I went to prison not too long ago. Actually, I went to speak at a prison. I should probably clarify that a little. There are a couple of people in our church who are heavily involved in prison ministry, Sean Reynolds and Katie Milholland. If you haven’t met them, you need to. I will be talking more about them this coming Sunday (I hope you will be back). Sean and Katie have a phenomenal ministry at The Hutchins Unit just down the road off I-20. With the rare exception, they are there every Thursday to minister to the men who call Hutchins home. They visit with the men, pray with them, study the Word of God with them, encourage them, and sincerely listen to them. It is incredible what they have going there. Many of the inmates refer to Katie as their momma. Many have asked Sean to walk alongside them as a brother when they get paroled. The Lord is working mightily through their ministry to the incarcerated.
I was humbled and honored a few months back when Katie asked me to come speak in the weekly chapel service. I have to be honest when I say I was NOT prepared for that experience. I have been preaching since I was 15. Crowds don’t bother me. And I also have to tell you that I LOVE watching TV shows that involve criminal themes: The First 48, Forensic Files, Lock-Up, etc. There is just something about watching people solve crimes and run prisons that is interesting to me. So when I rolled up to Hutchins in my (manly) Honda Civic, I thought I was prepared. WRONG! Watching prison life from my recliner is one thing. Walking inside the razor wire is another. It was a very sobering reality.
Please don’t get me wrong, I was blessed to be there. The chapel service went extraordinarily well and the men were unbelievably gracious and hospitable. It was a truly life-changing experience for me and I am hopeful to go back soon. The part that was so hard for me to process was that the men at Hutchins live in that place EVERY day. That is their “home”...being told what to wear, when to eat, when to sleep, even how they can walk. Prison is their life. When I went to visit, I understood I would only be there a few hours. I cannot imagine that place being my permanent dwelling. Sleeping in a room full of bunk beds with 40 other people. The toilets and showers out in the open. No stalls, no curtains. Just you and your naked self in front of God and everybody. This is their reality. EVERY day. I understand that it was their choices that landed them there. I get that. Still, I couldn’t help but hurt as I saw the hopelessness and despair in so many eyes looking back at me.
After I finished preaching, I was able to visit with the inmates for a good while. One conversation I had that day really stood out to me. I spoke with a man named “Rob”. He is a little older than me, 37. He told me that for the past twenty years he has spent way more time on the inside than the outside. Poor friends and poor choices resulted in him first coming to prison in his late teens. From there the cycle continued. He has spent the vast majority of his adult life in prison. As we chatted that day he was asking me to help him once he gets released. His concern is that he will, once again, fall back into his old life. But something he said that day hit me hard. Maybe it wasn’t what he said as much as it was they way he said it:
“Pastor Hadley, I don’t know how to live as a free man. I’ve been institutionalized so long, this is all I know. Even little things like going out to a restaurant or to the movies...I don’t know how to do any of it.”
In that moment it was revealed to me how much being locked up can affect a person. You don’t just lose years of your life, you lose the ability to live free. Even when Rob is paroled and walks out of Hutchins as a free man, the likelihood is that he will not truly feel free. Prison, a place he once hated, has become his comfort zone. Sadly, he has arrived at the place where he feels more comfortable being locked up than living outside the walls. “Why would someone want to live as a prisoner when they could live free?” you may be asking. Funny—I was just about to ask you the same question.
The truth today is that some of you are Rob. Many of you reading this are prisoners. No, you don’t have an armed guard escorting you around, and your “lawn” doesn’t feature a chain linked fence with razor wire at the top. I am not talking about that kind of incarceration. I am talking to you about the prison of your past. Some of you reading this right now, your lives are still being shaped and influenced by events that happened long ago. Your soul is locked up. Your mind is bound. Your heart is held captive. You live like this EVERY day...and you have for YEARS. And like Rob, some of you have lived this way for so long that you don’t know how to live any other way. You are so used to living as a prisoner, you have given up on the hope of ever being truly free. You are wishing and waiting, anticipating that day you will be paroled. Would you believe me if I told you that you already have been?
Casa View has many people who are new to the Christian faith. As a pastor, I couldn’t be more thrilled by this. So exciting to see so many people coming to faith in Christ. But in your spiritual infancy, I believe many of you don’t understand what all became YOURS upon pledging your allegiance to Jesus Christ. Yes, trusting Christ as your Savior is obviously a decision driven by the thought of eternity (we all want to end up in heaven when we pass from this life to the next). Did Jesus come to save you for all eternity? Absolutely! But the “good news” of the Gospel is that you are not only saved TO your FUTURE, you are saved FROM your PAST.
So go ahead. Turn around and take a look. What is it that is holding you captive? In my time as a pastor, I have discovered that many Christians are incarcerated by two penitentiaries of their past. Let’s take a look at these to close our time together.
PAST FAILURES. Do the sins you committed and mistakes you made continue to haunt you? Does the “new” you look at the “old” you and feel a sickening remorse? The “repeat all” button selected, your past sins are looping over and over in your mind, always in HD? My dear friends, can I tell you that if you have received Christ as Savior that God does not hold your past against you? It was at your worst that Jesus chose to die for you (see Romans 5:8). Some of you today are struggling in your faith. You are scared of God. Like a battered child, you approach Him with anxiety and reluctance. You fear that the Lord has saved you begrudgingly. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s motivation in saving you was simple—He loves you (see John 3:16). Do you believe that? Do you believe that He loves YOU? The Bible declares that you have a new life (see 2 Corinthians 5:17)! The old you is DEAD! GONE! FORGOTTEN! Can I ask you a question—if God is not dwelling on your past, why are you? You are weary and burdened by something that God has removed from you. He has canceled your sins (see Colossians 2:14). He has cleansed you from all unrighteousness (see 1 John 1:9). My brother or sister...you are FREE. You don’t have to live in the prison of your failures any longer. Some of you reading this may not be a Christian. You have never trusted in Jesus Christ. I invite you to ask Him right now to forgive you of your past and bring you a new life. Let our Lord give you rest today.
PAST HURTS. One of the hardest questions that I am asked as a pastor is “Why did God let this happen?” What words can I possibly offer to someone who was abused, abandoned, or betrayed? Only a few weeks ago I spoke with one of our members who shared with my wife and me how they were sexually abused for many years as a child—by their father! This life is filled with so much heartache and pain. I have often been awakened in the night by my phone buzzing on the night stand. Another student reaching out for help, trying to make sense of the pain they have gone through. Can I be super honest? I don’t have an answer for all the questions that are brought to me. Some questions are too deep for that. I think, at times, to intellectualize someone’s pain is to actually insult them. There are some mysteries that will simply remain unsolved on this side of heaven. But what I can tell you is what I have personally learned on my own journey. I have spoken at times about the pain of my childhood. Those were some tough years back then. I used to not understand why God allowed those things to happen. I questioned His sovereignty and His goodness. But today, thankfully, I am at a place where I no longer do that. I know that those things I went through have made me who I am. The wounding was the preparation God used to shape me and mold me for my destiny as a pastor. My passion for people, my deep love for the hurting—they all came out of that childhood season of pain and suffering. Had I not experienced those things I honestly don’t know that I would be doing what I am today. So you see it wasn’t that God wasn’t good back then, I just didn’t see what He saw. There was a purpose in my pain. It wasn’t in vain. I saw a t-shirt once that said “God never wastes a hurt.” I believe that. I don’t know why you went through what you did. But I know that it wasn’t wasted. God promises us in His Word that everything in our life will work for good (see Romans 8:28). He invites us in to be held and to be healed. His love is sweetest to those who are hurting. The broken are privileged to an uncommon intimacy. The devil will lie to you and tell you that you are too messed up to be normal. Too scarred to ever feel again. That God has a plan for some people, but you are damaged goods. Don’t believe him for a second. Don’t live in that prison any longer. Walk out of that cell and live the life Jesus died to give you. Call on His name today. May you know the sweetness of being yoked to Him.
John 8:36—So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.