Being in prison is not the same as wandering in the wilderness. In Scripture, we see different characters deal with these two different challenges. The Israelites and Elijah experienced the wilderness. Joseph and Paul were familiar with prison. Lately I’ve been identifying with Joseph more than the Israelites. Unjustly accused, misunderstood, thrown away, discarded, locked up, prevented from going where I would choose to go. I used to think that the wilderness was difficult, but prison is a whole different story.
In the wilderness, you still feel like you are moving forward. Sure it’s slow and the steps are difficult and painful, but at least you are moving. In prison, you don’t go anywhere. You don’t feel like you are making any progress at all.
In the wilderness, you see the sky. You are in a vast, expanding place. In prison, it’s small and confusing. There is no freedom; no illusion of freedom. Everything you see, everywhere you turn you are reminded that you are not free.
In the wilderness, you are moving away from something bad, something that enslaved you. Even though you dream of going back and long for the comfort of Egypt, you know that the wilderness will ultimately bring you to the promised land, a better place. Each painful step is filled with the hope of a land flowing with milk and honey.
In prison, the good thing you had was taken away. Joseph was taken out of a prestigious position. Paul was taken out of his traveling ministry. Both good things; both things given by God. In prison, the good things were taken away without just cause, and there is no hope of a promised land. Your only hope is early release, and years of working your way back to a good reputation. But you have no control over when the locked door will open. For Joseph, it opened and led to his ultimate dream. For Paul, it opened and ended with a death sentence, which he joyfully received to enter the ultimate, eternal promised land.
You don’t really get new promises in prison. You generally harken back to what God promised before prison. This is why it’s called faith; it’s difficult to see the promised land sitting in a dungeon cell.
In the wasteland, you know there is a purpose, a point you will eventually get to. In prison, waiting is the point. You feel stuck. It’s like the progress is so slow and so small, you wonder if you are getting anywhere.
The lesson of the wilderness is to follow. Step after painful step completely dependent on someone else to guide you. The lesson of prison is to suffer. To suffer joyfully. To suffer and not lose faith. To suffer and remain hopeful.
The wilderness and prison are both places of testing. Testing of faith. Prison is a test of character; you find out who you are and what you really believe when you are sitting alone in the dark. Both test endurance and patience.
Prison makes you question what you thought you knew about yourself. Joseph emerged from prison broken and humbled. He was no longer the cocky kid brother boasting of his greatness. He left a mature man who understood his fate rested solely in the hands of the sovereign God. Paul was in prison so that he could write the words that impacted not only his generation, but many that followed. I wonder if he would have taken time off from traveling if it hadn’t been for house arrest. Prison is not without purpose. Prison is not outside the presence of God. He is still with me, and that is the hope that remains in this cold, confined space.