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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

Shepherds for Peace

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326




I write this to you who are involved in prison ministry -- visitors, pen-pals, Bible study leaders, Chaplains, sponsors, after-care providers, etc.

I write this as one born, raised, trained and experienced in the law -- including 3 years on the Indiana Board of Correction and 5 years as a judge of a court specializing in criminal, juvenile, and mental health litigation. (More of my story is at chapter 16 of Loving God, by Charles Colson.)

Since 1983, I have been serving as a minister of reconciliation -- teaching and assisting others in demonstrating that God has a way of legal and relational conflict resolution different than man's laws and legal systems. In that role, I have seen people set free from the bondage of the law, relationships healed, and conflicts resolved.

I write because I wonder why, with all the ministry to prisoners, nearly the same percentage of offenders who profess Christ prior to release from prison return to prison as do those who do not profess Christ.

I offer this as a possible explanation, as a teaching lesson, and as a challenge to you who labor in the vineyards of prison for Jesus Christ.


You see, if a person is to make it after release from prison, they must be at peace with God, peace with self, and peace with those whom they harmed. That means reconciliation. Yes, they need support of others for food, shelter, jobs, clothing, accountability structures (Is. 58:3-12). But they need reconciliation even more.

How does reconciliation begin? It begins with confession, repentance, and forgiveness.

Have you ever looked an inmate in the eye and asked them: "What did you do that got you here? What did you do that should have gotten you here for which you were not caught or prosecuted or which you plea-bargained out of? What have you done about these things?"

If you have not asked, have you even begun to lead this inmate to reconciliation? Have you even offered reconciliation?

You may have led him to Christ as Savior and even as Lord, but you have left a large segment of his life untouched -- a stick of dynamite waiting to explode later. The apostle Paul says all Christians are "ministers of reconciliation" (II Cor. 5:17-20). Do you know what steps to take to become one? Do you know how to help an inmate be reconciled with others?

The offender with whom you are working is "made in the image of God" -- Gen. 1:26 -- and has knowledge of God -- Rom. 1:18-20. God has written on his heart God's truth before the person was born (Deut. 30:11-14). It is because of these facts that you may ask the needed questions.

First, however, these questions cannot be asked the first time you meet the offender -- you have not gained the right, because you have not established relationship. So your first task is to establish relationship.

Establishing relationship begins with consistent presence. If you are going to visit Tuesday at 1:00, hold that time as sacred. If you are writing letters, be prompt in response to the offender, and regular in your writings, even if the offender is not. This way you establish that the inmate is important to you as a person; it builds trust which is a cornerstone of relationship.

The second step is to share of yourself -- be transparent and vulnerable. Share your sins, past and present, fears and anxieties, victories and defeats, so that they will share theirs. Let them know that you, like Paul, cry over the things you ought to do and do not do and the things you ought not to do but still do -- Rom. 7:15,19. A "con" can spot a fake a mile away, because he knows himself to be one.

Third, you will need to demonstrate, from your own life's story, the truths of chapter 8 of Romans:

"There is, therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (vs. 1)." Demonstrate to them that no matter what they did in the past, including yesterday, you will not fail to show love and respect for them. No matter what they do or don't do tomorrow, you will not cease to show love and respect for them.

"And we know that God can take every one of those mistakes of the past and, as we, in love for Him, choose to deal with them according to His commands, reshape them into a monument for His glory (vs. 28)." Yes, I have changed the language of the verse, but it is what the verse means to me. If God is sovereign at all, He must be sovereign of all and that includes the past and our mistakes. Every one of these mistakes is a testimony waiting to be given.

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (vs. 38-39)." I may be in prison or free, rich or poor, homeless and alone or encircled by friends, but I will have His love wherever and forever.

The next thing you need to do is develop an attentive ear to the "inner voice" of the inmate. Every word spoken, every mannerism displayed, every emotion and attitude expressed, you must take and run through the computer chip within you. You are watching and listening for finger nails on the blackboard.

What computer chip? The image of God in which you were made, the knowledge of God you have gained, the understanding of the Word which you have, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit speaking to you.

If you watch and listen in an attitude of prayerful expectation, God will reveal the inner needs of the offender so that you may minister the Great Peacemaker to him. You are, after all, nothing but a hollow clay pot holding His treasure for ministry -- II Cor. 4:7.

Every time the jarring notes are produced, find the truth of Scripture to convey -- with an incident from your own life that relates. "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (including making it upon release!)." (II Tim. 3:16-17) Note that this was the way the Lord Jesus worked with two disciples who were running away in fear -- Lk. 24:13-35 (vs. 27).

You will discover that the inmate is often not reconciled with any number of people. He may not be reconciled with parents. You can guarantee the parent loved him with the love of God, for the parent was made in the image of God. The parent, because of sin (no less or greater than the sin which got the inmate into prison), simply could not demonstrate that love -- but the love was there. With patient teaching and exhortation you can lead him to confess his sin of anger, bitterness, and unwillingness to have relationship with that parent, setting him free. Maybe a letter to the parent saying: "Here are the things which I have held against you. I forgive you for them all. Please forgive me for having held these things against you, for refusing to have relationship with you, and forgive me my anger and bitterness at you. I am open to and hungry for relationship with you if you are willing."

Maybe the anger is at the law -- he says that he did not receive "justice"; he says he is innocent. He libels and slanders the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and the law itself. Confront the anger and condemnation within him, for they are sins against God. Don't get into a debate about his guilt or innocence of the crime -- but show him his guilt before the Lord. This might be the place to slide in the question: what have you done warranting your death from God, for which you were not caught or punished, and for which God has forgiven you through Christ? You can point out that he is worthy of death for his sins against God (and those sins include violation of the law of man -- Rom. 13:1-7) and that he might thank God for being alive in prison rather than dead.

However, you can also teach him that his perception and reliance concerning justice have been wrong. "Many may seek the favor of the ruler -- judge, jury, warden, prosecutor, governor, parole board, etc. -- but justice for man comes only from the Lord (Pro. 29:26)." Throughout our lives, we have the ability to focus upon God and how He deals with us as our source of justice, or we can focus on man and how he treats us. Christ chose to focus on God: "And when reviled, He reviled not in return; while suffering, He offered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him Who judges righteously (I Pet. 2:23)." Help them to see that the place we find justice is not the law courts of the land.

I knew and believed in the words of the Constitution all my life: "We the people, in order to * * establish justice * *." Yet through 40 years of life, I never found justice; as judge, I never granted justice; and I was denied justice by the very law I was sworn to uphold. Ultimately, the way in which they will come to see, and trust God for, justice, is when they come to grips with their own sinfulness vs. God's perfection and holiness -- in short, their need for a savior.

When they accept Christ, the door opens for reconciliation with self and others. I once sent a man to prison for life for the rape of a two year old. God told me I was worse than that man, and that He wanted to do to me all the things I had wanted to do to that man. God also told me that no matter how hard I worked at being good, I would always be, to Him, like that man. That was when I knew and understood myself to be a sinner, in need of a Savior. That was the night I asked Christ to save me. It is this knowledge of who and what I am that drives me to be a "doer of the Word and not just a hearer" -- Jas. 1:22-25.

And then I discovered some things, all of which can be helpful to the one you are serving.

First, because I am Christ's, I sit today at the right hand of God the Father, in heaven -- Eph. 2:6 -- and you cannot hurt me there. You can take all I have, put me in prison, and even kill me. But you can't hurt me or stop me or separate me from the love of God which is in Christ.

Second, Christ has things for me to do, which have been prepared beforehand that I might do them -- Eph. 2:10. I don't know what they are or where I may do them -- including from behind bars -- but I know He will place me in them when He is ready if I will seek Him and His Ways in all that I do.

Third, I do not need to vindicate myself -- Is. 50:4-9; Mk. 13:11.

Fourth, I understand how Rom. 8:1, 8:28, and 8:38-39 fit in to all this.

Fifth, I know the Book of Revelation means: Jesus will return; evil will be judged and overcome; God will establish His eternal kingdom; GOD WINS!!

But, for this freedom to exist, there is another thing needed -- grant Christ lordship. Make Him boss. Let Him rule and make the decisions. Be obedient to His Word regardless of how insane that may seem, regardless if people call us insane, and regardless of the outcome. The offender will never be set free until they make Christ Lord of their life and commit to seeking out His Word and obeying it in their momentary circumstance. We must give Him our life, position, property, families, enemies, feelings and choices. From that moment, we are free!

That does not mean that we don't fret, fear, snarl, bark, do things we don't want to do and not do the things we ought to do -- Rom. 7:15,19 -- but it does mean that we are free to function wherever He may allow us to be, including prison. Once Christ takes over, we are able to respect our laws and legal systems and those in authority over us -- but we do not expect justice from them for we know they cannot deliver it.

Justice requires sacrifice -- time, emotional protective mechanisms, rights, remedies, and, sometimes, even monies, property, and life itself. We shouldn't be surprised at that -- the resolution of the dispute between God and man, and potential for reconciliation between God and man, cost God the Son His very life. It cost God the Father the loss of His Son for a time. And it cost the Holy Spirit the pain of living in the lives of the killers, bearing our burdens.

Our Triune God did these things by choice, while we were yet sinners, and knowing that we would, after accepting His gift, sin. But, relationship is important to God. And if it is important to God, it should be important to us, for we are made in His image.

Therefore, without taking into account relationships, there can be no true justice. And the law and legal system do not take relationship into account.

We are commanded to "do justice" -- Micah 6:8; it is more pleasing to the Lord than a sacrifice -- Pro. 21:3; we do not do justice through our forms of worship -- Amos 5:21-24; our own sins inhibit justice -- Is. 59:1-15a; and if we are to have peace and justice, we must amend our ways (repent) -- Jer. 7:5-7.

The command of God is very clear: "Confess your sins, one to another, and pray for each other, that you may be healed (set free) (Jas. 5:16)" and: "Bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance (Lk. 3:8)."

In the life of the person with whom you are working, there are people to whom they need to confess and from whom they need to seek forgiveness. God leaves no choice in this. It may mean that such an action -- confession -- will require dropping a court appeal. It may mean confessing acts not arrested, prosecuted, or sentenced for. God calls us to count the cost (Lk. 14:25-35) and make the decision (Joshua 24:14-15).

A funny thing happens when we do what God commands -- we obtain a higher level of freedom. And we receive our justice from the Lord -- a deeper peace and trust in Him and a greater understanding of Him -- and we obtain a new understanding of justice.

It is at this point, if the offender has stuck with you, that you can ask the original two questions. Will they now say, to God and their fellow men: "Lord, only I am to blame. I chose to do the acts which I did. I knew they were wrong when I did them. I knew they were sin against you and against others. Forgive me.

"I know I accountable to You and to them for my actions. I know I am worthy of death from you, O God, and praise You that in Your grace and mercy You have seen fit to allow me life and that abundant and eternal.

"I give You thanks for this prison I am in, and the sentence I have, and know that You will, in Your time and Your way, work even this to Your glory. If You have works for me to perform, here in this prison, I am willing to be used by You in their performance.

"Finally, O Lord, I commit to write to each person whom I have offended, confessing to them the exact nature of my sin against them, and ask them for forgiveness, offering to meet with them, here in this prison or on the street after release, to discuss restitution.

"I do these things, O Lord, in love of You Who first loved me, and in the hopes that, through this act of faith, You might bring reconciliation between me and those whom I have wronged, and that You might receive any and all glory from my acts. Amen."

Yes, this is risky. But one thing which the entire criminal system and all of humanity wants to see -- and is prevented from seeing by the games of law which we play -- is a repentant heart. What the authorities may do, once having seen the repentance, no one knows.

Now you can take actions to assist them in conveying confession to victims, family, and community. That may take the form of letters from them to those they harmed, and then attaching your letter testifying to the genuineness of the repentance being shown. You might hand deliver these letters, meeting people personally. You can offer to bring them to the prison to meet with the offender, face-to- face, so the Holy Spirit Himself can witness further.

Obviously, in all of this, there is a risk to you -- you may move too quickly or too slowly. You may move tactfully or clumsily. You may move in grace and mercy or as a noisy gong. But, that's all right -- God can work through those mistakes. The question is: if you don't offer yourself as a minister of reconciliation, will another recidivate who might not have?

A final point: It may be you do all the things, all in the right manner, and all with the right attitude. However, the offender does not receive or act upon it. Be at peace -- you have done what Christ asks of you. You are a seed thrower, not a harvester. You are not accountable for the actions of the offender. I pray that you will consider this challenge, and offer yourself to the Lord to be used in this fashion.