“Lock ’em up and throw away the key! They’re just a menace to society!” Who is being talked about here? The men, women, and young people behind the bars and walls of our jails and prisons. They truly are the unlovely. But we are called to go to them and show them the love of Jesus Christ.
Is there a biblical example of loving the unlovely? There are many of them. But I believe one that stands out in an especially powerful manner in showing us the love that God has for the unlovely concerns a man by the name of Ananias. Many people have never even heard of the man named Ananias. But he was wonderfully and powerfully used of God to love a very unlovely man named Saul of Tarsus.
Acts 9 tells the story of how Saul was on his way to Damascus to do some terrible things to followers of Jesus, up to and including murder. He was not exactly one who would be easy to love. Ananias, being a follower of Jesus, was a target of Saul’s wrath. But God spoke to Ananias and told him to go to Saul. Look at Ananias’ answer to God: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name” (Acts 9:13–14). We would say, “Are you kidding me? Go talk to a criminal who is out of control and about to do some despicable things—really, God?”
Now see God’s answer to Ananias in verse 15: “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.’ ” This should help us understand that there are chosen instruments of God behind the bars and walls of prison, and it is our honor and privilege to share the truth of God’s Word with them.
Some of the finest men I know were some of the most unlovely men I’d ever met.
What Happened Next
Now we witness the result of Ananias’ obedience in loving the unlovely:
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” . . . And immediately [Saul] proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” (vv. 17, 20)
What in the world happened here? The gospel did what the gospel does. The gospel transforms lives, and it transformed Paul’s life forever.
I have seen this happen in prison on a regular basis. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Recently, a young man came into my prison office with a piece of paper and began to explain to me what was on it. He said, “I am thirty-two years old and I’ve never had a job in my life. All I’ve ever been is a drug dealer.” He then said, “On this paper is a list of all of the horrible sins I’ve committed in my life that I can think of. I don’t think even God could forgive what’s on this paper.” We talked for a long time. I shared Scripture with him about Jesus’ work on the cross and how we can confess our sins and receive Him as our Savior and Lord. It took a while, but he understood the gospel.
He trusted Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord, and then I had him put his hand on that paper with all those sins carefully listed. I then put my hand on his hand and we gave all of it to Jesus and thanked Him for His precious and total forgiveness. Then I took the paper and tore it to shreds right in front of him. I said, “You, my dear brother, are now free.” Since that day, he has been a powerful witness to other inmates, to the prison staff, and to his family. He led his stepfather to Jesus Christ as well as his eleven-year-old son in the prison visiting room.
Once when I was ministering one morning on Florida’s death row, an inmate who had trusted Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord and was now nearing the end of his life on this earth said to me, “God has given me an endless hope rather than a hopeless end!” I felt such a love for him at that precious moment.
Real Love Demonstrated
Carefully read this passage of Scripture. In it we see the love of our God for us. A love that is truly out of this world. A love that stands in for us and has our back when everything and everybody has abandoned us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:6–11)
Can we love the unlovely? Yes. We, too, can be an Ananias. We can go to a jail or a prison, or even to that unlovely neighbor or coworker, and show them what the love of Jesus actually looks like. We are called to do it, and in obedience there is blessing we cannot even imagine.
I never tire of seeing God take an unlovely, wasted individual and totally transform him into a godly, productive, useful, loving person who is committed to Jesus Christ and all that means. It is such a joy to be a part of. Some of the finest men I know were some of the most unlovely men I’d ever met. What happened? The gospel.
I love the hymn “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady. Its words—“Nothing in my hands I bring / Simply to Thy cross I cling”—vividly portray what happens in the lives of unlovely people as they come face-to-face with the reality of who Jesus is and what He has done in their lives as they trust in Him and Him alone for their salvation.
Rev. Dan Matsche is a prison chaplain with Good News Jail & Prison Ministry. He has been serving in jails and prisons for nearly thirty-five years. He is currently serving at a prison in Canon City, Colo.