He was a senior in college and he had been living with his girlfriend for two years. He thought they would get married and live happily ever after. His whole life was ahead of him and everything seemed to be coming together.
But then one afternoon he came home and discovered his girlfriend in bed with his best friend. Blind with rage he left the apartment, got a gun, came back, and shot them both. Thirty years later, he is still in prison serving out his sentence for the two young lives that he cut short.
The principal of the school never really liked him. He used to have a huge paddle with which he would whack the students upside the back or head whenever they got out of line, but the principal was particularly brutal to this young man. He used to come home with scrapes and bruises from the “punishments” he suffered at the hands of that principal.
Then one day the young man snapped. The principal took the abuse one step too far, and the next thing he knew he had whipped out a knife and was stabbing the principal, over and over and over. He would later learn that he had stabbed the principal over 20 times, so self-defense was not a plausible plea. After having been being found guilty of first degree murder, he had been in prison for decades.
These are just two of the stories I heard last week. These were also two of the men with whom I worshiped at the prison. Meeting them today, you would never guess that they had committed such heinous crimes. Now they are gentle, loving men, passionate about the Lord and committed to following Him.
These men also know a thing or two about redemption. They are now using their stories to impact the lives of young people around their state. They travel to schools and invite students into the prison, all for the purpose of sharing their tales so that others will not make the same mistakes. God is clearly working through them.
Now in spite of the fact that these men have turned their lives around, I was very much startled by the degree of sympathy I felt for them. As crazy as it may sound, if it were up to me I would probably let them go free! Yes, they had engaged in horrible acts, but now they are different men. They are not the same individuals that they were years ago, and because of that, my heart yearns to show them mercy. Even when I think about the pain and suffering their victim’s families had endured, my heart was still softened toward them.
At first, I thought my feelings of compassion were misplaced. How could I feel pity for a man who took the life of another? If anything, I should feel pity for the friends and families who were impacted by the crime, but not the perpetrator of the crime.
Well as I have meditated on these feelings more and more, I have come to a wonderful realization. The sympathy and mercy that my heart yearns to show these men, even in the face of profound sin, is a reflection of the very heart of God. Even when confronted with our depraved souls and our selfish lifestyles, God still desires to show us mercy. He still yearns to redeem our lives and give us a second chance.
Mercy in the face of sin: that is the very heartbeat of God. But for me personally, the point at which this divine characteristic becomes the most difficult to embody is in showing that same mercy to myself. How easy it was for me to sympathize with murderers, but I have yet to forgive myself for sins in my past. They still haunt my memory and make me cringe at the thought. I wonder if I will ever let them go.
That said, my experience in that prison was also a lesson in the lavishness of God’s mercy, a mercy we must remember to extend to others, as well as ourselves. Yes, God is a God of justice, and He detests sin more than we can understand, but He also loves us enough to deliver us from it. I think the inmates grasped this concept, and that was the reason for their immense joy. If I could simply wrap my mind around my own forgiveness, then perhaps I might be able to worship with an ecstasy that is comparable to my brothers in chains.