We get many urgent and serious life-situation emails in the inbox. That includes this one today, from a woman who wishes to remain anonymous. “Dear Pastor John, hello. I am a born-again Christian. A while back, I engaged in corrupt activities at work, and this is now causing me a great deal of suffering. I will be charged in court soon and then likely be headed to prison. I have since repented of my sins and prayed to God for deliverance. However, my prayers have been met with dead silence from God. My family has also experienced so much pain and suffering with my siblings losing their jobs as a result of my sin. Here are my questions: What encouragement can you offer me in what I face ahead? And what should a child of God like me do, when I now face legal suffering for my crimes? My faith in God is intact, but I am at my lowest spiritually. Please help me. I have wished that God would just call me home instead of watching my family suffer through the nightmare of watching what is to come.”
I want to begin by pointing our about-to-be-imprisoned sister to a passage of Scripture that I pray she will find hope-giving. Psalm 107 has proved to be, in my life and ministry, one of the most amazingly helpful psalms for people in all manner of distress, because it deals with such different kinds of trouble.
The Most High Hears
Here’s the section of the psalm that is so relevant for our about-to-be imprisoned friend. And what makes it so relevant is that the affliction, which these people here in this psalm are dealing with, this affliction came about precisely because they sinned, just like she did in her illegal activities. They sinned, and now they’re in her condition. Here’s what it says. This is Psalm 107:10–16:
Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor;
they fell down, with none to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
and burst their bonds apart.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he shatters the doors of bronze
and cuts in two the bars of iron.
Now, be sure that you hear this, friend: These are people who are imprisoned because they ought to be in prison. They rebelled against God. They spurned his counsel. They broke his law. They were found guilty, and they were put in prison where they belong. That’s why they, and you right now, feel “in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Psalm 107:10). Guilt is a horrible thing. Praise God for the gospel of Jesus. I know exactly what you mean when you say you would rather die right now rather than see other people suffer for your wrongs. Of course you would. I would too. I have felt like that more than once in my life.
“Guilt is a horrible thing. Praise God for the gospel of Jesus.”
And this psalm is even more amazing. Psalm 107:12 says it’s precisely God himself who “bowed their hearts down with hard labor.” In other words, God ordained this imprisonment of his people. He wasn’t wringing his hands in heaven, as though his people were being treated unjustly. God himself was in the judgment, and he’s in yours.
And amazingly, amazingly, these prisoners did not give way to bitterness or hopelessness or self-pity. Instead, they humbled themselves, and they cried to the Lord in their trouble. We don’t know how long he left them in prison, but he did hear their cry, and he delivered them. And we see at least two purposes that God achieves through this. First, their hearts were filled with overwhelming thankfulness to the Lord for his steadfast love, that he would show them mercy even though they are guilty sinners in prison. And second, they magnify his power to break the bars of iron.
Path to Mercy
Now, here’s one way to describe the crisis you are facing: you can fixate on the providence of God as a problem, or you can take hold of the providence of God as your hope.
The problem, of course, would be that God, in control of all things, could have kept you back from your illegal activities and spared your family all these miseries. He could have, and he didn’t. You can fixate on that as a problem and become an embittered, self-pitying, angry, mean-spirited, depressed, hopeless person. That would be a great tragedy. And it would be a double triumph for Satan. He’s already had one triumph. He should not get another in your life.
Or instead of fixating on providence as a problem, you can take hold of providence as your hope. That’s what the people in the psalm did. They know that God is the one who has bowed their hearts down with hard labor. God did it. How natural, how easy it would have been for them to turn all their affliction into anger at the providence of God. But instead, they took the other path. It’s a sweet path; I encourage you to take it. They believed that God’s power would not discipline them forever, but that his mercy would return again and deliver. This will require enormous humility and faith on your part, but God will give it to you if you ask him and patiently wait for his timing.
Hope for Tomorrow
Consider one more passage of Scripture to shed light on your situation. Paul the apostle was granted the gift of having stupendous revelations from God. God saw that such privileges could make Paul arrogant and self-exalting. Therefore, God appointed Satan to afflict Paul with a thorn in the flesh. We don’t know what it was, but 2 Corinthians 12:7 says, “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” In other words, God made Satan serve Paul’s sanctification.
“There will be a future and a hope that may seem impossible now, but nothing is too hard for the Lord.”
This was a kind of imprisonment for Paul — imprisonment inside the suffering of a thorn. But it wasn’t an imprisonment because of sins he had committed; it was because of sins he might commit. How easy it would be for Paul to get angry at God and say, “You could protect me from sinning other ways. You don’t need to use a thorn in my flesh to keep me from being proud.” And of course, that’s true, but God is God, and we are not. God has purposes for this — wise purposes.
Paul experienced the same things you did — namely, three times he cried out, “Deliver me, deliver me, deliver me.” And every time God said no. And then come the words from Jesus to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). To which Paul responds miraculously, and I pray the same for you, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
So, my prayer for you, dear sister, is that you will embrace the providence of God as your hope. Yes, it involves discipline for past sins. And yes, it involves thorns to protect you from future sins. And yes, he will break the bars of iron and bring you out. And there will be a future and a hope that may seem impossible now, but nothing is too hard for the Lord.