Charles* is a prisoner who is serving a long sentence in a state prison. He attended weekly Bible study in the prison, not because he had any interest in God, but because the Bible study gave him some social time with outside folk who “spoke” his language—American Sign Language (ASL)—and it broke the boredom of his daily routine.
Charles took up most of the time in the Bible study showing off what he knew, asking about history trivia, or openly challenging the volunteer chaplains with his unbelief.
One April, while the group was discussing the life of Abraham, Charles interrupted to tell stories about Abraham’s deception in Egypt, Noah’s drunkenness, King David’s adultery and murder, Peter’s denial of Jesus, and Paul’s execution of Stephen. Then he said, “The reason I don’t believe the Bible is because more than half the people who wrote it were adulterers, murderers, liars, and thieves.” The implication was, “They were no better than we are!”
“Charles, there is some truth in what you say,” I responded. “But the Bible’s exposure of the moral failures of those fathers of our faith encourages me in three ways.
“First, those stories prove to me that the Bible is telling the truth. It doesn’t cover up what those people did wrong. What other holy book of any other religion exposes sins and failures of its holy men, as the Bible does?
“Second, when those people in the Bible messed up, they all suffered the consequence. God says that sin has terrible consequences, and the lives of Abraham, David, and the others show that to be true.
“Third, if God can forgive, accept, and use murderers like Moses, David, and Paul, then God has hope for you and me.”
Suddenly Charles became quiet. He had nothing more to say that night.
The next week was the week before Easter, so I told the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, illustrating with a stack of Sunday School posters. Charles participated in a positive way, by filling in details of the story.
The following week, as I walked into our meeting room, Charles greeted me enthusiastically. “I found The Passion of the Christ video in our chapel locker,” he exclaimed. “I watched the whole thing. Everything that you said last week was exactly right! It’s really true!” Then he ran to the locker, got the DVD, set up the TV, and for the next two hours he watched it again, offering his own commentary to the other men who had gathered.
A couple weeks later, a group of outside guests gathered with the men for social event. Those who had not seen Charles in a while noticed a change of attitude. He was kind, courteous, patient, and helpful—not the usual Charles that they previously knew.
Charles now has new motivation for attending weekly Bible study. He still struggles with doubts and discouragement. Old ways of responding to difficult situations cause him to stumble. Living with the ongoing consequences of his previous bad attitude is an added burden. At times he is uncertain that God has really forgiven him. But his eyes are on the cross and the empty tomb. His heart has been touched by grace; it will take a while for his head to understand more fully what that means.
The Rev. Ron Friedrich is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church of the Deaf in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is engaged in Deaf prison ministry in the Maryland Department of Corrections, and serves as a chaplain at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.