I take care of prisoners all the time in the Emergency Department. On any given shift I see the aftermath of jailhouse fights, skirmishes with guards, needle sticks or even shenanigans orchestrated for the sole purpose of a little field trip to the hospital.
Incarcerated patients usually come to me handcuffed and flanked by guards. I find most to be humble, polite and sheepish about whatever landed them in the ER. I do my best to treat each prisoner with dignity and never really concern myself with why they are in custody.
But this one was different.
As I stitched up the wounds left by an altercation with another inmate, this prisoner was preternaturally quiet. He lay perfectly still, avoiding my eyes at all times and murmuring monosyllabic responses to my attempts at friendly chatter. I’d say he had no fight in him, but the gashes on his face and hands told a different story.
When I casually asked about his family, he turned his head and locked eyes with mine for just a moment. There was an ocean of pain behind his defiant glare. And I confess, it unnerved me.
I’ve cared for and interacted with all manner of criminals, addicts and hostile patients. But my heart was especially burdened for this guy and I couldn’t stop thinking about him after he left. Because whoever he was, whatever he did, he was broken.
It isn’t all that hard to find out what an inmate did. And Heaven help me, I was curious. So I found out.
The blood drained from my face as I learned of his horrific crime. It was the worst thing imaginable – leaving an innocent dead and a family in tatters. My heart screamed in outrage and broke into a million pieces for his victims. Had I read his story in the news, I would have angrily thought, “He should fry,” without a second thought for his soul.
But even after I knew, I still felt deep and profound compassion for him. And the emotion shocked me.
Some might say he deserves to wallow in guilt and shame. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Everything in me wanted to write him off as a monster. But I’d seen him face to face. And I couldn’t escape the truth that he is a human in desperate need of forgiveness.
The tension I felt between justice and mercy was life changing.
I spend my life protecting kids from this guy. I fight for vulnerable families and rally the church to give moms safe haven from men like him. In every sense, he is my enemy and I know he’s exactly where he should be for the rest of his earthly life – in prison.
But the state of his soul is another matter. And I realized that in all of my fighting and laboring for justice, I’ve never prayed for mercy and redemption for the perpetrators of heinous crimes.
In this moment, I had to ask myself, why not?
If I truly believe that Jesus Christ died for the sins of all mankind and that his desire is for each of us to repent and follow Him, then I have to believe it is true for this man.
If I truly believe that one is saved by faith alone and that no evil deed is beyond God’s saving grace, then I have to believe it is true for this man.
If I truly believe that God’s love is so powerful that it can change and redeem even the hardest of hearts, then I have to believe it is true for this man.
Because if the gospel isn’t true for him, then it’s not true for any of us.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:4-5
The gospel holds the tension between justice and mercy. Jesus is the only one who can reconcile the two. And He invites us to desire both for sinners and saints alike.
I think of Moses, who murdered the Egyptian then went on to lead God’s people to freedom. I think of David who deliberately had his lover’s husband killed in battle. He is known as one of the greatest kings of Israel and a man after God’s own heart. I think of Paul, the self-proclaimed worst of sinners who persecuted Christians and stood by gloating while Stephen was stoned to death. God upended his murderous ways on the Damascus road and used him to write thirteen books of the very Word of God.
God transformed their hearts. He transformed mine. And I am grateful He convicted me to remember that we are all in need of His mercy.
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;”