When preachers exposit the story of Joseph they often aptly title their messages something like “From the Prison to the Palace.”
But when we look at the testimonies of imprisoned believers we find that the palace fashioned from prison walls is almost preferable to the palace built by human hands.
The reality is that at first, prison seemed like a terrible place to the famous martyr from the third century. She spoke openly of being terrified and being overwhelmed by the gloomy darkness. Admittedly she had other concerns, such as her nursing, infant son. But later Perpetua said,
Once my distress and concern for my child had eased up, I recovered my health right away. All of a sudden the prison become like a palace to me. I wanted to be there more than anywhere else! (Early Christian Martyr Stories, 94).
Mr. Bae also recognized the unpleasant nature of prison, and you can watch this short video where he describes the difficulties of physical suffering.
But he had a similar conclusion to Perpetua. He said,
In prison, even amidst the torture and unspeakable deprivations, there is seemingly endless time to pray, as the days slip by into months and years. You can remember the story of your life and repent of your sins. You can sing the hymns of faith and recite the Scriptures of the Bible in your head. And you can experience Christ’s visitation and grace in so many ways.
Rev. Richard Wurmbrand
After Rev. Wurmbrand had been released from prison, he wrote
The tortures were sometimes horrible. I prefer not to speak too much about those through which I have passed; it is too painful. When I do, I cannot sleep at night. (Tortured for Christ, 34)
And yet he also wrote,
When I look back on my fourteen years in prison, it was occasionally a very happy time. Other prisoners and even the guards very often wondered at how happy Christians could be under the most terrible circumstances. Christians in prison danced for joy. How could they be so happy under tragic conditions? (Tortured for Christ, 57).
Tertullian – Prison Theology
Tertullian wrote a prison theology of sorts to encourage imprisoned believers. It is believed by many that he wrote to Perpetua and her fellow Christians awaiting execution. Tertullian fully admitted that prison was an unpleasant place, even to Christians. But he also compared prison to what the “desert used to provide to the prophets.” He said,
The Lord himself often went to a remote place so he could pray without interruption and withdraw from public life. So let’s drop the name “prison” and start calling it a spiritual retreat. Though your body is shut inside a building and your flesh is restrained, the whole world is open to your spirit (Early Christian Martyr Stories, 113).
Tertullian went a step further and called for imprisoned Christians to consider the prison a sanctuary. He said,
Yes, it’s dark in jail – but you are the light. You may be in chains, yet you’re free before God. Though the place exudes a foul stench, you are a sweet odor there. In prison you may await the judge, but the reality is, you will pass sentence on those very judges. (Early Christian Martyr Stories, 113).
In all of these stories, there is no attempt to hide the atrocities and horrors of being imprisoned for faith in Jesus. And yet at the same time, there is a strong theme of God’s presence not only making the prison bearable, but also a place of prosperity and joy.
As we read stories about North Korean Christians being killed for their faith and Christians being imprisoned and beheaded by ISIS, we will do well to remember that as terrible as prison can be, it can also be a place of worship (like a sanctuary), spiritual growth (like the desert), and a place where the presence of God reigns (like a palace).