Last week we were in prison again. And again the experience changed me.
We learned that one of the inmates—a man who’s so supportive of our ministry, who’s gentle disposition radiates Jesus, who if I met on the outside might invite over for dinner—had gone to trial and was found guilty. The verdict carries a life sentence.
Maybe he deserves the punishment delivered. I don’t know his history, the details of his crime or really anything about him. All I know is that when we gather to worship, he knows Jesus. And because of him, I know Jesus better.
It’d be so easy to go into the prison feeling superior, better than and more deserving. As hard as I am on myself, I still think I’m a pretty good person. In the scale we carry around in our heads—you know the one with people like Mother Theresa on top and Hitler on the bottom—I’d rate myself slightly above average. You’d probably rate yourself similarly. In fact, most people think they’re pretty good.
But, the question that pricks our insides isn’t if we’re good—it’s if we’re good enough. Years ago I spoke with a faithful church-attending friend on the topic of heaven and she rued, “That’s the one thing I worry about the most, whether I’m going to heaven or not. I just don’t know if I’ve been good enough.”
I’ve heard lots of people say their goal in life is to try to be a good person.
The thing is, that and four dollars will get you a latte at Starbucks. No one is good enough to build a path of holiness that leads to the God. No one. (Romans 3) That’s why Jesus came. To bridge the gap of our sinfulness and God’s holiness. The more we exchange our deficit and insufficiency for His glory, the further we travel into the heart of God.
Our goal isn’t “goodness” it’s godliness. And to reach that goal we must travel a one-way street named Jesus. There’s no other way. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:7)
This truth comes into sharp focus when we worship with the inmates. God quickly strips away any sense of superiority I bring. He reveals my good works and intentions as worthless rags. He prompts me to embrace my brokenness. My insufficiency. My weakness. And present them as a worthy offering.
When we’re in prison, we don't know the inmates' offenses and we see them with fresh eyes. I think God sees us the same way. I think when we accept Jesus and ask for forgiveness, God sees our heart, not our zip code, accomplishments, history, bank account or rap sheet. He makes us a new creation, pure and blemish-free. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)
To God sin is sin. While I might want to see it otherwise, my sin is just as egregious to God as a mass murderer's. Even with my well-tended earthly resume, I’m no better or more worthy of God’s amazing gift of grace than anyone. Jesus’ blood covers us all the same.
It’s not about being a "good" person. It's not about going to church, giving financially, volunteering or living rightly. It’s not about believing that Jesus is the Son of God. (Even the devil in hell knows that.) It’s about believing IN Jesus and accepting His gift of the cross. It’s about confessing. Submitting. Obeying. Following. Loving.
It doesn’t matter how tarnished our past, when we humble ourselves enough to receive, we stand before Jesus, the judge, and he boldly declares us, “Not guilty!”