Last Thursday night my Tierra Nueva colleague Kevin and I went into Skagit County Jail to lead a series of Bible studies. A group of four or five men from the first tier of cells called “upper Q pod” gather with us around a metal table bolted to the floor, while others watch TV, take showers or work out.
I pass out a sheet with Romans 7:14-8:3 all printed out, and after Kevin opens in prayer I invite someone to read the first verse. One of the men reads it aloud, and I am immediately struck by both its strangeness and relevance.
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.”
“Do we know these things?” I ask.
The men around the table acknowledge that they do in fact feel like they are in bondage. They mention addictions, old habitual ways of being, endless legal troubles and relationship impasses. Nobody sees the law as spiritual, except one man who says he sees the law as a power that crushes him.
I explain that “the law” here Paul’s referring to is not the laws of the land, but rather God’s instructions written in Scripture that guide us, helping us choose life. God’s spiritual laws include “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus’ call to forgive, or to love your enemies.
“Have any of you found it difficult to follow your conscience, or to practice what you think to be the best path forward, or the will of God?” I ask. “Let’s see what the next verse says,” I suggest.
“For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate,” someone reads.
People resonate visibly with these words, talking freely about how stuck they feel, like failures when it comes to following their consciences and doing what they know to be right. As we continue to read on people seem amazed by how Paul’s words hit home, describing so accurately their experience.
“I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:22-25).
A young man beside me is particularly moved. I ask him if he himself ever feels like the wretched man that Paul describes himself to be—in need of a liberator.
“Most definitely,” he responds, and others nod their agreement.
“Have you ever asked Jesus to help you, to set you free?” I ask.
“No, me and Jesus don’t have anything going,” he says.
“Oh really, is there any reason in particular for that?” I ask.
“I didn’t grow up in a religious home,” he says.
“I didn’t grow up knowing anything about Jesus. This is about as far as I’ve ever gone into any of this,” he says.
I ask God for some kind of response that might get his attention, and the number 29 comes into my head.
“Are you 29 by any chance?” I ask.
“Yes, how did you know?” he asks, surprised.
“I don’t know, but I do know that when you’ve gone through your twenties, and you’ve tried living life your own way, after a lot of difficulties, failures and falls you can feel tired and at a loss for how to live your life differently” I say.
He looks stunned, and acknowledges that I’d described his twenties pretty accurately.
“So if Jesus is described here as setting people free from being stuck in their old ways, why not give him a try and ask him to help you,” I suggest.
“Wow man, I’ve gone further with you into all this than with anyone,” the 29-year-old guy tells me.
I ask if any of the other men had experienced Jesus setting them free in any way—and a Hispanic man across the table from me tells an amazing story of nearly drowning in the Skagit river when he was high on meth.
“I was under the water, being pulled down by a current and I came to the point of total surrender, giving my life over to God,” he recounts. “Then my leg bumped up against a log and I found the current pushing me right up and out.”
The story impresses everyone, and the men want to pray. The young man beside me wants to ask Jesus to set him free, and does. We experience a sacred moment I find myself longing for more and more these days.
A correctional officer calls everyone to return to their rooms, and as Kevin and I leave he suggests we can split up so one of us to cover the lower tier of Q pod, while another of us visits the men in the solitary confinement unit “M.” I agree to stay and meet with lower Q.
Fifteen men gather around two of the metal tables, and we read through the Romans 7 passage again. The men share openly, confessing the truth of their bondage, their inability to change, their need for a savior to free them. They resonate with the sin that resides inside them being stronger than their capacity to live as they know in their hearts they want to live. They feel the struggle and say they want Jesus’ help.
We pray together, asking Jesus to set us free, and God’s presence has made a way once again. I leave feeling like I’m made for this, and tonight I get to go into the jail again.
Check out Gracie’s sermon this past Sunday on Romans 7 here.
Order Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit here.