Changed Lives, and the BCF Prison Ministry – Part 2 July 06 2019

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

This blog is part two about BCF’s ministry to prisoners. As mentioned last time, BCF has had an outreach to prisons and prisoners for over 30 years. This has been largely as a result of the Lord leading friends of the ministry to reach out to prisoners and prisons throughout the U.S. and even overseas. Over the years, BCF has been privileged to train and provide materials to chaplains and prison volunteers, beginning with the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry in the 1980s.

In Part 1, we were reminded from the Scriptures that no one is beyond redemption. At the same time, there is a need for society to render justice for those who commit crimes. We hear in the news every day about horrible things people have done and the harm it has caused to others. Governments exist, in part, for the purpose of rendering appropriate physical consequences for those who have committed crimes, for the restraining of evil in the world. But spiritual redemption is still possible, and we have seen the great ways God can use those men and women who come to Christ or recommit themselves, both inside and outside the prison walls.

One of the things we have learned about a course having a title “Self Confrontation” is that just by hearing the title, people have an idea of what they are getting into. For example, they may be thinking, “Hmmm, this might not be one of those feel-good Bible studies.” But for those who do come, they quickly begin to realize is how powerful a hope the Scriptures are when they dig into God’s Word with a teachable spirit, ready to acknowledge His truth that “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). This is deep, life-transforming hope that no secular program can offer.

We bring this up, because the reaction of prisoners to the “Self Confrontation” theme has been fascinating to watch, and sometimes humorous. At one course in a prison, the instructor was going through Lesson 4 about some of the world’s approaches to dealing with the problems of life. One worldly approach described in this lesson is about “releasing the potential within us.” So in response to the instructor’s question “You know what happens when we release the potential within us?” A voice responded from the class “Yeah. That’s why we’re in here!” On another occasion, an inmate was talking to another inmate about taking the course and explained “This ain’t no sissy Bible study.” The impressions and reactions of prisoners are priceless. But they realize that seeing lives change is serious business, not just an academic exercise.

So why are chaplains, prisoners, and even prison administrators interested in Self-Confrontation? Many would say “because we see lives changed.” They see people becoming peacemakers instead of fighters. From the very beginning, prisoners realize they are in the class to work on their own lives. In one prison, the sergeant’s announcement for the class over the loudspeaker goes something like this: “It’s time for Self-Confrontation. You know you all need it. Get in there!” Certainly, some take it more seriously than others, but the reason for the study, and the focus on biblical principles, are clear from the outset. We are not trying to “sneak up on them” through clever titles or marketing. It’s the Bible – pure, simple, and powerful.

Some of the prisoners have been incarcerated a long time, and they have taken virtually every type of class available.  Most would say that they have never been taught directly from the Word about how God says to change. They have never been taught about the biblical view of “self,” and this is revolutionary, in stark contrast to what the world would be telling them.  They begin to realize that focusing on their own needs (rather than on loving God and others) can land them right back in prison. For many prisoners, the truth of Luke 9:23-24 becomes very real and personal to them, where Jesus said:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”

This message is radical and life-transforming, one which most people even outside of prison never have learned or accepted. Those who come to Christ within the prison environment perhaps have a clearer understanding even than we do of how revolutionary the message of Jesus really is, together with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Prisoners who believe and live by Luke 9:23-24 are not likely to go back to prison, if and when they get out.

BCF’s focus since 1974 has been on biblical discipleship, recognizing the God-designed plan of spiritual multiplication. Jesus was the ultimate example of making disciples, and this was His challenge to the eleven after the resurrection, not only for “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (i.e. evangelism), but also “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Keep in mind that “all that Jesus commanded” included principles for dealing with the realities of temptation and the difficult trials of life. For example, just within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught about how to deal with insults, unjust accusations, anger, forgiveness, reconciliation, lust, marital relationships, loving our enemies, worry, greed, hypocrisy, and other problems of life. What could better prepare prisoners for re-entering society, as well as continuing to live within their own prison community, than helping them with these applications to real life situations?

The Apostle Paul was a prime example of carrying out the ministry of discipleship, with his nurturing of the churches and church leadership. He passed these instructions along to many people, and explained the strategy very simply and clearly to the young Timothy:

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2)

We have had the blessing of seeing discipleship happening inside the prison environment over and over again. Many of the outside volunteers or chaplains who teach Self-Confrontation to prisoners begin looking for prisoners who God might use to teach alongside them. This is the way to spiritual maturity, when someone is not only taking in the Word, and not only “doing the Word” (James 1:22), but also passing along the Word to others. This was beautifully illustrated in an interview Larry King had with prisoners from San Quentin a few years ago. You will enjoy viewing this short video segment at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnFHs_Q7dzE. In some prisons, we see not just the teaching, but one-on-one discipleship occurring, with prisoners trained up to help others with their Self-Confrontation homework.

For those who do get out of prison, readjustment to life outside those walls can be extremely difficult. Families and friends may have turned their backs and moved on, and employers are not exactly waiting in line to hire convicted felons. It is a little bit like Saul, who after his conversion on the road to Damascus, faced skepticism from the churches about the authenticity of his change. The Lord used a vision to raise up Ananias, a skeptic himself, to introduce Saul to the saints as a completely changed man. Churches can be tremendous re-entry points for released prisoners, and while recognizing the need to be cautious, people can come alongside these transformed men and women to help them through the difficult process of re-entry into society.

This is part of the intent of the First Step Act, signed by President Trump in 2018. The First Step Act recognizes the need to assist ex-prisoners in becoming productive members of society, helping them through the many barriers. While this sort of legislation is helpful, it cannot replace the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ. This is why at BCF we are so grateful for those of you who minister to men and women in prison. It is a clear example of God’s love for those who might have been deemed unlovable - those society has cast aside. They probably deserved what they received, but it is a good reminder to those of us who have not gone to prison, that it could easily have been us who were there. All of us are undeserving of God’s grace and mercy, and we are thankful for God’s reaching down to us, whether inside or outside of those prison walls.

If you have questions about this or other blog posts, please e-mail blog@bcfministries.org. You may also subscribe to the blog by emailing that address and put “Subscribe to blog” in the subject line. If you need general information about BCF, you can access our home page at www.bcfministries.org

Steve Smith