In search of the greatest love

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” – Matt. 13:44-46.

ONE OF THE DANGERS of being a “long-time” Christian is that we become familiar with Bible stories and theology. The problem with familiarity is that familiarity breeds dullness. We become very comfortable with the Bible stories, having heard and retold them many times over. Along the way, the fire and power of the Gospel is doused. Truth turns into myth, and the Word of God loses its thrust.

It took the plight of a chronic drug addict to force me to re-examine the faith that I claimed to have.

I met Tony at a Bible study session in prison. That day, no one else turned up except Tony. I was not scheduled to teach that session, but the volunteer was ill and I was called upon to stand in for him. So we talked. Tony was 44 years old. He spoke impeccable English and was clearly highly intelligent.

I enquired if he was a university graduate. He replied that his highest educational level attained was Primary 6. But he loved reading and read on any subject he happened to come across. His command of English was the result of his love for books.

Tony started sniffing glue when he was 14. By 16, he was addicted to heroin. Then came the revolving doors of the prison, going into prison for several years, coming out for a few months and then returning to prison for several more years. All in all, he had spent more than 20 years in prison. Throughout the several years spent outside prison, hardly a day passed without him abusing drugs.

When I asked if there was a place he could stay (other than prison) that he could have no access to drugs, he laughed. “I know the scene so well, you could put me anywhere and I would still find the drugs.” In fact, he had been evicted from several halfway houses when he was caught abusing drugs in their premises.

Tony was candid and not at all optimistic about his future. Drugs, he said, was his lifestyle. Everything he did revolved around the abuse of drugs. The drug lifestyle was the only lifestyle he was familiar with. True, he had despaired of that life and had attempted suicide several times. He showed me the scars on his wrists, where he had slashed them and hoped to die. But that was the only lifestyle that he knew, and he was not sure if he could live in a different environment.

Tony was not a Christian. I asked why then was he attending a Bible study session. His answer touched a chord in me. “Drugs”, he said, “is my first love. Until I find a love greater than this, I will not be able to quit drugs.” He had hoped to find answers at the Bible study session.

I shared with him the Gospel, beginning with the story of the woman with five previous husbands, whom Jesus had met at the well in Samaria. I asked if his story resonated with hers and the hunger for love that she felt. I showed him the passage where Jesus promised that those who asked would receive, those who sought would find, and those who knocked would have the door opened to them. I told him that there was a love from God that was greater than all loves, and that those who earnestly sought it would find it.

Throughout the session, Tony was quietly reflective. At one point I noticed his eyes moistening. He told me I sounded very convincing and asked for a Bible. He had about half a year before he was due for release, and hoped that within that time, he would find God and the love that God promised.

I left, more worried for myself than for Tony. He was obviously hungry to know God, and I knew that when someone hungered for God, he would find God. But what of myself? Amidst the cacophony of competing loves, of jealousies and vain ambitions, of lusts and greed, of bitterness and violence, had I lost my longing for the one love that could draw me away from all other false loves? Was I still captivated by the greatest love of all, the love that I glibly and almost convincingly claim could set us free from our addictions and vain pursuits?

I left the prison quiet and reflective, suddenly conscious of the gnawing hunger that I had ignored for too long.