A few years ago I met a woman named Carolyn who, with her husband, had joined their church’s prison ministry team and were volunteering at a local prison. We were attending the same seminar where, in small group sharing, she told a riveting story. I honestly don’t recall any other details of the seminar except the story which has stayed with me as an extraordinary witness to the power of faith and authentic human goodness.
One day as part of her ministry Carolyn was assigned to fill out intake questionnaires for a group of newly-arrived inmates. She spent hours logging all the information about the men, one after another. At the very end of her long day, a tall, strong and obviously angry man walked into the room. He wore his hostility like a robe around him and proved to be very uncooperative with the simple process.
Carolyn said the inmate was a 33-year-old man who had been in and out of prison ten times. He was the picture of the passive-aggressive personality type. If he answered the intake questions at all, he did so with a palpable resentment of Carolyn’s very presence there. He was miserable and mad and hated life and humanity in general.
During the course of the intake, he told Carolyn he was a “new Christian”. Given his demeanor and behavior, this surprised her. Paradoxically, his Christianity turned out to be the main cause of his resentment.
He said that he had become a Christian the last time he was in prison. When he got out, he vowed that, if Jesus didn’t keep him out of prison, he would go back to a life of crime and become ten times worse than before. If his newfound Christian faith didn’t “work” for him, it was game over.
Well, Jesus obviously didn’t keep him out of prison. He was back in the slammer a number of months later and extremely ticked off about it. He was simply mad because God didn’t wave His magic wand and keep him from going to prison again.
When the man revealed his intention of becoming ten times worse than before, Carolyn began to fear for her own safety, although she tried not to show it. His anger got increasingly worse. She had dealt with many criminals before but none who had admitted to wanting to become worse. Now, it was her problem.
How was she to respond to this clear and present danger? Carolyn turned to prayer in her heart, not overtly, so as not to provoke the man.
She was afraid, but she seemed to have a clear understanding of the core issue, which was the man’s loss of faith. Amazingly, she said she was not asking for personal protection at that moment. She asked the Lord to give her the right thing to say to the man to restore his faith. She asked for a “word of knowledge”, as she called it, an idea, a phrase, an insight to penetrate his anger.
But the Lord said nothing. Despite her fervent prayer, she found herself in the same situation that made the man sitting before her so angry – God was silent.
“Please Lord!” she prayed in her heart, “give me the words to help this man.”
More silence from Heaven.
At that point, she finally felt she needed to bring the interview to a close!
Her survey had only two more questions, but before she could ask them, her eyes began to well up in tears. Her voice cracked. She was struggling to get the questions out and failed miserably.
Soon the dam of emotion burst and a stream of tears flowed onto the intake form on the desk underneath her. She began to sob, not out of fear, but out of sincere distress at the man’s loss of faith and possibly the eternal loss of his soul. She couldn’t stop sobbing. She told the group her tears were uncontrollable.
Then something amazing happened. Soon, the criminal across the desk was sobbing too!
He bowed his head more in embarrassment than in shame. “I’ll be okay, ma’am,” he said to the weeping woman. “All I needed to know was that someone cares.”
Someone truly did care about him that day. Carolyn. She cared about the most important thing – his soul.
The Lord didn’t answer Carolyn’s prayer for words to restore the man’s faith. He gave her something much more effective: tears.
Every manual of theology reminds us that it is God’s grace that converts souls, not our efforts alone. Evangelization efforts are necessary, of course, but not sufficient to bring souls into the Kingdom. In the famous passage of the Vine and the Branches, Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
How often do you ask God for the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding (insight) about a desperate soul? We often miss the core issues that bind people because we don’t ask to “see” the depths of the problem. Many times we can’t possibly know the secrets of the heart. But God can.
We are even blind to our own sins and the things that bind us. These revelations can only be gained by prayer and by actively calling upon God’s grace to assist us in our needs.
Ask and you shall receive. Don’t expect an immediate answer in the form of a text message, a “word of knowledge” or a divine revelation to tell you the next step. Just expect a very real answer to your sincere act of faith.
Both God’s silence and His answer may surprise you.