One recent Sunday in the jail I discovered that the normal ‘B-pod’ group of inmates I usually meet with were ‘locked down’ due to a fight. The guard ushered in a different group of 8 or so men instead. After introducing ourselves and praying I had someone read Romans 1:18-31. As an inmate read the first verse I suddenly saw something I had never noticed.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness — of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
“Do you guys notice here that God’s wrath is not revealed against people?” I asked, interrupting the reading. “God’s wrath is against ungodliness and unrighteousness! Wrath is not directed at unbelieving, deceptive, abusive, lustful or angry men, but against unbelief, deception, abuse, lust and anger. Does this sound like good news?”
The men looked up from their bibles with wide eyes, surprised, even a bit jolted. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was reading Romans 1 with the sex-offender pod, men who hadn’t had access to weekly Bible studies due to the danger of mixing them with other inmates because of their despised, sex-offender status.
This clear differentiation between sin and people is consistent in the New Testament (see Romans 7:19-20). Jesus is never described as being violent towards people, but only towards the non-human powers (demons, Satan, certain attitudes (like superiority, pride), sins, money changing tables…). This distinction makes it easier for many to approach God for help.
More precisely here, God’s wrath is revealed against the spiritual states of ungodliness (asebeia), meaning lack of reverence for God, and unrighteousness (adikia) – which is the opposite of truth (alethia) and true righteousness (life in harmony with God’s will & Jesus’ kingdom- “on earth as in heaven”).
Ungodliness and unrighteousness result from people suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, rather then welcoming God’s continual communication to us all.
God’s communicating to all people is emphasized next: “because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (1:19-20).
“Do you sense that God is speaking to you? Are you paying attention to what God is showing and telling you?” The men were all able to think of examples of the Spirit’s active communication to them, and also of their suppressing the truth in the midst of daily life. I found myself really inspired to be even more watchful for God’s Presence in my life too. The next lines offered analysis and some keys to a knowing the way forward.
“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (1:21)
Futile speculation, darkness, worshipping and serving creatures and all evil described in the rest of this passage result from ignoring the Creator, who gives humans over to the lusts of their hearts (v. 24), degrading passions (v. 26) and depraved mind (v. 28).
We agreed together to respond to this verse in prayer, speaking words honoring and thanking God. This is the way forward in resisting ungodliness and unrighteousness from the suppression of truth, and I find myself wanting to practice this more deliberately.
Titus 2:11-12 provides still more encouragement to pay attention to God’s initiatives towards us, as God’s grace is described as actively appearing, bringing salvation and instructing:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.”
Our group of unlikely partners came to a place of unusual clarity and excitement to step into active faith described just prior to all these verses:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “but the righteous man shall live by faith.” (1:16-17)
The following week I received a letter from one of the inmates for that pod. I include an excerpt here:
“Thank you for coming today, because our pod is very unlucky when it comes to getting our own time for church and A.A. I’m sorry to say that we are lucky that B-pod was locked down today. Otherwise we would have not had that opportunity to see you. Just within this last two months that I’ve been here I have received Jesus as my Savior and I have this pod to thank for that. This is the sex offender pod and before I was brought here whenever I was in another pod or I looked into here from on the other side of the door I was so judgmental and I talked bad about this pod. But now that I’m in here I couldn’t want to be in any other pod. The guys in here are, for the most part saved and born again. Whenever we get someone new we suggest Bible studies and the like. I am not a sex offender but the guys that are in here that are being charged are facing life and for the most part feel the need for Jesus because they feel they have very little to live for…. Most people think that these guys are monsters, but if they were here in the midst of it all would think differently. They are the most giving, caring and nice guys around. If we need something or want it and they can spare it they will 90% of the time give it to us. Things like phone calls, commissary items, I-care packages and whatnot all get shared even when we don’t ask. The pod has a happy, joyful aura about it that makes things easier being in jail.”
It is encouraging to see the Spirit moving among those who society would deem the least worthy, even damned. When we come to believe that God truly loves us while opposing powers that prey on us, we are lead to honor and gratitude. I am seeing a growing desire among inmates and my own colleagues to consciously resist “suppressing the truth”, and to step into a more active relationship with our continually speaking, revealing Creator. Gracie and I are feeling this too, and pray that you will be encouraged forward in your faith journey as well.