There are many complexities and variations of prison life today, but the challenges of imprisonment are nothing new. For nearly 2,000 years imprisoned Christians have been reflecting on how to lead a gospel-centered life.
As a full-time prison chaplain for nearly a decade, Brian J. Wright has served on staff in every security level, custody level, and gender grouping available in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has walked alongside countless individuals in the aftermath of their crimes. Wright is a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and teaches evangelism and apologetics at Palm Beach Atlantic University (Orlando) and New Testament at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (Pensacola). You can follow him on Facebook or Academia.
I asked Wright about how Christians in the prison system can learn to serve Christ in their circumstances.
Do you see any similarities between prison life in the days of Jesus and today?
I think there are at least two significant similarities worth mentioning. Both then and now, there are various levels of custody and kinds of punishment. People are sent to different types of prisons, or even placed under house arrest. People serve long sentences, are deported, or are even put to death.
A second similarity would be the shame and pain that comes to those in prison. There is general shame from being in chains. There is shame from the humiliation of once being a person of higher status. There is even shame that comes from family and friends.
As for pain, it is both physical and emotional. But for the most part, emotional pain is the worst. Just the other day, for example, an inmate told me the worst part of incarceration is not where he is (prison, serving his sentence), but where he is not (home, serving his family).
Where would you turn in the Bible to help someone see how to live a gospel-centered imprisonment?
I would probably start by turning to Acts 28 and 2 Timothy. Given the two similarities of prison life I just mentioned, the apostle Paul also experienced various levels of custody during his life. On the one hand, Acts 28 implies that Paul had a remarkably light custody, somewhat similar to a federal prison camp today. On the other, 2 Timothy points to a much more serious and extended incarceration, which ultimately resulted in Paul’s death under Nero, somewhat similar to a maximum security facility today. Yet regardless of where he was detained, Paul shows the Christ-centered hope available in every situation and how anyone can model a gospel-driven imprisonment.
What about the shame and pain you mentioned?
Paul’s imprisonments took an emotional and physical toll on him. In 2 Timothy alone he mentions tears shed on his behalf (1:4), the suffering he endured (1:12), the abandonment he received from those around him (1:15; cf. 4:11), and the chains he bore (2:9).
Nevertheless, as he awaited his execution (4:6), he did not give up: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7). Even without an out-date, Paul finished the agonizing race God had sovereignly marked out for him. He did not believe he was a victim of his circumstances or of society. Rather, God was in absolute control.
What else from these texts do you believe could help someone see what a gospel-centered imprisonment looks like?
I’ll just mention a few more from 2 Timothy.
I think it’s important to remember that while Paul was in prison, he kept his focus on the hope set before him: “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Paul realized that his best life was not going to be his present life, for he knew what awaited him in Christ.
All the more astounding is what he asks someone to bring him: a cloak, some scrolls, and the parchments (2 Tim. 4:13). Even in prison, with an opportunity to receive things from the outside, Paul chose a simple lifestyle.
When someone does him wrong, or doesn’t stand by him during a court hearing, Paul doesn’t put a hit out on them, try to settle matters himself, or seek revenge. Rather, he says, “the Lord will repay [Alexander] according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:15) and prays, “May it not be charged against them” (2 Tim. 4:16).
But where, in all this, did Paul get his strength? From the presence and power of the Lord to comfort and support him (4:17). In fact, throughout his prison writings he emphasizes his personal relationship with God the Father, through God the Son, by means of God the Spirit. Of course, it must be observed that the Lord didn’t stand by and strengthen Paul so he could simply make it through another grueling day. Rather, God strengthened Paul “so that through [him] the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (4:17).
Paul concludes by highlighting who will ultimately rescue him: the Lord Jesus Christ. He tells us what kind of rescue it will be: complete and safe. He tells us where he will end up: his heavenly kingdom. And most importantly, because of the supremacy of Christ, he can tell us how long it will last: “forever and ever” (2 Tim. 4:18).
For Christians who are not in prison but know someone who is, what advice would you give?
The majority of inmate testimonies I hear are about when someone in their family, a friend, or even another inmate shared the gospel with them. In other words, biblical truth was not initially presented to them by a chaplain, pastor, or volunteer. Therefore, I would encourage everyone reading this to continue speaking the truth in love.
One practical way you can do this is to take what I’ve shared here and discuss it with them. Either by phone, e-mail, or visitation, take the example of Paul and ask them some simple questions.
What would be some sample questions?
Here are 10 such questions you can put into your own words and tie into your conversations at some point:
- Are you aware of the certainty of your own death?
- Do you have a personal relationship with God, through Christ, by means of the Holy Spirit?
- Are you committed to the gospel?
- If you knew God would do nothing with your case, would you still honor him with your life?
- Are you focusing on the hope set before you?
- Is your life a model of simplicity?
- Are you clinging to the presence and power of God for comfort and support?
- Are you actively involved in proclaiming the gospel?
- Are you finishing the race God has sovereignly marked out for you?
- Are you thankful for the supremacy of Christ?
I am convinced that there should be such a radical and profound difference between a true Christian in prison and all other inmates. Although prison has chains, believers have been set free in Christ. Although prison is full of darkness, believers let their light shine before others. Although prison has unpleasant smells, believers are the sweet aroma of Christ.
My prayer is that more Christians in prison—and outside of prison—would live out in practice what they are in truth.