Every other Friday I facilitate a discovery Bible study at the Rutherford County Jail, here in Murfreesboro, TN. There are usually about 20 guys who sit on the concrete floor with their backs against concrete walls wearing their bright orange or dull green jump suits (signifying they have not yet been sentenced or were found guilty of a felony and are awaiting the outcome of their appeals).
Today they had obviously been in the recreation room (a thirty foot concrete cube with a four-foot by twenty-foot window that can be opened to let in the only sun they ever see unless they are being transported to or from court) for a while. Their Bibles were open and it appeared that one of them was sharing from a favorite passage.
I honestly had not selected a text prior to arriving, so I asked where they were reading. Psalm 52 was their text so I asked the inmate who told me the text to read it for all to hear. He read the nine verses from the NIV translation. I asked for one with a KJV to re-read it since these are the two translations the chaplain gives out most of the time.
I asked if any of these guys had a twelve-year-old son or daughter. Then I asked one of the men to re-tell the text in his own words as though he was explaining its meaning to his son or daughter. After he finished I asked the rest to fill in additional details that stood out to them.
Psalm 52 is an interesting text for twenty inmates to be reading. It says, “
Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth. Selah
You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue! Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin: he will snatch you up and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.
Collectively they touched on every significant section of the psalm. The last one to commented about God’s mercy. After re-stating what he said about God, noting the NIV translates this as “God’s unfailing love” (52:8), I asked them, “What else do we learn about God from this Psalm?”
One noted that God will punish the wicked liar being mentioned here. Another pointed out that God blesses the godly.
Next I asked them, “What do we learn about humanity from this Psalm?” They said that some of us become arrogant and speak boastful things. They discussed the metaphor of the tongue being like a razor (52:2). I asked if they could have a straight razor and was quickly told, “Of course not! It would be used as a weapon and someone would be cut!” We pondered the ways we can use our speech to cut someone down.
Then I asked them what the meaning of the second metaphor of a man being “like an olive tree” signified. Since no one had a suggestion I noted that grain, wine and olive oil were three of the items that were exported from Israel. Then I asked, “What was olive oil used for?”
One noted it was used for anointing. I added that it was also used as cooking oil and as a fuel in lamps.
When I asked them again what the significance was for this word picture was, they responded differently. One said, “This is like Jesus talking about not putting a lamp under a bushel basket.” Another noted that good men are to be a blessing for the people around them. A third man said, “We have to disseminate good things to others.” (Not everyone in jail is uneducated!)
I used the last comment to ask them who they know in their pod or family who needs to hear the message of this Psalm. Several looked as though they were going through their mental list of associates.
Then I asked, “What do we need to do to obey this passage?” I could tell they were taking the text seriously.
One replied, “It troubles me to hear a guy talking all the time at Prayer Call and at church and then cursing every other breath back in the pod!” He went on to say that our walk and our talk needs to be the same.
I reminded them that the passage ends with a statement about praising God. Then I asked, “What has happened lately that you praise God for?”
Some praised God for what they were learning from incarceration. One praised him that he was arrested for a minor crime rather than the serious trouble he was headed toward. Another wanted to praise God for the patience he had been learning.
At that point one of the guards and a nurse were giving out daily medications to the inmates in one of the pods. Several of the guys had to step out of the exercise room, back into their pod. Most had returned and then there was loud angry shouting. The last two guys returned and the doors behind them were noisily slammed by the guard.
There was a moment of awkwardness because one of these guys was the one who suggested we look at Psalm 52. The other was the one praising God for learning patience. Non-verbal clues indicated these two are among those who talk better than they walk.
Imagine getting that deep into their world in less than one hour. Imagine how all of us felt stripped bare of our usual facades.
Our silence was interrupted by the same guard entering the adjoining pod, calling for anyone who needed meds. Oddly enough there were none, so he felt compelled to step into where we were to make sure they heard him. As he exited the walls shook as he slammed the two heavy steel doors.
“Why does the devil always have to mess up a good thing?” one of the two guys, who had been part of the earlier angry shouting match, asked. I let the question hang in the air.
One of the inmates said, “Sometimes we just have to turn the other cheek.” Another said, “I know I must be doing something right if Satan feels like he has to come after me.”
You have just witnessed what can happen when people open Scriptures and ask some basic questions. I entered that exercise room wanting to model a discovery process. I chose to go with the text one of them had already opened. I did this to demonstrate that the approach works with any section of the Bible.
There are some basic questions that can be answered from every text:
1. What do we learn about God here?
2. What do we learn about humanity?
3. Who do I know who needs to hear this?
4. What will obedience to this look like?
We modeled praising God for the good things he is doing in our lives. We modeled asking him for the things that we need (the one who had praised him for patience and then promptly lost it asked us to pray for him).
All I try to do with guys in jail is show them how to hear from God. All I try to do is model for them a study method they can use for the rest of their lives. All I want is for them to open themselves to hearing, trusting and obeying God’s will for their lives.
Will they change? Will they put this into practice? I do not know. I am responsible to plant the seed and/or water it. God gives the increase, depending on the soil. But I have no doubt they will never forget today’s study! The Holy Spirit was in control. I could not have planned what transpired. I got the joy of being an instrument in God’s hands. I was able to be a catalyst. I anticipate some good fruit will come from today. That’s my prayer!