Once in a great while, a prisoner who appears to want nothing to do with us Christian volunteers, will attend our Bible study. Such was the case with Ivan. Because the glass in the door through which the inmates enter our visiting room is made of one-way mirror, we volunteers can’t see who is behind the door until it is opened. When Ivan would come in, he would brush right past me, even if I had my right hand outstretched to greet him. After all, Ivan had an image to uphold, and he would not allow anyone to see him with his guard down for even an instant.
After the event that I’m about to describe took place, I learned some things about Ivan. Apparently, when he was out in the recreation yard one day, he bumped into an inmate who was quite a bit bigger than he was. Jail-code demands that the subordinate inmate apologize and step out of the way. But Ivan, as small as he was, didn’t wish to step aside. The larger inmate told Ivan that he would kill him right then and there. Ivan produced a shim (a homemade prison knife) and told the larger man to “come on, kill me right now, come on.” I don’t know what happened after that, but if I, as a volunteer, heard about this event which took place years before, no doubt all the prisoners heard as well.
I also learned that when Ivan came up a crowded stairway, inmates would move to either side to get out of his way. For me, knowing about these incidents just highlights the glory of Almighty God, Who alone is able to break the hardest of hearts with the Truth of His Son Jesus.
My friend DJ, who had been volunteering at the prison for several years, came up to me at the beginning of a session.
“That guy over there, Ivan, he wants to say something to the group,” DJ said quietly.
DJ knew as well as I that we never know what to expect when a prisoner wants to say something to the group. It could be filled with colorful language; it could have some theology taken out of context, or mixed in with some really weird beliefs he’d picked up somewhere in his life; it might be a statement berating the prison or a correctional officer. So it is always with reservation that we allow an inmate to address the group, especially someone about whom none of us knew the first thing. I don’t think Ivan had even said as much as hello in all the times he’d attended our studies.
“Well, okay,” I nodded tentatively to DJ. “Thanks for warning me. If he wants to say something, let’s hope we can do damage control when he’s done.”
DJ gave Ivan the okay and the diminutive man stood up next to his empty table. Ivan always sat alone and tonight was no exception.
“I heard somewhere the Bible says you’re supposed to give account of yourself, so I’m gonna do that,” he began.
I felt things in me begin to pucker up.
“I’ve been in prison for twenty-one years. I’ve seen a lot of things in twenty-one years. Lots of things.”
I thought to myself, I’ll bet you have. But where is this going? Surely you’re not going to recap twenty-one years of prison life?
Ivan continued. “I don’t figure there’s much I haven’t seen in my twenty-one years in this place. And I’ll tell you right now, I’ve learned to hate. That’s what gets me through the day, that’s what keeps me going. That’s all I know. And I’ve been thinking about the people who put me in this place. I’ve had a long time to think about them. When I get out, I’ve been planning on how I’m going to hurt everyone who ever hurt me. I’ve got a good plan, too. Ain’t no one going to catch me this time. I’m going to hurt everyone who had something to do with putting me in here, and they’re not going to catch me, they’re not going to put me back in here. I’ve had twenty-one years to plan it. It’s a good plan. I’ve gone over it a lot in my mind.”
By this time Ivan had everyone’s rapt attention.
“And I’ve been coming up here for a while now,” he continued. “Listening to you people talk about this Jesus when I come up here. This Jesus this and this Jesus that. I’ve been coming up here for a while and listening to you. So the other day when I was alone, I knelt down by my bed, and I called out to this Jesus. I reached up my hand to this Jesus, just like this.”
Ivan reached his right hand up over his head to show just what he’d done. Then he looked at us Christian volunteers as he put his hand down.
“Now I don’t know if I said the words just right. I don’t know if I said them exactly the way you people up here say them. But now – now I don’t hate anymore. I don’t hate anyone anymore. After twenty-one years of hating everyone, I don’t hate anymore. Hate’s what got me through each day. Now I don’t hate, and it’s all I can remember ever doing. Now I don’t know what to do. Will somebody here please tell me what to do, because now I don’t know what to do.”
Then Ivan abruptly sat down.
The room was dead silent as I cut my eyes around to the other three volunteers, no one knowing what to do or say. After a long period of silence, I finally felt prompted to speak.
“First of all, Ivan,” I began slowly, “don’t ever let anyone tell you that you didn’t say the words just right or the exact way that they would’ve said them. God looks at your heart. Your heart is what matters to God. And the fact that you no longer hate is evidence that your heart was right before God when you called out to Him, and you said the words just exactly right. Don’t ever doubt that, or doubt that God heard you.”
Ivan stared at me and nodded slowly.
I waited a moment, hoping someone else would have some words of wisdom, but no one said anything.
“Well, Ivan, the next thing you should do,” I continued, “is get yourself a Bible if you don’t already have one, and start reading. I suggest you read the Gospel of John first. If you want to discuss that, or anything else from the Bible, just come back and we’ll talk about it.”
Ivan did get himself a Bible and began reading it, but before long, he was transferred to another institution. Like so many who either get released, moved to another living unit in the prison, or get transferred out of the area, we never knew what happened to him. I’m just eternally grateful to the God Who hears when someone sincerely cries out to Him. He hears even when the person calling to Him has been steeped in hatred for decades. And God, Almighty God, can remove every trace of that hatred in an instant. Only God!
“But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
“What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes” (Mark 9:23 NLT).
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7)
So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith (Acts 15:8-9).
And I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart (Ezekiel 36:26 NLT).
Seek the Lord while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:6-11).
This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, on the salty flats where no one lives. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they go right on producing delicious fruit. The human heart is most deceitful and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I know! I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve” (Jeremiah 17:5-10 NLT).
Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17).
And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:42-43 NASB).
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).
And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the Lord Shall be saved (Acts 2:21).
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