Today my heart is heavy for those who are incarcerated. I write regularly to several people who have, for various reasons and circumstances, found themselves to be in prison. Some are guilty of their crimes while others are not. The sentence is still the same and those of us on this side of the wall can and will never be able to comprehend the depth of darkness, loneliness, solitude, and hopelessness that is experienced on the other side of the wall. We may try and we may work to come up with words to try and bring comfort and hope to the prisoner but in reality we are only comforting ourselves. There is very little comfort to those in prison.
When Paul was in prison it was nothing like it is today. Sallust, a Roman historian, described the prison as
“sunken about twelve feet under ground. Walls secure it on every side, and over it is a vaulted roof connected with stone arches; but its appearance is disgusting and horrible, by reason of filth, darkness and stench”.
I am reminded of the slave Onesimus. Paul mentions in his letter to Philimon, that somehow this slave was able to make his way to Paul. This is remarkable when we consider the times. A prison visitor could not simply slip in and out undetected. They could find themselves interrogated by the Roman Empire for being witness to the prisoners’ words or acts during the visit that were not allowed or that could help in the conviction process. Remember, prisons were not held for the guilty – they were where people were put to simply get rid of them while information was gathered to convict them or, in Pauls’ case, held until the populous opinion faded in to history. Also, according to Roman law at the time, the testimony of a slave was not admissible unless it was given under torture!
This puts an entire new light and brings about a stronger sense of respect for Onesimus. He was obeying his Lord by visiting those who were in prison and he did this on multiple occasions to help Paul, to no doubt assist in keeping Pauls’ meager cell area clean and perhaps supply him with food.
I have a confession – I have purposely avoided writing as of lately to prisoners. I find my words often times to feel empty and almost patronizing and insulting. I understand that to congratulate someone on their seemingly positive attitude is like congratulating a fish for the look of a smile upon its face when it has just been taken from the water. It is ludicrous and insulting. It is similar to our standard response when someone dies. We say, “I’m sorry” and the words feel empty to us and emptier to the one receiving it. Sure, they know out intent – but intention does not bring about hope and for those in prison, it does not bring about freedom. It simply reminds them of where they are.
Perhaps Paul was able to witness to the resurrection of Christ to the soldiers and other prisoners. Perhaps some of the people who were witness to Paul’s spiritual strength (and struggles) had a similar transformation as Onesimus, going from uselss to “special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).
A prison can become a place of some personal and spiritual freedom. It may grant some an opportunity to surrender even deeper in to the loving arms of Christ. It may help some answer the call and say, here I am Lord, send me. However, it is still exile. It is still and will always remain a separation from the experiences of being fully human.
Remember in your words and acts to others that you have no idea what turmoil, what anguish, what exile that person is experiencing. Choose your words carefully and be intentional in your approach just as you want people to do for you. And today please pray that the injustice, that has imprisoned innocent people, will be heard and handled quickly and correctly in the name of Jesus Christ.