Developing a ‘holy envy’
By Chiu Ming Li
BEING BROUGHT UP METHODIST, I was theologically conservative and careful about claims concerning the supernatural. It was not that I did not believe that miracles happened, but I had not expected of God such closeness and immediacy as I observed among prisoners.
One man who started me on the quest for the reality of God at the start of my ministry in prison was Dom. Dom was born out of wedlock and left in the care of an orphanage run by a Christian organisation. His mother visited intermittently, each time promising to take young Dom home, but never keeping her word.
When he grew up, Dom began selling drugs. He did it not simply to make money, but for the popularity that he received from the well-heeled. Because he sold high-end designer drugs, he was sought after by the rich.
Months before his arrest, Dom was warned several times to stop his destructive trade. But he ignored the warnings. When arrested, he realised that the warnings had been messages from God. He was inconsolable, convinced that after ignoring so many warnings, God had consigned him to hell. To make matters worse, his mother, upon hearing of his death sentence, told him never to write to her again.
I dreaded visiting Dom, because each time I visited him, he would repeat the mantra, “I’m going to hell, I’m going to hell”. I often left the prison as despairing as Dom.
One day, I noticed a significant difference in his demeanor. Instead of the despairing look I had got used to, he looked almost ecstatic. He then explained that he had had two unusual visions from God.
In the first, he saw himself trying to cross a bridge to a golden castle. Under the bridge was a sea, from which grotesque demons rose to grab him. In fear and desperation, he cried to God to save him. He then saw a winged creature coming from the castle which seized him and brought him safely to the castle.
In the second vision, he was woken from his sleep and presented with a shining page and told to read it. He then recited the 23rd Psalm to me. One might argue that the visions were merely figments of his imagination and that Dom simply remembered the 23rd Psalm from his days in the orphanage. Be that as it may, his life changed dramatically after the visions.
Over the months, I began looking forward to visiting Dom. He had a deep joy within that was infectious. And almost every week, he related stories of adventures with God. One day, he related sadly to me that he often indulged in lustful reminisces of his past sexual encounters. He was disturbed by this because he knew that his lustful fantasies were wrong. I told him to simply ask God to remove those thoughts.
The following week, Dom reported that he had done as I had advised, and like a blackboard eraser, God had erased the memories from his mind. But a new problem arose: the memories were coming back to him in his dreams.
Encouraged by what had happened, I told Dom that if God could erase memories from his waking thoughts, He could do likewise in Dom’s sleep. Dom prayed and the memories were removed from his dreams. Simple prayer became Dom’s method of facing every kind of temptation.
The truth is that when I gave Dom the advice, I did not at all believe in my own advice. I remember going home the day Dom related what God had done, and crying out to God, “Lord, as you did for Dom, do for me too!” Thus began what I later termed “holy envy”, a longing for God to give me a little of what He was giving His beloved children in prison. I realised that I was the pauper pleading with God for a morsel of what He was lavishing on Dom and others like him.
Interestingly, I was convinced about the reality of “speaking in tongues” by Dom. Though I had seen many Christians speak in tongues, I always reserved the possibility that they were faking it. One day, Dom innocently asked me whether I knew anything about speaking in an unknown language while praying. He had never had such an experience before, but found himself filled with unspeakable joy while praying in an unknown language. Nobody taught him how to speak in tongues, or that such a phenomenon even existed!
Much of Dom’s friendship with God was down-to-earth, yet not confined to life in prison. He prayed for a young girl whom the papers reported had been seriously injured in a car accident. He prayed for the family of an inmate who had just been executed, and trusted God to provide for them (which God did in a miraculous fashion). He sought God’s consolation when he longed for a plate of fried noodles. Dom’s friendship with God was so palpable that a prison officer commented that Dom must be Jesus’ best friend. Another officer observed that while other prisoners acted holy in the presence of counsellors, Dom’s conduct remained consistent throughout each day.
Several days before his death, in one of our last conversations, Dom reflected that the year since he received the death sentence had been the best year of his life. In that year, he had received so much of the love and grace of God. He just could not wait to receive the “full thing” when he met Jesus face to face.
Dom started me on an earnest search for a God who is absolutely interested in relating to us. I believe that the reason I had the privilege of knowing him was that I might develop a holy envy for an intimacy with God that I hitherto did not think was possible. In Dom’s life, I saw God breaking all barriers to reach out to us, and His longing to be our best friend.
The Rev Dr Chiu Ming Li is the Senior Prison Chaplain.
GOD BREAKS ALL BARRIERS
“In Dom’s life, I saw God breaking all barriers to reach out to us, and His longing to be our best friend.”