Prison Life

Prison Life

Sunday, July 2, 2023
| Romans 6:12-23

In God’s world, whether we do prison time is up to us. Incredibly, some people become accustomed to prison life. But not the apostle Paul. He’s been there … and doesn’t fancy going back.

Most citizens are law-abiding folks who have no desire to spend any time whatsoever inside a jail. Even ex-cons don’t want to go back to the joint. Prison is not an attractive option for anyone.

Remember television actor Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli? They were indicted by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2019 for fraud and bribery offenses related to a nationwide college bribery scandal. Loughlin fought tooth and nail to avoid jail time, spending thousands of dollars. She served her two-month prison sentence at a facility in central California late in 2020 and was home by New Year’s Eve.

So, most people don’t want to go to prison, and those who are in prison want to get out. Prison escapes have been fodder for many novels and movies. Even the Bible has stories of prison breaks and escapes from authorities. For example, in Acts 12, the apostle Peter is in prison under tight security: “Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison” (v. 6). Do you think Peter wanted to be in prison? And when “the chains fell off,” he went immediately to the house of some friends who were praying for his release and astonished to see the object of their prayers standing before their very eyes!

A small number of people, however, want to go to prison, and there are some residents of correctional institutions who prefer to remain where they are rather than be released to the civilian population.

A number of years ago, The Buffalo News ran a feature about an ex-con who said he stole shoelaces, a pair of sandals and other items so he could get “prison health care that is very good.” Then there is the North Carolina man who robbed a bank for $1 for the same reason.

Consider the case of a man suffering from a life-threatening liver problem who decided his best bet to save himself was to go to prison. Dr. Joshua Mezrich, an assistant professor of surgery in the division of multi-organ transplantation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, tells the story of a 41-year-old man who turned to crime to get medical care.

The felon was in prison when he got a scan that revealed two aneurysms in his liver. Later, a follow-up scan showed the aneurysms had grown and the prisoner needed surgery soon, but he was released before the surgery could be scheduled. He realized that a trip back to prison was his best choice since he knew he could get his surgery paid for behind bars.

But most folks going through the motions of daily life, working at their jobs, paying their bills, and eating too much junk food do not want to go to prison for even one day. Although many people would not cross ethical and moral lines that could send them to jail, the very presence of the law and threat of prison help motivate at least some of the population to walk the straight and narrow.


The Prison of Sin

Bob Dylan makes the point in his hit song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” that there’s a real sense in which we all have a boss to whom we’re accountable. No one gets through life without answering to a higher authority. You are an employee, you have to work and you get evaluated. C’est la vie. And those who do not like this natural order of things may find themselves behind bars singing “Jailhouse Rock.” “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” Dylan sang.

“Nonsense,” John Lennon retorted. He wrote a parody called “Serve Yourself.” You can do that, but it’s a bad choice as the apostle Paul makes clear.

“Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (v. 12). Notice the words “dominion” and “obey.” Sin — the principle of sin, our fallen nature as it’s called in other places in the Bible, or our human propensity to make bad choices and fall into bad habits — uses our actual human bodies as a means of getting us to do what sin wants us to do. Sin dominates us; sin is a bully; sin coerces us to obey our basest impulses. And when that happens, we don’t look so pretty. And we’re not happy.

Why? Because we’re in an awful place where we are bossed around, told what to do, and must obey the prison guards even when we don’t want to. “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (v. 16).

This jail of the body is a horrid place.

Paul refers to us as “slaves of sin” (vv. 17, 20). Sounds terrible.

He also mentions being “set free,” which implies we were once captured, imprisoned and toiling under the scourge of a jailhouse master (vv. 18, 22).


The Keys to the Prison

The good news is that we do not need to toil in this prison — serving ourselves when we could be serving God instead. Why serve Sin when we could walk in the Spirit?

The bad news is that our mortal, very human bodies seem to provide constant opportunities for us to be tempted every which way.

We’re tempted by what we see. And what we see always ignites a lustful appetite. This might be quite literal. We see food. It is everywhere. Not all of it is healthy. But we see a bag of salty potato chips or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and we want it. We lust for it. We want to eat it and eat more of it than we should.

We also see seductive images everywhere — on billboards, advertisements and websites — that we should avoid. We keep neglecting to monitor the “safe search” options on our laptops.

We see wonderful gadgets and vacation opportunities that we know we can’t afford. We see new clothing lines to die for. We see gambling opportunities touted by the NFL, casinos and more.

And if temptation doesn’t assault us with our eyes, it does so with our other senses. We can smell the aroma of French fries boiling in the deep fryer, a burger sizzling on our neighbor’s grill, or the pesto of an enticing plate of gnocchi.

Our bodies are vulnerable to scores of temptations every day! Our physical appetites (hunger, thirst, sex) cry out for satisfaction.

But we hold the keys to this jailhouse battle. We can unlock the cell door and walk out — free.

Self-discipline is a key. Paul says: “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (v. 12). Sometimes we forget who’s in charge of the jail. We might feel like prisoners, but we’re also wardens. We are in control of what goes on in this prison. “Just don’t do it!” to paraphrase a popular marketing expression.

Remembering our identity is a key. Paul writes to the Roman Christians: “Consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 9, 11). (See “Wanted: Dead and Alive,” June 25, 2023.) We are children of God! Serving ourselves, serving sin, and yielding to temptation is not how we roll. It is not who we are. We have been blessed through Christ’s redeeming sacrifice with a new nature. We are new creations in Christ: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Remembering our vulnerability is a key. Our bodies make us vulnerable to excessive living. We must never forget this. The fact that we are baptized Christians doesn’t mean that we will always do the right thing. Christianity isn’t a vaccine that ensures our spiritual health. Our vulnerability to lustful infections doesn’t disappear just because we love Jesus.

Staying alert is a key. The Bible says (and it is not a suggestion): “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8). Sin is a slippery slope. Without vigilance, we may not be aware of the booby traps lining the path we’re following.

Remember to take your keys with you. Have you ever walked out of the house to your car and forgotten your keys? You’re not going anywhere without them. As believers, we have Scripture, prayer, worship and Bible study on our key chains. Sometimes it’s easy to forget our keys, but without them we’re stuck in the garage, doomed to stay in a prison of defeat, bondage and servitude.


Choosing Freedom

The cool thing is that we get to choose whom we want to serve.

This was not a choice for Brooks Hatlen in the classic 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. Brooks, played by James Whitmore, had been in prison most of his life. When Brooks was finally released on parole as an elderly man, he didn’t really know what to do. Prison was all he knew.

Perhaps we all have a bit of Brooks in us. Forgetting that we are children of light, we become accustomed to behaving as though we are children of darkness. Yielding to temptation has become so normal that temptations have ceased to be temptations. They have instead become our rule of life.

Upon learning of his own pending release, Brooks attacks fellow inmate Heywood (William Sadler), holding a knife to his throat and threatening to kill him so he can stay in prison.

Red Redding, an inmate played by Morgan Freeman, explains the attack to Heywood and Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins:

“Brooks ain’t no bug. He’s just … just institutionalized. … The man’s been in here 50 years. Fifty years! This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothin’! Just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands.”

And maybe that’s all we are — used-up old cons with arthritis in our hands. We can’t get out, perhaps we don’t even want to. We’re used to prison life, and by now our arthritic hands can hardly hold the keys God has given us to get out.

Unable to adjust to freedom, Brooks commits suicide shortly after his release. But we are not doomed to the same fate.

The Bible says: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23).

We are free.

Now we know it.

We don’t need to die in a prison, the doors of which Jesus has blown off the hinges.

Andy Dufresne and Red Redding both made it out of prison. Red crosses into Mexico where he reunites with Andy, and they enjoy their freedom by the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Their freedom is a symbol of ours.

We have left prison life behind.


—Timothy Merrill and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.



“Brooks Hatlen.” Retrieved January 2, 2023.

Calleja, Claudia. “Ex-inmates prefer ‘comfort of prison’ to facing world outside.”, April 12, 2008. Retrieved January 6, 2023.

McCormack, Simon. “Man commits crime to get surgery in prison.”, February 28, 2013. Retrieved January 6, 2023.

Merrill, Timothy F. “Achard of Saint Victor and the Medieval Exegetical Tradition: Rom. 7:22-25 in a Sermon on the Feast of the Resurrection.” The Westminster Theological Journal. Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, Vol. XLVIII, Spring 1986, No. 1: 47-62.

Ojah, Deepankar. “How Brooks Hatlen from Shawshank Redemption has changed my life.”, August 4, 2022. Retrieved January 2, 2023.

Porterfield, Mannix. “Do convicts find prison life too easy?”, July 29, 2014. Retrieved January 6, 2023.

The Other Texts

Genesis 22:1-14

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

When Obeying God Just Doesn’t Make Sense. Thousands of years ago, it was a dark, primitive world. Yet even a person like Abraham knows that what he’s being led to do — kill his son as a blood sacrifice to Yahweh — borders on the irrational, even the insane, especially given some of God’s previous conversations with him. Today, that sort of thing is off the table. Spank your child and you’re likely to get a scolding from someone. So, God is not going to ask you to spank your child, let alone slay your child. But how do we react when we feel God putting the pressure on us to make a decision, to take a job, to make a move, to make a donation, to surrender our time or to speak a prophetic word — and it doesn’t make any sense? We can take some of our cues from Abraham himself. When God spoke, Abraham responded with “Here I am.” He was available. That’s a big one. Then, “early in the morning,” Abraham gets after it. He doesn’t understand, but he’s going to go as far as his understanding will take him. That’s called faith. “God will provide,” he says to his son. Through all of this, his faith is strong enough that however irrational this appears to be, he firmly believes God is going to come through. Finally, he proceeds until God puts a stop to it. It’s all good. God just slammed a door in your face? Glory be! Big mistake averted.

What Does the Text Say?

The horrifying instructions given by God (v. 2) begin with: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love — Isaac.” The “land of Moriah” is unknown, but later tradition (2 Chronicles 3:1) identified it with the temple mount in Jerusalem. As in chapter 12, Abraham is instructed to go to a place that God would show him (v. 2), and, as in his call, Abraham obeys unquestioningly. Isaac bearing the wood on which he was to be sacrificed (v. 6) would be seen by later Christian tradition as an OT prefigurement of Jesus bearing his own cross to his crucifixion. With the voice from heaven, the direction of the narrative reverses. Abraham sees a ram. Abraham then names the place (v. 14).

Psalm 13

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Separation Anxiety. Three times the psalmist asks, “How long?” In verse 1 he adds, “Will you forget me forever?” (NIV). Or are you just going to forget me this year, this month or this week? In human relationships, friends or spouses might have a disagreement, and the aggrieved party may storm out of the room, slam the door and not be heard from again — or for a very long time, despite urgent and repentant entreaties on the part of the offending party. But here there is no hint that the psalmist has been religiously or cultically unfaithful. God has not stormed out of the room. Perhaps God is busy somewhere else. Whatever the case, the psalmist is having separation issues. God’s silence and absence is inexplicable. It would be easier if there were a reason for God being AWOL. But there isn’t. Thus, the pathos and agony. The sermon, then, addresses the problem we sometimes have during our “dark nights of the soul,” when trial upon tribulation upon test crashes upon us, and we hear nothing from God. No email, no phone call, no tweet, no photo on Facebook, no text — zilch. We seem to be on our own. So how do we cope?

What Does the Text Say?

Psalm 13 is a type of psalm commonly known among biblical scholars as a personal lament. Like most of the laments, the psalm is a cry for help; the psalmist prays to be delivered from personal distress. What, exactly, that distress is has been lost to us. The psalm falls into several of the identifiable components of many laments: (1) the complaint (vv. 1-2); (2) the plea for a response from the deity (vv. 3-4); (3) the expression of confidence in the deity’s response (v. 5); and (4) the promise to offer something in return for having been heard, i.e., the vow (v. 6). The psalmist begins with the question “How long?” repeated four times in the complaint (vv. 1-2). The effect of the repetition is to emphasize the psalmist’s perception of the deity’s delay; the psalmist has apparently presented this petition before but without response. The question has expanded from “Why do you hide your face from me?” to how long will you continue to “hide your face from me?” The “enemy” mentioned in verse 2b is unnamed, as virtually all the enemies in the psalter are, but as a class they tend to be identified with the rich, the powerful, the proud, the arrogant and the irreligious. The psalmist specifies in verse 3 the response he desires from the Lord: “Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.” The psalm concludes with a protestation of trust in Yahweh’s “steadfast love,” one of the defining characteristics of Israel’s God. Chesed, the word translated “steadfast love,” occurs nearly 250 times in the OT, and refers to the generously merciful disposition and behavior of a greater party to a lesser (rarely the reverse). To believe in God in the OT is not to think certain thoughts about Yahweh, but to trust in Yahweh utterly and completely. Such trust is not the result of abstract thought, but because, as the psalmist concludes in verse 6, “he has dealt bountifully with me.” Belief, in the OT, is not “so that” but rather “because of.”

Matthew 10:40-42

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

The Mission. This chapter in Matthew’s gospel contains Jesus’ instructions for their mission. He would speak a lot to his disciples about their work. Here it closes the gap between them somewhat by saying that they go forth with full authority as if it were Jesus himself. The mission is many things. Consult other texts, such as the “Great Commission” text in chapter 28. But the mission is not just about grand gestures, or mighty acts. The mission may involve something as simple as offering a cup of water. When we do such a thing motivated by our roles as disciples of Jesus, we will not be unrewarded. Who knows what that means? The important thing is that we do not shirk our apostolic duty because we don’t have a grand plan in mind. We’ve got water, don’t we? Then let’s find someone who needs what we have. We’ve got bread, don’t we? Then let’s find someone who needs bread. You get the idea.

What Does the Text Say?

This text is the conclusion of the Mission Discourse, which is Jesus’ long speech to the 12 apostles and contains their instructions for missionary activity. Jesus first explains the inextricable bond between a master and an apostle, the sender and the messenger (v. 40). In modern parlance, we often use the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger,” which implies our cultural understanding that messengers should not be blamed (or praised) for the actions of their masters. In the ancient world, however, a messenger or apostle was linked more closely to the sender. The “cup of cold water” itself is open to various interpretations. It is often interpreted as a symbolic metaphor representing any small but crucial act of charity. Giving a cup of water is easy, and yet it reaps a heavenly reward. What do we have in great supply, which would not even be difficult to give up, yet would mean a great deal to someone else? Moreover, preachers can raise the distinction between individual acts of charity and larger systems of justice. If offering one cup of water is pleasing to God and brings a reward, how much more would a disciple be blessed for building an aqueduct, an irrigation canal or a city water system? Charity is always needed, but it can be expanded into justice.

Worship Resources
Calls to Worship General

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Come, let us worship God.

—Hebrews 12:1-2a

Prayers General

Gracious and loving God, one of the greatest gifts you have given us is the gift of free will. You have not forced yourself upon us; you have allowed us to choose whether or not we will surrender to you and follow Jesus. We know that this choice is a daily one — will we today choose our own desires or yours? Will we run after worldly pleasure, or the true joy of knowing Christ? Give us hearts that want to choose you and desire your leading above all else. We are so thankful that you have called us to follow you, and today we choose to obey. What freedom we find in choosing you. Thank you, God. Amen.

Benedictions General

The choice is before us: To follow the wisdom of God’s law and know the freedom of life in Christ, or to follow the wisdom of the world that proves to be shallow, empty, deceptive and unable to deliver on its promises. God calls us to enter through the narrow gate to the path of discipleship. Christ goes ahead of us, and the Spirit goes with us, for we never walk alone. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Music Resources

Lord God, Your Love Has Called Us Here
Oh Come and Dwell in Me
Take My Life and Let It Be

Worship and Praise*
His Mercy Is More (Shane & Shane)
God You Are (Baldwin)
All My Hope (Crowder)

*For licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to The worship and praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.


on Romans 6:12-23

Previous to Romans 6, Paul states the case that because of our historically sinful condition, all humankind — Jews and Gentiles alike — stand in need of God’s grace (Romans 1:18-3:20). This grace cannot be earned, but is received by way of faith in the free gift of Christ’s justifying redemption, through which God reckons us as righteous and reconciles us to God and humankind (3:21-5:21). Romans 6:1-8:39 concerns walking in “newness of life” (6:4), initiated by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Romans 6:12-23 immediately follows Paul’s consideration of the benefits of being baptized into Christ (6:1-11), which strongly concludes with Paul urging us to consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).

The message of Romans 6:12-23 in a nutshell is this: That was then (formerly slaves of sin), this is now (presently enslaved to God) — don’t go back. We have a new status in and because of the risen Christ, a new life empowered by the Holy Spirit. Paul drives this home through the skilled use of rhetorical juxtaposition, reinforcing a central theological thrust of Romans by essentially begging the question, “What/Whom do you serve?”

The passage opens with the strong admonition, “do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies” (6:12), which is more literally translated, “do not let sin reign (basileuetw, present imperative of basileuw) in your mortal bodies.” This recalls Romans 5:21, where Paul contrasts how sin reigned (ebasileusen) in death with how grace now may reign (basileusm) through justification. Thus, the stage is set for a discussion concerning what/who reigns in our lives and to what/whom we are obedient.

Paul develops his argument as if it is ontologically incongruous for anyone to return to serving sin who has died and now lives in Christ (see 6:8). This is reinforced by a series of pointed contrasts:

  • members presented to sin versus members presented to God (6:13)
  • instruments of wickedness versus instruments of righteousness (6:13)
  • under law versus under grace (6:14, 15)
  • slaves of sin leading to death versus slaves of obedience leading to righteousness (6:16)
  • slaves of sin (6:17) versus slaves of righteousness (6:18)
  • slaves to impurity resulting in iniquity versus slaves to righteousness resulting in sanctification (6:19)
  • slaves of sin, which bears fruit of shame and results in death (6:21), versus enslaved to God, which bears fruit of sanctification and results in eternal life (6:22)
  • wages of sin = death versus the free gift of God = eternal life (6:23).

The language of slavery throughout Romans 6:12-23 may be difficult territory for contemporary congregations, but it is critical to getting the gist of Paul’s message. Slavery operated throughout the economic, political and social structures of the Mediterranean world with which Paul was familiar. The conditions of slavery were quite varied, ranging from the most brutal forms of menial hard labor to, in some cases, slaves being allowed to exercise trusted levels of management and even authority on behalf of masters. Here, Raymond E. Brown notes: “Besides working in business, farming and households, slaves could be administrators, physicians, teachers, scholars and poets, and accumulate wealth” (An Introduction to the New Testament, [New York: Doubleday, 1997], 67-68). Indeed, there was a limited scope of mobility for slaves to improve their circumstances and even gain their freedom — granted, of course, they had enlightened enough masters who allowed for such mobility. The slave in servitude was always bound and beholden to the master.

Moreover, slavery in Paul’s day must be understood within the larger cultural context of the institution of patron-client relations, which John H. Elliott describes as a “fundamental and pervasive form of dependency relations, involving the reciprocal exchange of goods and services between socially superior ‘patrons’ and their socially inferior ‘clients,’ [that] shaped both the public and private sectors of ancient life as well as the political and religious symbolizations of power and dependency” (Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996], 144). Since there were always more socially inferior clients than socially superior patrons — and often patrons themselves were clients of those who were still more socially superior — even free persons in Paul’s time knew something about the necessity of having to serve somebody if they were going to survive and thrive in a social order dominated by quid pro quo interactions.

We must face and come to grips with the human bondage of slavery and the societal constraints of patron-client relations, precisely in order to fully appreciate the radical turn Paul makes in using the imagery of slavery to proclaim good news. We are freed from being slaves of sin — in order to become enslaved to God. This means a whole new set of expectations for obedience.

But in these expectations for obedience is a whole new freedom. There is the freedom of the justifying redemption wrought by Christ’s death and resurrection, the freedom of righteousness wherein the reconciling work of Christ returns us to a right relationship with God and humankind, the freedom of ongoing sanctification and the freedom of eternal life. Ultimately, Paul is talking about being released from a master who would keep us enslaved in order to serve a master who would set us free.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of slavery on God’s terms is that we are not bound but blessed into it, not forced but freed into it. Note that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sin always costs. Eternal life is always a full benefit — sheer grace, no quid pro quo — tendered to and for us by the Christ whom Paul elsewhere describes as “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7a).

Sheer grace is not cheap grace. It is astounding how much God in Christ is dying to serve us. Once we are enslaved to God, the eternal life is not necessarily the easy life, nor does sanctification transform us to play it safe. But the Spirit equips us to play it sacred, to experience for ourselves and offer to others the holiness of a certain comfort and joy, even when serving God entails suffering for the sake of faith, hope and love. Over and over, God’s grace amply covers our costs.


Prison life is harsh. But the good news is that we needn’t toil in the prison of self when we could be serving God; we needn’t be disobedient when we could be walking in the Spirit. The bad news is that our mortal, very human bodies seem to provide constant opportunities for us to be tempted every which way.




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From a letter to the editor of the Pocono Record newspaper, February 10, 2006:

Editor, the Record:

I am one of the “animals” incarcerated in the Monroe County Correctional Facility, responding to a recent letter to the editor. …

The reality is that most inmates were taxpayers and hopefully, will be law-abiding taxpayers and voters in future. Inmates have homes, businesses, places of employment, extended families. Daily, as you receive your fast-food snack, the person saying “thank you” may be an inmate on work release. On that minimum wage they are paying off fines, sending dollars home, and saving a pittance for educational and professional dreams that hold the key to a successful and productive re-entry.

Certainly there is no guarantee that life will change. Addictive abuse brings many back behind the razor wire. It is a cancer gnawing the soul. But reform and honest work do happen here — ask the pastors who visit weekly to help inmates stay focused on goals. …

A crushing sentence, even life-long imprisonment for all misdemeanors and felonies has been the answer for barbaric, even fascist societies.

Remember, at times, there is a fine line between a law-abiding life and temporary incarceration. If we give up on the millions of men and women serving time, then we are hideously financing a network of dungeons.

Richard J. Cochrane

Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania

Retrieved February 3, 2023.

In 1997, I found myself in “Old Folsom,” a violent maximum-security prison in northern California. Even though I’d been a drug dealer and grew up in violent environments, I still had to endure the learning curve of prison.

Being in prison for the first time is like being thrown into a swimming pool that has no shallow end.

You have to constantly watch your surroundings. While you’re watching others, they’re watching you. Many inmates can smell weakness like a shark smells an infinitesimal amount of blood thousands of feet away. …

Although prison was arguably the most hellish experience of my life, it was the wake-up call I needed.

My prison experience undoubtedly taught me the best lessons I’ve ever learned.

  1. Use adversity as a growth opportunity.

The worst things that ever happened to us are incredible growth opportunities. They can transform our lives in extraordinary ways — but only if we’re willing to look beyond the pain and find meaning in our suffering. …

Prison was one of the best things that happened to me. If I didn’t go to prison, I could’ve later been arrested for more serious drug crimes. I could’ve ended up dead, like some of my fellow drug dealers and friends.

I was exactly where I needed to be. …

  1. Re-align your values with who you are.

One of the best things about adversity is that it can help you get in tune with your core values. It will help you figure out what you value the most. It may also help you determine the ways in which this bad situation occurred because you failed to honor some of your top values.

I had to get rid of my toxic values and replace them with positive core values that would allow me to become who I was meant to be. …

  1. Realize you are the only person who can save you.

In prison, you quickly learn that you’re on your own. Even if you join a gang or are part of a bigger racial group, you can still be manipulated, hurt or killed.

You have to depend on your intelligence, street smarts, common sense, insight, experience and best judgment to make good decisions every day. If you can’t rely on yourself to make the best decisions, you’ll pay a big price.

Life outside of prison is similar in many ways. We have to rely on ourselves to make good decisions. …

  1. Create strong boundaries. …

You may think you’re being generous by giving away half of your food and cosmetic products. You’ll later be shocked to see that there’s a guy at your cell door who’s there to take everything you have.

Just like people in prison will take advantage of you if you show weakness, people in the free world will also take advantage of you if you don’t set strong boundaries. …

  1. Help other people who are suffering.

I now go back into prisons to help incarcerated men learn the business, personal development and job readiness skills they need to start their own businesses or get good jobs when they’re released.

Neuroscience has shown that helping other people makes us happy by releasing dopamine, the main pleasure-inducing chemical in the brain.

Helping others is also a very important part of growth and healing. Helping people who are in pain is a great way to give your own life more purpose and meaning. …

  1. The worst prisons aren’t made out of concrete and steel.

This experience later taught me the biggest lesson of all: the worst prisons aren’t made out of concrete and steel. The worst prisons are the ones that we create in our own minds. …

All of us are in our own mental prisons, such as fear, anger, negativity, low self-esteem, over-thinking, self-doubt, procrastination, guilt, shame, addiction and many others.

These prisons stop us from reaching our full potential and achieving all of our dreams.

—Charles Amemiya, “6 Life Lessons I Learned From Being in Prison,”, November 19, 2020.

Retrieved February 3, 2023.

10 of the greatest books written in prison:

  1. Letter from Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
  3. The Pisan Cantos, by Ezra Pound
  4. Conversations with Myself, by Nelson Mandela
  5. Justine, by the Marquis de Sade [some would disagree with this choice]
  6. The Travels of Marco Polo, by Rustichello da Pisa
  7. Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
  8. Our Lady of Flowers, by Jean Genet
  9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde
  10. The History of the World Volume 1, by Sir Walter Raleigh

Christians would hasten to add to the list the prison letters of Paul as well as Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

For more on each of the 10 books, see the full article by Zoe McIntyre, “10 Of The Greatest Books Written In Prison,”, October 28, 2016.

Retrieved February 3, 2023.

On a visit to our state penitentiary, I said something to the chaplain about how sad it was that so many people suffered from poor self-esteem and a negative self-image to the point where they thought of themselves as criminals, and turned to a life of crime.

“There was a time when I might have believed in that explanation for criminal behavior," said the chaplain. “But after my years here, I have decided that most of the guys who end up here are not suffering from a poor self-image, or low self-esteem. They are here for the opposite reason. Most of these guys don’t think too little of themselves, but rather too much. They all think they are brilliant. The rules are made for people of lesser intelligence to follow. They’ve all succumbed to the temptation to think that they, and they alone, have figured out how to get around the system. And that is why they are here.”

Can it be that our root problem is not thinking too little of ourselves, but rather too much?

—William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Lent 1, 2014.

Do you see how you are in a prison created by the beliefs and traditions of your society and culture and by the ideas, prejudices, attachments and fears of your past experiences? Wall upon wall surrounds your prison cell so that it seems almost impossible that you will ever break out and make contact with the richness of life and love and freedom that lies beyond your prison fortress. And yet the task, far from being impossible, is actually easy and delightful. What can you do to break out? Four things:

First, realize that you are surrounded by prison walls, that your mind has gone to sleep. It does not even occur to most people to see this, so they live and die as prison inmates. Most people end up being conformists; they adapt to prison life. A few become reformers; they fight for better living conditions in the prison, better lighting, better ventilation. Hardly anyone becomes a rebel, a revolutionary who breaks down the prison walls. You can only be a revolutionary when you see the prison walls in the first place.

Second, contemplate the walls. Spend hours just observing your ideas, your habits, your attachments and your fears. Without any judgment and condemnation. Look at them and they will crumble.

Third, spend some time [observing] the things and people around you. Look but really look as if for the very first time at the face of a friend, a leaf, a tree, a bird in flight, the behavior and mannerisms of the people around you. Really see them. And hopefully you will see them afresh, as they are in themselves without the dulling, stupefying effect of your ideas and habits.

The fourth and most important step, sit down quietly and observe how your mind functions. There is a steady flow of thoughts and feelings and reactions there. Watch the whole of it for long stretch of time. The way you watch a river or a movie. You will soon find it so much more absorbing than any river or movie. And so much more life giving and liberating. After all, can you be said to be alive if you are not even conscious [of] your own thoughts and reactions? The unaware life, it is said, is not worth living. It cannot even be called life. It is a mechanical robot existence, a sleep, an unconsciousness, a death. And yet this is what people call human life.

—Anthony de Mello, The Way to Love (Image Books, 1995), 39-40.

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Show the children a musical instrument. Play a few notes or enlist the help of a musician from the congregation. Or show them a basic tool like a hammer, saw or pair of scissors. Tell them that an instrument or tool cannot do anything alone, and it needs to be played or controlled by someone else. Ask the children if human beings can be instruments or tools and say that God can certainly use us to do good things. Note that the apostle Paul says we shouldn’t be “instruments of wickedness” but instead present ourselves “to God as instruments of righteousness” (v. 13). Describe some of the beautiful music that God can make with us as instruments of righteousness and some of the wonderful things he can accomplish: speaking the truth, visiting the sick, being kind to the lonely, feeding the hungry, encouraging the weak, or forgiving those who do wrong. Explain that God usually doesn’t act alone in the world but works through instruments like us. Encourage the children to allow God to work through them every day of their lives, and then, after many years of use as an instrument, to receive from God “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23).

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