Prior to my prison sentence, I was a part of a vibrant, healthy, biblical church. Vibrant leaders led our church who were well-trained in theology and focused on integrity and pastoral accountability for the staff, the lay leadership, and themselves. I’d left some amazing brothers in the Lord behind.
I didn’t expect to meet a group of men of God in prison who would challenge me in mighty ways, but I did. And there were non-believers who challenged (and often taught) me just as much. People amid the prison experience tend to be more receptive to the things of God than those who feel they can make it on their own, but what that meant to each man held a great amount of variety.
The hardened hearts of legalists can only reproduce what they are.
The problem, I find, is that few legalists remain so exclusively internally. It seems inevitable that a legalist will begin to project his or her interpretation of rules onto the outside world. This has some inherent flaws, as not all boundaries are universal, and as Paul points out repeatedly, we simply cannot follow the Law with perfection (though the legalists often reject the canonicity of the relevant portions of Romans/Galatians).
And here we find the problem of the Pharisee. Jesus instructed the people of Israel not only to do as the Pharisees taught but also to avoid their example (Matthew 23:3). The rules have merit, but they are not the ends themselves. And the hardened hearts of legalists can only reproduce what they are.
The Nearly Theres
While legalists were a vocal group, they were greatly outnumbered by the Nearly Theres. This group of men pursued a pop-culture, Hollywood version of Christianity. It’s almost as if these guys were outward legalists who knew in their heart-of-hearts that God is a deity of mercy and love, and couldn’t wrestle with their own guilt effectively enough to reconcile this inner division.
Let me illustrate this. A man faces a tragic circumstance (family sickness, near divorce, etc.) and promises God — in a scene I can’t not envision without Hollywood lighting and music — that if He’ll just help them through this, the man would give up drinking (or sleeping around, or the drug game, or whatever) and become a good Christian. Ten dramatic minutes of film later, God does His part, and ten wanton minutes more of film later, the main fails in his. Fast forward to their prison sentence, where God is still “holding the past against” the man.
These men can be good soil, as they have a strong awareness of their own brokenness and know that God is there. But the self-loathing, the rejection of God’s impossible love, and the continued pop-culture depiction of God as a cosmic killjoy add a lot of gravel to the soil. And this can really shake up the soil’s effectiveness. I knew one man who came to God, relentlessly reading his Bible and even sleeping with it for comfort like a four year old with a teddy bear, but he could not forgive himself nor accept the possibility of God’s forgiveness.
Sometimes, though, the soil is good. Sometimes, it sticks. And you get solid Christians who doggedly pursue an intimacy with God and His Word. Some of these, though, fall into traps of mystery and intrigue. They read about the end times and begin studying eschatology, or they slip into questions and theories about the nephilim or demonology. The idle curiosities grow, and with so much time on their hands, they get watered and fed to a fault.
Before long, the man who had once been searching for God’s heart begins searching for God’s means. They spend weeks studying the Bible and extrabiblical resources for a detailed understanding of the cosmic mysteries of the leviathan or the behemoth or the physical/metaphysical site of the Garden of Eden or the detailed interpretation of Paul’s trip to heaven. Meanwhile, they miss the same Paul’s own warning about such things:
Don’t let them waste their time in endless discussion of myths and spiritual pedigrees. These things only lead to meaningless speculations, which don’t help people live a life of faith in God.
1 Timothy 1:4
Despite their zeal for knowledge, the Distracted rarely get heated in their discussions and debates. Where things really escalate is when doctrine comes into question. It’s like there’s a progression, and if you can get past accepting God’s forgiveness and the myriad of cosmic mysteries, there’s this one last thing to keep you from really engaging with God.
I think the culprit here is likely pride. I know it was when I’d fall into this trap. You study, you learn, and you decide for yourself that you have answers to your own questions and have sufficiently addressed your own doubts. You’ve cried out to God like the father in Mark 9, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” And through reflection and study, you’re proud to have achieved your goal.
Then someone who arrived at the same place of acceptance and peace but took a different path expresses his story. And you say to yourself, Oh, he’s an Arminian. Then you begin to detail, at length, “the facts” about exactly how Calvinism has refuted the Arminian claim. Then they explain how FACTS better answers things than TULIP. And a debate ensues. And with a predictable outcome.
Devotion becomes doctrine becomes dogma becomes debate becomes division.
Meanwhile, all the Distracted, Nearly Theres, and Legalists are caught in the crossfire. Stubborn pride about one’s right to be right brews hatred and dissent. People who need these learned believers most are left to make sense of man’s doctrine rather than empowering their relationship with God. Or worse, they’re left to choose sides in a place full of its own group-mind politics. And worst of all, any seekers who need Christ nearby are left saying to themselves, If that’s what Christianity has to offer, I want no part of it.
Ah, but there are those that don’t. They don’t deny God’s grace (or that Paul wrote Romans). They don’t reject God’s love and forgiveness. They don’t internalize TV depictions of God over the biblical God. They don’t lose themselves in creation’s mythology. They don’t care if you speak in tongues or speak in riddles.
So what do they do?
They serve. They love.
God blessed me with relationships with a handful of these men. A man who would cheerfully sacrifice to give you something just because he saw a need, and not because of compulsion or fear. A friend who would call you out for your mistakes, but in private because he cared more about you overcoming your flaws than him overcoming you. A brother who would be there when you were at your worst, even if he didn’t have any answers, just to listen and encourage.
I studied with these brothers. These brothers loved me. I loved these brothers. One of my greatest regrets about my prison experience is that I was so resistant to the rest of the groups that it took me far too long to find that brothers could be found in that place.
And no, they weren’t perfect. And we didn’t all agree on the theological details. One friend was fond of saying, “Oh, it’s okay if you’re not a Calvinist. Once you get to heaven, you will be.” The group would chuckle, and we’d get back to what really mattered: loving God and loving each other.
It was a remarkable experience, and more than anything, it is the memory of these brothers that inspired me to write about my Joseph Journey. We should always be prepared for God to have prepared a place for us. I needed these men, and they needed me. And God’s big enough to make use of a rough situation and bring about good for His people. Almost like Joseph…
Originally posted 2017-01-23 08:00:05.