It can be difficult to get into prison — security clearance is always needed and a security clampdown may deny all access. Only the chaplain’s helpfulness in a high-profile prison one Sunday enabled us to preach the gospel there.
Those inside are keen to get out; we are keen to get in! We want to go to as many prisons as we can to share the message of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ.
Initially I was shocked to meet so many in prison who had been convicted of crimes
afterthey had professed conversion. It underlined the warning from 1 Corinthians 10:12: ‘let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall’.
True, not all who profess to be Christians have been born again. But some ‘inside’ are genuinely converted people who became careless in their daily walk with the Lord — having neglected Bible reading and prayer and undervalued fellowship and instruction at their local churches.
Predictably, that carelessness overflowed into their daily living. Thus weakened, they fell not only into sin but also into crime. But, thank God, some of these backsliders have been fully restored to the Lord in prison.
Also, of course, it is a joy to meet men and women who have come to know Christ during their sentences. God’s amazing mercy transcends all locks, gates and bars.
The sentiments of the first life-prisoner I spoke to (in HMP Maghaberry, Northern Ireland) have been echoed by many others in UK prisons. The forgiven murderer volunteered, ‘If I had never come to prison I would never have come to Christ’.
Another ‘lifer’ is still imprisoned for crimes of which I believe him to be innocent. He spent over ten years trying to launch an appeal and met problems all along the way. Then, to our dismay, his appeal was dismissed.
Despite that, Steve stands by his earlier comment: ‘I would not have missed this for anything. I have come to know Christ and would not have given him five minutes’ thought outside prison’. He is now a true missionary in surroundings he would love to leave.
UK’s daily prison population of 85,000 inmates includes a small proportion of converted people. They exhibit a full range of Christian understanding — and misunderstanding!
Theological opinions may have been moulded before they entered prison. Also, prison chaplains reflect a broad theological spectrum, and a Bible-believing prisoner may be served by a non-evangelical chaplain.
A new convert with no Christian background can find it hard to decide what is biblical and what is not. Yet some grow in their evangelical faith as God nurtures them through the Bible and fellowship with Christians.
Christian visitors vary greatly. Their sincerity and warmth cannot be questioned, but some are unwisely ‘over the top’ in doctrine and practice and their influence can cause problems for chaplains, other visitors, and the prisoners themselves. Others are very helpful.
There are some wonderful witnesses for Christ among Christian prisoners. They have a concern for the welfare of other inmates. But what does serving the Lord mean for them?
Every Christian agrees we should share the gospel with others, but it is even more important that we live a consistent Christian life. Otherwise we are seen as hypocrites; the Lord Jesus Christ is maligned and his gospel treated with contempt.
Most of us have homes to which we can retreat from the close scrutiny of strangers — a ‘no go’ area where few can see what we are really like. But not so if you are a prisoner involuntarily thrust into close association with strangers — rarely the friends or neighbours you would choose for yourself.
Perhaps you share a cell with one of them for over 20 hours a day. That cell might have been designed for one person originally, and both of you have to live, sleep, eat, wash, and use the toilet in that one cell.
Then think about the peer pressure. In your pre-Christian days as a prisoner you were probably into all the scams. You used bad language because it was ‘macho’. Maybe you took drugs and received pornography.
In protective self-interest you covered up the truth about bullying, sex abuse, and stealing. You found it wise to do what the gang or ‘top man’ said. Now you are under ‘new management’ and it can cost you.
If you are assaulted, what will you do? Will you back down and accept the domination of another; or will you fight back and spoil your Christian testimony? Are you able to stay faithful to Christ and accept the consequences?
Honesty is a very real issue — honesty to confess and forsake sin; honesty to admit failure; honesty to confess that you are a Christian and love the Saviour. You must not only speak the truth, but live it. For you know and follow one who
And how about your worries and concerns? The verse in 1 Peter 5:7 — ‘casting all your care upon him, for he cares for you’ — sounds good and is good. But will you do that, maintaining a clear witness without complaint if you don’t get the promised letter from your wife and someone tells you she now has another partner?
How will you handle yourself when you can’t discuss your debts with those to whom you owe money? When a close friend or relative dies and you cannot go to the funeral? Will you accept that calmly? What if you hear that someone has stolen your goods or money?
And what happens if you are moved to the Isle of Wight and your nearest and dearest cannot drive or afford regular visits? What if no one writes to you at all — not even for your birthday?
Such things happen to many prisoners. But will you as a believer rise above such stresses or will you be overwhelmed by them? Will you still have a submissive and rejoicing attitude?
We know that such a life can be lived through Christ’s lordship. God’s gracious help, through trusting and obeying the Word of God, can make it reality. The input of caring Christians is an enormous help.
Paul was wonderfully upheld in his -Roman jail, though wrongly imprisoned. He was content and strengthened (see Philippians 4:11,13). I know prisoners personally who find the same true today.
But never underestimate the mountains that have to be climbed by brothers and sisters in Christ in prison. Please pray for them as they labour in the mission field they never meant to choose.