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Perfect Peace in Prison
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There’s a story I want to briefly share with you this morning, and it’s one that is dear to the hearts of many Adventists. One of the most unusual lifestyle testimonials I’ve ever heard of came from the mouth of a young man named Sam. Sam Tannyhill was a Death Row inmate in Ohio’s state penitentiary way back in the mid-1950s. Sent there for bludgeoning a young waitress to death, he was visited by a couple of young Seventh-day Adventists, gave his heart to God, and joined our church—in absentia, of course. As time went by, he developed a close relationship with Pastor William Fagal, who was the host of the national television program, Faith For Today. They had a number of close and deeply spiritual visits and Pastor Fagal became his mentor.

One month, as Fagal walked down the long, dark corridors with the cells and the bars and the clang of the gates sliding open and closed, Sam greeted him with the most incredible statement: “Pastor,” he said, “this is the most glorious place in the world.”

And Fagal could hardly believe him. Here? In the state pen? Where it was dark and gloomy? Where a small room with an electric chair was cloaked in sinister finality just down the hall? Where guards made sure a man did what he was told to do twenty-four hours a day? Where freedom was a long-forgotten concept? But Sam Tannyhill meant every word of it. “Pastor, I love this place,” he said, in all seriousness. “This is where I found Jesus Christ.”

Now, before you and I segue back to Philippians chapter four, where another con named the Apostle Paul pretty much says the same thing, let me add a little something to the story. Young Sam Tannyhill wasn’t just in prison. Again, this was Death Row. He was facing the electric chair for killing that waitress. And indeed, on a snowy night in November of 1956, they strapped him down and executed him for his crime. Still, even knowing that the court system was going to end his life, that he was never going to leave Ohio State Penitentiary alive, this young thief and killer was able to proclaim—and mean it: “This is the happiest place in the world. Because I have a friend named Jesus here, I am truly happy and fulfilled even behind these bars.”

Now our Bible friend Paul is also wearing prison stripes, under some form of house arrest in Rome. In fact, the Bible books Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon are sometimes called the Prison Epistles, all written from the “joint” around 61 to 63 A.D. And here this gifted, well-traveled apostle, who’s enjoyed both the lofty stature of being in the Sanhedrin, and also the shame of Rome’s dingiest hell-holes, has this to say as he wraps up this incredible letter to Philippi: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (v. 11).

I kind of like the King James here; maybe you remember it this way too: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”

I have to confess that sometimes my fellow pastors and I use that verse as a kind of geographical joke, just in case the conference office “calls” us to serve in Death Valley or some lonely, desolate spot where there are more gophers than there are people. As in, “I have learned to be content, whatever STATE they put me in.” But Paul is telling us here that no matter what cards life deals him, he can be content with it. Whether things are good or bad. Here’s verse 12: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Let’s sample the popular Message paraphrase together, where Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “I’ve found the RECIPE for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty.”

That’s an interesting idea, isn’t it . . . that contentment can be a recipe, just like the delicious dishes we enjoy from the kitchen during our Sabbath potlucks. Are there biblical principles we can follow—can we mix in one cup of faith and two teaspoons of Old Testament promises which will take us to an attitude of joy and serenity?

Well, first of all, you and I might be saying one of two things. Initially, you might be grinning in relief, because God has just never called you to experience the contentment of prison, or the peace that comes through hunger, or the faith that develops when your spouse dies. You’ve not been tested . . . and you’re real glad about that. It’s not hard to be content when you’re a millionaire – as even Job cheerfully testified early on in his story. Although many millionaires are surprisingly discontented with their lives. The New International Version text notes point out something we already know: “Prosperity, too, can be a source of discontent.”

But the more common response is different . . . and the Bible speaks to it. Because many of us just plain and simple do not feel that we have this capacity for contentment amidst hardship. We haven’t got it! We don’t like being in prison, and we don’t like skipping meals, and we can’t be happy if we’re poor. Maybe Paul can, and maybe this guy on Death Row got the hang of it, but that’s just not our gift. We may as well move on to the book of Colossians and try to stay out of jail, because we already know that we’re going to hate it.

But here’s the Bible comment on that — and as a person who likes his soft pillow just as much as the next Christian, I have to take this to heart. Because notice that Paul says it this way: “I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances.” What is this telling us? Apparently this spiritual attitude of his, his contentment amid the rats and the ragged prison blankets of Mamertine Dungeon wasn’t natural for him either! It was a LEARNED response. Paul may well have had the same love of electric blankets and microwave ovens and new Lexus automobiles as the rest of us . . . until he fell on his knees and learned how to have this attitude of prison happiness.

Well, if it’s a recipe, we apparently need to attend a cooking school together! So where can we find the HOW of this learning, this spiritual education? We don’t have to go far; in fact, I would suggest that the instructions for us are sandwiched right around this very verse.

I mentioned last week how some believers are able to take verse four — “Rejoice in the Lord always” — and actually make it work for them despite trials and tribulations. They’re happy in jail, even – and how do they accomplish that mental miracle? They do it by realizing that, no matter what happens to them, God is still God and God is always good. Do you agree with that? Despite the challenges that may surround us and the shadows that creep nearer each day, God is still in charge.

And here Paul, writing from jail, knows that his God is a good God. God knows he’s there; God sees his condition. God is aware of his difficulties. And if for a temporary time—or even if it’s forever—God’s plan is for jail to be Paul’s mission field, hey, that’s okay with Paul. “I can be content here,” he writes, “if this is what God wants.”

There’s a poignant story where a Pastor Richard Dortch, an official in the Assemblies of God denomination, faced some prison time for his part in the Jim Bakker PTL scandal a number of years ago. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but together with other leaders, he had participated in decisions which had defrauded others; he had abused authority and crossed the line into unethical behavior. Now prison authorities were coming for him. He came down to his final weekend of freedom before he knew he had to submit to incarceration.

Well, frankly speaking, he was terrified. He was a senior citizen, and in fragile health. How could he survive in jail with his medical problems? What if hardened cons persecuted him or made life behind bars difficult? So as his deadline approached, he wasn’t feeling too “content” about it.

All at once, his son came up, put an arm around his shoulder, and said this: “Dad, if God wants you serving Him there instead of in some other mission field, you’ll be all right. You would go into a prison without hesitation if you felt it was the mission field the Lord had set before you . . . so just look at this next year in that light.” He did – and it was a positive experience.

So how do we learn this contentment? I think we learn it by simply knowing God. Drawing closer to Him, until we’re just plain convicted and aware of His continual goodness. Then when we’re hungry, or tired, or angry, or a long ways from home, we can fall back on that knowledge. God is good . . . not just when LIFE is good, but He’s good all the time.

In another letter he wrote, this one to his friend and spiritual intern, Timothy, Paul shares this in chapter six, and I’m borrowing from the recent Clear Word paraphrase: “Reflect the Lord Jesus Christ in your life. It will give you spiritual contentment and a peace of mind that money can’t buy.” Here’s that same expression in the NIV: “But godliness WITH contentment is great gain.” Then Paul continues, and this is back to the Clear Word: “We brought nothing into this world and it’s certain that we’ll take nothing out of it. If we have food and clothing, what else do we really need? Let’s be content with what we have.”

And of course, there have been many Christians who learned, out of necessity, to be content even without the food and the clothes.

Well, the second half of this sandwich solution to contentment is found in the very next verse after Paul writes about living in plenty or in want, about faithfulness to Jesus “for better or for worse.” Here’s Philippians 4:13, one of the grandest statements in all 66 books of the Bible. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Now, please consider the scenario with me. Here Paul is in prison, under house arrest. Other times, he’s been in the darkest, freezing dungeons of Mamertine, where even the strongest man might cry himself to sleep the first night there and every night after that until you’d just give up and die. But Paul has this conviction: “I can do it . . . because Jesus gives me the strength. I can survive here; I can be content.”

In the original Greek here, we get that part, “I can DO” from the word ischuō, which carries the meaning: “to have power,” or “to be able.” And Paul taps into that power. If he’s poor, that’s all right, because he’s tapped into the power of Jesus Christ. If he’s hungry at this moment, he can cope because he has a connection with the Bread of Life; a meal will be provided soon enough. You can read in Acts 18 where Paul had to just hack along as a tentmaker, probably making minimum wage, in order to support himself as a missionary. But that was okay; he was “able,” because he had the power of Christ sustaining him. Amazingly, even when it came right down to where he was going to be executed, his testimony again is one of confidence. “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded [or convinced] that He IS ABLE to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.”

Live or die, he had that confidence, that ischuō, that his God had the power to see him through to the other side.

Let me close with just one more vignette from that Ohio prison inmate, Sam Tannyhill. And this comes from Pastor Fagal’s marvelous little book, Three Hours to Live. Fagal spent the final three hours of Sam’s life together with him there in the holding cell right next to Death Row. The execution had been scheduled for 8:00 that evening, and the two men had a wonderful time of fellowship together in those final three hours. Sam ate a final meal, with a good appetite, with apparently no nervousness, no fear, no distress. He and Fagal and the prison chaplain prayed a beautiful prayer of commitment together, expressing contentment over what was about to happen. And then, with just one minute left, Sam calmly reached out and shook Fagal’s hand. Referring to the resurrection, said very quietly: “Goodbye, Pastor. I’ll see you in the morning.”

As he certainly will. Shall we pray?

Lord Jesus, we want to discover this feeling of contentment that Paul describes for us. Our lives are generally very comfortable, but please help us to seek such an abiding fellowship with you that when the storm clouds blow and when darkness threatens to overwhelm our faith, we will keep hanging on to our friendship with You. In Your ever-present name we pray, amen.   

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