‘Teach me how to live’

“Now behold, one came and said to him, ‘Good teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’ ” – Matthew 19:16 (New King James Version).

I WAS CALLED UPON TO COUNSEL a young man serving a very long prison sentence. Thomas had only requested to meet with a Christian counsellor after he had served three years in prison.

As we spoke, he mentioned that he had attended church for several months while outside prison. en he left the faith, and returned to selling drugs. After his arrest, it never occurred to him to seek Christian counselling or to return to God. For three years in prison, he had lived as an atheist. I was curious. “Why then are you now wanting to speak to me?”

Thomas shrugged. “Heart call, I suppose?”

Puzzled, I asked him, “Why did you go to church in the first place?”

Thomas shrugged again. “Heart call also.”

Thomas could not describe what he meant by “heart call” any other way. When pressed for a description, he placed his hands against his chest and said, “Something inside calling”.

Many released prisoners go to church in response to a “heart call.” Doubtless, they will bring with them numerous concerns and motives. Some will be burdened with financial needs and heavy debts; others will be worried about where to stay. Yet others may be facing deep loneliness and seeking companionship.

Often, the undefined “heart call” is hidden underneath the many more pressing needs. And most of the time, the person is not able to articulate his longing to respond to God.

What is a “heart call”? Most prisoners know intuitively that the lifestyle they are in will lead to further misery. e habitual gambler or swindler has probably rent his heart out with grief and regret over what he has done. Most, if not all, habitual drug abusers have sworn to themselves and their loved ones that they would never touch drugs again. Yet despite all their tears, vows, and better judgment, they end up destroying their lives and the lives of those around them again and again.

James loved his wife deeply. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. When he first met her, his life turned around completely. He gave up abusing drugs, cut off contact with other drug abusers, got himself a job, and started saving for his family. Yet after three years, though still “happily” married, James started abusing drugs again. His return to drugs led to his arrest, and eventually to his wife leaving him.

Prisoners know how helpless they are in trying to resist temptation. They see little hope at the end of the tunnel. Like the man in the Bible story, they long to find a lifestyle that will lead to eternal life.

I have met prisoners and ex-prisoners with all kinds of needs and demands. Some just want companionship; others are far more demanding, expecting me to help them find jobs and to continue supporting them financially. I have helped them where I can and turned them down where their demands are unreasonable. But beneath each need and demand, I have found a heart cry that is pleading for someone to help them find life. “What must I do to have eternal life?”

The church must realise that not every ex-prisoner who steps into their church is looking for handouts. Even among those who do, beneath their request for financial assistance, is a call for someone who can teach them how to overcome addictions and sin. Their cry, spoken or unspoken is this: “Teach me how to live!”

Looking at the churches that have been involved in integrating ex-prisoners, I have come to the realisation that the churches that are most effective are not those that provide good social programmes or welfare for ex-prisoners. Rather, they are churches that take seriously the task of daily Christian living and that help their members live each day as followers of Jesus Christ. Perhaps helping ex-offenders is not such a mystery after all. It is all about learning together how to live as children of God.