The prison governor was an immensely impressive, dynamic, eloquent and young African-American woman known as ‘Chief Jennifer’.
Our team assembled at the start of the visit, together with those who ran the prison. Chief Jennifer welcomed us with these words: ‘Greetings in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’
She told us that there were 2.5 million people in prison in the USA, each costing the taxpayer $24,000 a year. Only 3% will stay in prison for the rest of their lives. 97% of those presently incarcerated will, at some point, be released back into society. For that reason, she continued, there was good secular motivation for wanting to see change in their lives, besides her own desire, as a Christian, for them to experience redemption.
The prison was run not only with justice, but also with love. All wrong attitudes and actions were lovingly confronted. There was no bad language, no graffiti and a learned respectful behaviour. We spent some time with a group of men who had recently completed Alpha there and heard their testimonies of changed lives.
God is love. He is also just. In his book Justice in Love, Nicholas Wolterstorff points out that justice is a necessary constituent part of any properly formed conception of love.
Justice and the poorProverbs 21:5-16
A society without justice and the rule of law is a terrifying place to live. Evil is unrestrained. The poor, in particular, suffer. We see the terrifying results of a lack of justice in many societies around the world.
Where the rule of law operates it has a double benefit. When justice is done, it brings ‘joy to the righteous’ (v.15a). It also deters evildoers. It brings ‘terror to evildoers’ (v.15b). ‘Good people celebrate when justice triumphs, but for the workers of evil it is a bad day’ (v.15, MSG).
Justice leads to a society where people feel protected and secure – especially the poor. One of the reasons our prayers might not be answered is that we have not heard the cries of the poor: ‘If you shut your ears to the cry of the poor, you too will cry out and not be answered’ (v.13).
Lord, I pray for justice in our world. I pray for those that are seeking to bring justice to parts of the world where injustice reigns.
Justice and forgiveness2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11
Many of us tend to avoid confrontation. I find it difficult. It is not just the fear of rejection or being unpopular, it is also the fear that I might make the situation worse by fuelling the fires of anger and resentment.
Some people seem positively to enjoy confrontation. If we look forward to confrontation, if we find it easy to put others right, to correct and to criticise, it is possible that we are not always acting out of love.
Paul loved the Corinthians deeply. Yet he did not shy away from confrontation. His love led him to confront, though it caused him ‘great distress’, ‘anguish of heart’ and ‘many tears’ (2:4). ‘I didn’t write it to cause pain; I wrote it so you would know how much I care – oh, more than care – love you!’ (v.4, MSG).
Confronting people with the truth may be very painful. Truth, like surgery, may hurt, but it also cures. Operations like this must be carried out with love. We do not know exactly who or what Paul is referring to here. However, it may be the man that Paul had denounced in 1 Corinthians 5:1–5 (who had been living with his father’s wife).
Paul had insisted that he be thrown out of the church. However, now he is saying that this man has received punishment enough. He urges them to forgive and comfort him, and to reaffirm their love for him (2 Corinthians 2:7–8). Justice had been done. Now was the time for mercy, grace and forgiveness.
Paul was very quick to forgive: ‘Anyone you forgive I also forgive. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake’ (v.10). When Paul forgave, he forgot – hardly even remembering whether there was anything to forgive.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was once reminded by a friend of a cruel thing that had happened to her many years earlier. Clara seemed unable to remember the incident.
‘Don’t you remember the wrong that was done to you?’ the friend asked insistently.
‘No,’ Clara answered calmly. ‘I distinctly remember forgetting that.’
Forgiveness is absolutely vital in the Christian church. Lack of forgiveness is one of the ways that the devil can get in – it opens a door for his schemes. Forgiveness shuts him out: ‘In order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes’ (v.11).
Lord, help us to spot the schemes of the devil. Help us to be quick to forgive and love one another and to shut Satan out of the church.
Justice and confrontation2 Chronicles 31:2-33:20
God himself is not afraid of confrontation! In this passage we see how, in his love, God confronted both an essentially good leader who became proud, and an evil leader who was enabled to repent.
It is such a relief to read about a good king. Hezekiah restored the temple. He led by example – he contributed from his own possessions (31:3). The people responded generously (v.5). The Lord blessed them and they had plenty to eat with food left over (v.10).
‘Everything [Hezekiah] took up... he did well in a spirit of prayerful worship. He was a great success’ (vv.20–21, MSG). He had an ‘exemplary track record’ (32:1, MSG).
All this did not save Hezekiah from coming under attack. But when the attack did come from Sennacherib, Hezekiah inspired the people, ‘Be strong! Take courage! Don’t be intimidated… There are more on our side than on their side. He only has a bunch of mere men; we have our God to help us and fight for us! Morale surged. Hezekiah’s words put steel in their spines’ (32:7–8, MSG).
In our own lives, sometimes we face seemingly overwhelming problems. Christians in the UK, for example, seem to be like a small minority facing a vast army of secularism and hostility to God. But the good news is that there is a greater power with us, and with them there is only the ‘arm of flesh’. With us is the Lord our God to ‘help us and to fight our battles’ (v.8).
There is always a danger that success will lead to pride. People look up to leaders. Indeed, we are supposed to honour our leaders. But all leaders need to be aware that this honour has danger written all over it. If pride creeps in, repent quickly and humble yourself.
As soon as Hezekiah was successful, arrogance crept in. When God confronted him, thankfully, ‘He repented of the pride in his heart’ (v.26) and God blessed him again with great riches and honour (v.27). He succeeded in everything he undertook (v.30).
Then, mysteriously, ‘God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart’ (v.31). It was a dark night of the soul.
Don’t be discouraged if there are times when you do not sense God’s presence. Sometimes God is silent and imperceptible. Continue to be faithful when God tests your heart. Hezekiah had a good heart – his life was full of acts of devotion (v.32) and was honoured when he died (v.33).
His son’s life seems to be almost a complete reversal of his own. Manasseh started out doing evil in the eyes of the Lord (33:2). In fact, it is hard to think of anyone who did more evil than Manasseh. ‘He burned his own sons in a sacrificial rite… He practiced witchcraft and fortune-telling. He held séances and consulted spirits from the underworld. Much evil – in God’s view a career in evil. And God was angry’ (v.6, MSG).
But no one is beyond redemption. No matter how far we have fallen, if, like Manasseh, we repent and turn to God we can receive forgiveness.
God confronted Manasseh. ‘Now that he was in trouble, he went to his knees in prayer asking for help – total repentance before the God of his ancestors. As he prayed, God was touched; God listened and brought him back to Jerusalem as king’ (v.12, MSG).
This is one of the reasons why I love to visit prisons. No one is beyond redemption. Jesus has made this possible through his death on the cross where, in the words of John Eddison, ‘Love and justice mingle, truth and mercy meet.’
Lord, thank you that at the cross we see both your love and justice together. Thank you that you have mercy on me. Help me to show your love and bring your justice to the world, in Jesus’ name.
‘Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.’
… Or, presumably, a quarrelsome husband!
Verse of the Day
‘… with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles’ (2 Chronicles 32:8).
John Eddison (1916–2011), ‘At the Cross of Jesus’.
The Clara Barton illustration is taken from John C Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You, (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2012) p.105.
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.