inmates welcome Christian visitors to lead Bible studies, preach or exhort, or simply be there to worship God with them. Sound, Reformed theology is desperately needed in today's prisons. Too frequently, it is a truncated gospel that is presented. I remember one young man dying of AIDS whom I counseled. He had gotten hold of the "Word of Faith" teaching and was claiming a complete and immediate healing based upon what he was told was God's sure promise (a perverse exegesis of John 14:13-14). How my heart grieved to see this shattered life which the Father had brought to Christ now have his faith headed for potential shipwreck. But needless heartache and misery were averted as, by the grace of God, we were able to come to the Scriptures and face the truth with a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3-9) that transcended the fear of death-even preparing for death when the time should come (Rom. 8:38-39).
There are ways to minister outside of prison as well. Being a pen pal is a very simple yet effective means of ministering to a prisoner. How often a comforting message through Scripture and prayer finds its way to the heart of an inmate in God's perfect timing!
There is also family ministry. For example, in Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree Project, gifts are given to the children of incarcerated parents at Christmas. Along with the gifts, God's word is presented at a church gathering. What a profound impact this can have on the family, especially on the children of prisoners. What a treasure is given to these little ones, some of whom have both parents incarcerated!
There is also aftercare ministry, which is so vital. By developing contact with an inmate and establishing his credibility, you can wisely invest your time in him upon release. So often a born-again inmate has nowhere to return. Or else, he returns to the same neighborhood and problems that try hard to swallow him up again. With the help of other Christians, former offenders can often find better places to live and work, become planted in a local church, and be discipled. They can come under the government of Christ's church for blessing.
There is an enormous need for faithful prison ministry, and I appeal to you to get involved in the work. Prayerfully consider some way. My appeal is not based on sentimentality or even practicality, but rather on obedience to our Lord and love for him. Hebrews 13:3 tells us, "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners." There is a solidarity among believers which God wants us to recognize.
Moreover, Christ himself identifies with his people, including the elect who are in prison. This is so vividly demonstrated in Matthew 25:31-46. We know that salvation is by grace through faith, yet here it appears that the criterion for inheriting the kingdom is works-what is done or not done to the least of Christ's brothers! But it is not works at all, but faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6; Jas. 3:14-17; Luke 7:47)! Christ so identifies with his people that to bless them is to bless him, while to forget them is to forget him!
If we are united to Christ, we need to serve out of love for him-even those who have sinned heinously, but have found pardon in his blood just as we have. We must go to the unsightly and intimidating places, even the prisons, and comfort those whom our Lord calls brothers. And we must bring the gospel to those whom the Lord will effectually call. In doing this, you will be blessed, even drenched by God's outpouring. I bear witness to the glorious grace of God that I have seen in so many lives.
I could tell you of the inmate who was a hateful, murderous man who spent over twenty-five years in a hard-core prison. He, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, has been born again! He is now helping others by working in a Christian benevolence program. His life had been ruined by sin. But the Lord has restored twice as much to him. He now has a lovely Christian wife. In fact, the Christian man who witnessed to him, whom he once hated and wanted to kill, was his best man at the wedding. All of his children are being reconciled to him as well. It's a beautiful picture of our Lord's grace. Or I could tell you of the wicked, violent man who spent eighteen years incarcerated in one of the nation's toughest prisons. God saved him and raised him up to be a chaplain. Now he presents the gospel of Jesus Christ to lost inmates as his life's vocation.
These men and so many others who were prisoners of despair are now prisoners of hope! But there are many others who need to hear the gospel call even in the clamor of a myriad of false gospels. Christian, will you go (Rom. 10:14-15)? There are many incarcerated lives who have been brought to Christ, but they need your help and comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Christian, will you help them? Let the hope you have in Jesus Christ compel you. It is the hope of glory; it is Christ's indwelling and empowering (Col. 1:27-29, 1 Cor. 15:56-58). Serve the Lord even in the wonderful harvest field of prison ministry. Let us all be a prisoner of hope!
Mr. Koncsol is an elder at Grace OPC in Westfield, N.J. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1998.