God loves the world so much that instead of death, we are given eternal life by believing in Jesus. Think back to the time you felt most loved by God. Perhaps it was during a period of great personal need, and possibly through the love of another human being. As Christians, we are called to share this love from God. In fact, Jesus commanded us—not politely requested us—to love our neighbors.
While our neighbor does include the nice family across the street, we are also called to love the people we prefer not to think about, the people we might even fear. The tough, scarred, and broken man or woman sentenced to death for their crimes is also our neighbor.
The United States houses the largest number of prisoners in the world, as well as the highest prisoner ratio, 655 per 100,000 people.1 While the death penalty in the U.S. is most used in cases of murder, there are other capital crimes involved sometimes.2 Around the world, you can be executed for trafficking drugs, fraudulently disrupting the country’s economic system, undermining the constitutional system, and offending or abandoning the country’s religion. In Middle Eastern countries, some women on death row have been sentenced to stoning for the crime of adultery.3
Did you know that 43 execution dates have been scheduled for 2020 in the U.S. alone?4 Because they have committed a crime, do we assume a convict’s life has less meaning than a nonoffender? Are we all right with it because we believe they deserve it?
In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” Martin Luther King, Jr., suggests we look beyond the sin. “In order to love the enemy neighbor, we must recognize that the negative deed of the enemy does not represent all that the individual is. His evil deed does not represent his whole being.”5
Indeed, we are not the sum of our sins. Yet we certainly can despise those who sin differently. In the same way, our own good deeds do not represent all that we are, as much as we’d like them to. Martin Luther King takes self-righteous egos to task when he says, “If we look at ourselves hard enough, and if we look at all men hard enough, we see a strange dichotomy, a disturbing schizophrenia. We are divided against ourselves, split up so to speak. There is something within all of us which causes us to cry out with Ovid the Latin poet, ‘I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.’”6 Just like us, criminals on death row make multiple choices. But death is the consequence of some of their choices.
Execution during Jesus’ time was horrific. But even as He was dying, Jesus provided spiritual comfort to a convicted criminal. No theological exchange was necessary; no intellectual Bible exposition took place. The thief saw only Jesus. And Jesus saw through him: past his evil deeds, straight to the core. Unable to say anything beyond “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), the thief bared his soul. Jesus heard all the unspoken desires of his spirit and responded with a guarantee of hope.
Good deeds don’t represent all that we are, much as we’d like them to.
By following Christ’s example, we are to share God’s love and the promise of eternal life with even the worst, most mean-spirited people. In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean became a pen pal to a death-row inmate. His name was Patrick Sonnier, a resident of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, America’s largest maximum-security prison.7
Prejean began visiting him, providing him with something he didn’t have—a compassionate relationship with another human being. In an interview with Faith and Leadership, Prejean talked about being true brothers and sisters. That’s the type of thing Jesus is about. Compassion brings people together. Relationship is everything.8
When Sonnier finally went to his death, Prejean was there to witness it. Before he died, he turned to the father of one of his victims and said he was sorry, then he turned to Prejean and told her he loved her. “I love you too,” she responded.9 It was a response Martin Luther King echoed: “When Jesus says, ‘Love the enemy,’ He’s saying love the enemy because there is something about love that can transform, that can change, that can arouse the conscience of the enemy.”10
After Sonnier’s death, Prejean resolved to spend her life fighting state-sanctioned executions.11 Her book Dead Man Walking became a critically acclaimed movie. Since then, she has provided spiritual comfort to death-row inmates and accompanied six of them to their executions. “In my faithfulness to them and in visiting them, they know my love and care for them, and that I believe in their dignity,” she said.12 Love doesn’t just transform the person being loved; it also changes the person providing that love. Prejean’s worldview shifted: “I’ve been with these six human beings in the last hours of their life, and I saw what courage was. I saw what faith in God is, turning your life over to God. I’ve seen remorse. I’ve seen sorrow. Sometimes I reflect on that. What is it like to do something irreparable and you can’t get it back? That has to be a terrible suffering.”13
When Jesus comes again, will He ask, “When I was in prison, did you visit Me?” It’s easy to have sympathy for the poor, the orphans, the widows, because they all seem defenseless and innocent in their suffering. But what about helping people who have committed murder? With the death penalty, it’s not about innocent life, but a guilty life. Yet Jesus asks us to visit them. It’s not enough just to pray for them or to donate money to prison ministry. “The best gift we ever give each other is our presence,” says Prejean. “And we all long for that—people’s undivided attention to be present to us.”14
In the beginning God gave Adam and Eve one law, and they violated it. In the aftermath of that choice, the entire human race was placed on death row. But God left His first human creations with a promise, and the wages of sin were paid in Jesus’ death. Now, because of Him, we can die to sin and thus have life.
Contrast the thief on the cross with another Bible story—that of the rich young ruler. When asked to give up everything to follow Jesus, the rich young man chose to walk away. Our first death on earth is inevitable. The second death is a choice. For those on death row unaware of this choice, death comes without love, hope, or a future. We may not be able to save the life of a human condemned to die here on earth, but we can offer them the same hope Jesus offers us. According to Romans 8:38, God’s love in Christ Jesus transcends both death and life.
Jesus died a criminal’s death, and in so doing gave the whole world a chance to choose life eternal. The work is done. All that remains is for us to reveal the gospel to those who think they have no hope and no choice.
Cheryl Howson writes from Hosur, India.
Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).
The Lord can be found in stillness. He invites us to join Him there. For me, the quiet place I go to be with Jesus is found on a mountaintop.
Getting to the top of a mountain isn’t simple. Similarly, walking with Jesus daily isn’t always akin to a Sabbath afternoon stroll in the park. Honestly, it’s more like a hike. A tough hike—often breathtakingly gorgeous, sometimes exhausting, but always invigorating. The Christian version can take you to the brink of despair before the glorious view is finally revealed.
There are usually no shortcuts to the end of any worthwhile hike. “I wish we could magically be transported to the summit without the hiking!” said no one ever at the start. But a lot of people will say it when they’re exhausted. What they mean is “I wish it wasn’t so hard!” They want to fast-forward through the tough parts straight to the reward.
But what they fail to realize is that part of the joy of getting to the top is, in fact, the journey. All the memories of the trail—especially the difficult ones—are cherished and laughed about later, but only among those who were on that hike. The bonding experience of overcoming common hardships to reach a destination is much like that in the song of the redeemed: a song that can be sung only by those who share this Christian hike together (see Rev. 14:3).
I am reminded of a particular hike I did in Sri Lanka. With palpable excitement we surveyed the trail as it stretched away before us. The lush landscape looked like a scene from The Lord of the Rings. In the distance was our ultimate goal: a hazy mountaintop glowing through the rain and mist, as if someone had used an Instagram filter on it.
This hike stands out in my mind because everyone on it encountered so many difficulties along the way, but the mood of the group stayed positive. For months after the trip, the five of us laughed and talked about all that happened on it. Jonathan forgot his raincoat and shivered the whole way home. Debbie’s shoes broke, so she completed the hike in socks. Margret’s knees gave her problems, and she had to use a walking stick at the end. William took a wrong turn and ended up at a different viewpoint. I would suddenly disappear because I kept falling in the tall grass clumps. Near the end of it we were so wet and tired that Jonathan, William, and I lay down in those grass clumps, waiting for the others and staring into the falling rain. We felt strangely at peace, bonded with each other; most important, we felt closer to God.
C. S. Lewis wrote: “A glimpse is not a vision. But to a man on a mountain road by night, a glimpse of the next three feet of road may matter more than a vision of the horizon.”
When our group started our hike, we caught a glimpse of our destination, but somewhere along the way we lost sight of it. The trees, the hills, and the mist obscured our vision; and all we could do was focus on the trail ahead of us. So often we want to know what’s going to happen next, what God’s endgame is. Or we want every moment to be a glorious view, such as a vision of a lovely waterfall. But during a hike every single step counts. Every day of our lives counts. We may feel that what we do today is unimportant, but that need not be so. God is there in the mundane, the ordinary, and the boring. And if we look closely, we will start to notice the little butterflies flitting across our paths, or the wildflowers snuggled in the grass by the side of the trail, or the chameleon camouflaged among the leaves.
But the most amazing thing about this Christian hike is the One who has gone before us. He has cut the trail where there was only wild overgrowth before. He has faced despair and encountered every obstacle you and I face today. In the final hours before His ultimate sacrifice, He wanted to give up, but He didn’t. For my sake and yours.
So today, on each step of our Christian hike, just like the one I did in Sri Lanka, we must realize that there is no way forward but through it. But knowing that Jesus has been here before, we look around and see bits of higher ground here and there, just enough for a step, and just close enough to jump to. Although our shoes get soaked completely, and our clothes get splattered with mud, we make it through to the other side.
During a strenuous uphill climb, when we give it our all but feel as if we’re getting nowhere, we are not left without hope. The One who went before has left a map more accurate than any Google map. There’s even a GPS to help us: we cannot get back on track until we realize we are not on the trail anymore. For encouragement, we know we are in the last stages, near the end, and that gives us a little hope.
It’s OK to turn to one another, as my friend Jonathan did, and say, “I. Can’t. Breathe.” It’s OK to struggle; to realize that we need food, or water, or rest. This is where we are happy to have company and it’s always OK to ask for help, for this is how we encourage each other to keep going.
Everyone hikes at their own pace, so naturally we may reach the end at different times. Getting to the end first doesn’t mean superiority to anyone else: the victory at the end is what counts, regardless of how long it takes or how difficult it was.
I loved watching the faces of my friends as they emerged slowly out of the gloomy, dripping woods. The appearances of frustration and misery immediately gave way to looks of wonder and hushed awe. Debbie said to me, “I was so angry with you for bringing us on this hike! That last part was so hard. But it was worth it.”
Jesus said, “Follow Me.” Thankfully, He hiked our difficult trails—every single step of the way—without shortcuts. By walking the trail He walked, we learn, but never alone. When we stand at the beginning of the trail, we can say, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?” (Ps. 121:1). And we can say with certainty, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (verse 2). And “the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (verse 8).
Jesus is not with us just at the end, or only when we are in trouble. He says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” He watches over us during every single step of our Christian hike. He is taking us to be with Him in that place of eternal peace and joy.
Cheryl Howson is cofounder of an interior design company in Sri Lanka, where she worked and hiked for 12 years before she moved to Hosur, India.