Iron Into His Soul
But he had sent a man before them,
Even Joseph, who was sold to be a bondservant:
Whose feet they hurt in the stocks;
The iron entered into his soul.
— Psalm 105:17-18 (BCP)
“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but when the desire cometh it is a tree of life.” In this latest stretch in jail I learned that proverb intimately. I voluntarily surrendered to serve 26 days so that I could get out from under the terrible burden of the alternative sentence: six years probation, $73,000 “restitution” (for what I never took), and 1,000 hours of community service. But when the 26 days came to an end, I wasn’t released.
Only by living it can you fully understand the lurking fear that assails your heart once those jail doors close on you: “I’ll never get out of here.” Even when you recognize it as irrational and untrue, it keeps clawing at your mind.
Equally irrational (but still real) are the fears and frustration we feel looking at a world gone mad. It is easy to look around you and despair. I frequently get letters from friends and subscribers who verge on losing all hope. Who will restore sanity and morality to America? What can stop the state’s relentless march to total tyranny?
And I have to admit, as long as I look at my own efforts and abilities, and those of countless reforming organizations, I lose hope, too. Cowardice, confusion, ignorance, weakness, and moral corruption rule everywhere, to vast to begin fighting.
WALKING ON WATER
As long as I look at myself, that is. Peter saw Christ walking on the water, and jumped out of the boat to walk toward him. Peter was stepping high and dry as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. When he looked down at his own feet, he began to sink.
We’re no different. As long as we keep our eyes on the unseen but almighty God, our Shield and Strength, the all-powerful ruler of the universe who sits between the cherubim we can walk on water. When we look at the size of the enemy, the war, and our own strength, we sink.
Life is often filled with stretches of wearisome road where you have to plod for years through chocking dust without ever quenching your thirst. But now, especially at Christmastime, the season our hope is renewed, I want you to look up with me at the God who has made you his own, the apple of his eye, the God who is “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.”
THINGS STARTED GOING WRONG
From the time I went back through court to jail, things started going wrong. On my arrest sheet the bailiff wrote “violation of probation” when in fact I had voluntarily surrendered. Instead of being shipped straight out to the penal farm, I stayed in the filthy dungeon of the country jail for three days and nights. When I was finally sent upstairs, it was to a cell block where the first question the inmate in charge asked was, “Do you have a shank [homemade knife]? You’re probably going to need one in here.”
When I arrived at the penal farm a clerical error from the appeals court led them to misclassify me just below “ax-murderer.” Instead of being sent to the Red Roof Inn (“Adult Offender Center” or AOC) I was sent to medium security, the Hotel California (“you can check in, but you can never leeeeeave!”). There 40 men are locked in 23 hours a day, with one hour out for exercise and three fifteen minute trips to eat.
But all these curses turned into blessings, since they brought me together with Christian men who taught me godly hope and patience.
THE CHAINLESS CHAIN GANG
In some miraculous way Susan was able to get me re-classified quickly and after another detour I arrived in AOC on November 15, eleven days after I had gone in. First job they set me doing on the chainless chain gang was shoveling mud and broken glass out of concrete ditches for “mosquito control.” (It must be working. I never saw a single one.) You may think that sounds like a bad job, but only because you have never been locked up without sunlight, windows, or activity for 11 days. If you had, you’d call it a godsend.
YOU’RE NOT GETTING OUT ON TIME
The day before Thanksgiving Susan learned from Ed Chandler, one of my lawyers in the federal appeal, that I would not be released on November 29th, another bureaucratic foul-up.
On Wednesday, December 4th, all unexpected I was told not to go to work because I was going before the work release board. By then I had forgotten about the work release application I had filled in the day I arrived in AOC, “just in case” something went wrong.
Work release is the West Palm Beach of imprisonment, allowing you to work outside at a regular job during the day, but still returning to prison at night. A friend had already applied to hire me on work release. When I returned to my “dorm” (12 man cell) after the hearing, I wrote the following letter to Susan. If you are downcast, your hope worn out by unwinnable but unavoidable battles, I trust it will help to lift up your head.
THE IRON ENTERED INTO HIS SOUL
And what other way could the iron enter in Joseph’s soul? None. Solzhenitsyn spent over two decades in the Gulag, but no other way could God force the iron into his soul. Countless other times, God has nurtured and tempered his people by oppression.
For the first time, today after all these years I can see an end to this trial—and even then, I have no inkling how far in the future that end lies.
For the first time, today I can see that the greatest end of this imprisonment for me was to restore my hope in Christ, which the weary train of adversity coupled to adversity had eclipsed. In fighting them I forgot that he had sent them and so must control them. I forgot, not only that the Lord performs great works, but also that with God, nothing is impossible: to him belong escapes from death. In no other way but the repeated disappointments of this imprisonment could I have recovered my hope. Thus in very faithfulness has God afflicted me.
Outside I kept on flinching, thinking I had to give up something, something unspoken but dear, even though unknown and unrecognized by me—or rather, that God would take something away. But taking away is exactly what he does not do, without leaving something greater in the lesser’s place.
Thou hast ascended on high
Thou hast led captivity captive!
Thou hast received gifts for men.
Blessed be the LORD,
who daily loadeth us with benefits!
As if the Christ who says, “I come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly,” would give us a poorer life!
What is this change that I find in myself? It is as if for the first time I am reading the Word of God, for the first time seeing, perceiving, accepting, and understanding the love of God in Christ Jesus. It reminds me of my soul’s honeymoon when I was first converted, when I would go to bed every night with my Bible and fall asleep reading it, so hungry was I to know God and his love.
Yesterday it came to me that I ought to read Philippians, so riding in the van to work I opened my bootlegged New Testament and read it. When I saw this,
That I might know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable to his death—
The whole Scripture became one vast, jointed mechanism, and when my finger gently touched “the fellowship of his sufferings” all the Scriptures stirred and sighed in sympathy.
What kind of renewal, what kind of exaltation is this? Is it simply self-deception or auto-suggestion? No, because I could not expect or even imagine this change. Surely it is the grace of God, renewing and: rebuilding me from the ground upwards.
Without question, this change is for me, but at the same time not for me, but for you and for others. The divine economy always works so that not only is one end prosecuted and perfected, but also countless others.
First, the Lord had to clean my wounds, to remove all the dead flesh and trash from my will and heart and mind and desire, before he could give me another work and duty. In my heart, the dam of deadness is broken, washed away in a flood of grace—the blood of Christ, my Jesus.
Originally published December 1996