Jail House Religion

Jail House Religion
 "The Real Thing" or "A Cheap Imitation"?

By Stephen Canup


“Jail-House Religion”—How many times have we heard that phrase?  It’s usually in a mocking way.  Is it the “real thing” or a “cheap imitation”?  Can someone really find God in a jail or prison?  Is God close enough to us here to hear our sincere cry?  Can we really be heard by Him as we commit, or re-dedicate, our hearts to walk with Christ?  What does God say about people like us in His Word?  Can He actually use a convict, who turns his life around, to advance the cause of His Kingdom?

We know what “society” says and thinks about us – they call us misfits, outcasts and career criminals.  For the most part, they despise us.  They think that we are worthless, dangerous and not capable of changing our ways.  They are ashamed of us, afraid of us and would like to forget us.  When they put us in jail we are “out of sight, out of mind”.  We are at the very bottom of the social ladder – like the bottom of a dark empty well with no ladder to climb out.  How low can we go and still find God?

When we are as low as we can go, and think that the only “light at the end of the tunnel” is a train headed our way, what do we do?  When we finally wake up one day and realize we are sick and tired of being locked up again and again because of our own stupid actions, wrong decisions and addictions, who do we turn to?

Isn’t this the time and place that makes the most sense to cry out to God?  Think about the story of “The Prodigal Son” – he was eating, sleeping and working among the pigs in the muck and mud.  The Bible says in Luke 15:17, that he finally “came to himself”, saw the error of his ways, desired forgiveness, and turned back to go home to his father.  Sometimes, God uses the worst of conditions at the bottom of our own miry pit to get our attention.  Psalm 118:5 says, “In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and He answered me by setting me free.”

            In Luke 19:10, Jesus said He “…came to seek and to save what was lost.”  The religious leaders of the day wanted to know why He ate with and ministered to “sinners”.  Where are there plenty of us lost sinners?  Locked up.  Jesus is seeking to save us!

            In here we are sober and in our right minds.  We are “still”.  If we listen, we can hear Him here!



God tells us if we seek Him (look hard for Him), we will find Him!  It does not matter where we are, how old we are, what our problems are – if we seek Him, He will be found by us.

Is. 55:6-7  “Seek the Lord while He may be found:  Call on Him while He is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.  ⁷Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.”

Jer. 29:11-14  “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  ¹²Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you.  ¹³You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  ¹⁴I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and will bring you back from captivity…”

In other words, when we seek God with all of our heart we will find Him – even when we are locked up.



Throughout the entire Bible, time after time, we find God using some of the most unlikely people to accomplish His will to advance His Kingdom.  He has used murderers, adulterers, thieves, lowly shepherds, hated tax collectors; and, a lot of them had, at one time or another, been in jail or some other form of confinement or captivity.  But these men repented, committed their lives to God, cried out to Him from their own miserable circumstances – people like Peter, Paul, Samson, James, John the Baptist, Joseph, and Jeremiah had been in jail just like us.  People like David, Moses, and Jacob, (murderers, adulterers and thieves) were used mightily once they called on God and turned their lives back to Him.  Even Jesus was arrested and put on trial.  God does not care about your record.  Unlike men, God does not discriminate against felons!



            God must have a special love and attention reserved for people like us – prisoners, convicts, inmates, and captives.  In fact, Strong’s Concordance listed over 400 verses where the word “prison”, “prisoner”, “captive” or captivity” is a key word.  For example,


Ps. 102:19-20 – “The Lord looked down…from Heaven…to hear the groaning of the prisoner…”

Ps. 69:33 – “The Lord does not despise His prisoners…”

Ps. 146:7 – “The Lord sets prisoners free.”

Zech. 9:11-12 – “I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit…O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.”

Matt. 25:36 – Jesus said,

“…I was in prison and you came and visited me.”  And in one of His first talks in the synagogue, after Satan tempted Him in the wilderness, Jesus quoted:

Is. 61:2 “…the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…”


Jeremiah, one of the most important and Holy prophets in the Old Testament, was himself falsely accused and was held as a prisoner at the bottom of an old cistern, like a well, dark, damp and deep in the ground.  But God did not leave him there!  In fact, God used one of his enemies, a Babylonian, to rescue him.

Jer. 38:6 – “So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern…they lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sunk down into the mud.”

Later on, in Jer. 38:11-13, God used a Babylonian ruler to appeal to the King on Jeremiah’s behalf and got permission to pull Jeremiah up out of the pit, not long before he would have starved to death.



Just like He did for Jeremiah, God has plenty of experience pulling people up out of their own miry, dark, damp, deep pit.  David, a man after God’s own heart, must have known exactly what it was like.  See if you can see yourself in David’s own “pit experience”:

Ps. 69:1-5, 14-17 – “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.  ²I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold.  I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.  ³I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched, my eyes fail, looking for my God.  ⁴Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head; many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me.  I am forced to restore what I didn’t steal.  ⁵You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you…¹⁴Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters.  ¹⁵Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up or the pit close its mouth over me.  ¹⁶Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me.  ¹⁷Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble”.

Ps. 40:1-4a  “I waited patiently for the Lord;  He turned to me and heard my cry.  ²He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  ³He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.  ⁴Blessed is the man who makes the Lord His trust…”

Not only will God rescue you, and pull you up out of your own pit, but He can use your example, your story, and your testimony to bring others to Him!



In spite of what these scriptures say,  and all we now know about how important prisoners are to God and His work, some inmates say stuff like, “You weren’t reading your bible on the street,” or, “You weren’t going to church or chapel services before they locked you up”; or, “Man, that’s just that old jail-house religion, it will wear off pretty soon.  It ain’t real.  It’s just the same old fake stuff we’ve seen before.”

In some ways they’re right.  I don’t know about you, but if I had been caught up in God’s Word instead of in my addictions, I probably wouldn’t have ended up here.  If I had been going to church every week instead of going out to beg, borrow or steal enough to get my next hit, I probably wouldn’t have ended up here.  I’m sick and tired of coming here again and again.  I need God.  I need to be a better man for my family.  I need Jesus.  I need to change.  I want to change.





 “Jail-House Religion” can either be “the real thing” or “a cheap imitation”.  All of us have seen imitation, “knock-off” products – fake Nike tennis shoes, imitation Air-Jordan’s, fake designer handbags like Gucci, etc. etc.  You can tell the fakes over time, maybe not so much at first, but over time the imitation breaks down, falls apart and gets thrown away.  We don’t use it anymore.  It becomes clear why it was so cheap to begin with.

Unlike when we might have been tricked into buying a fake “knock-off”, in our new relationship to God, we determine, through our own actions, habits and beliefs, whether we get “the real thing” or “a cheap imitation”.

How will we, and others, be able to tell whether our own personal experiences with “Jail-House Religion” result in “the real thing” or just “a cheap imitation”?

Let’s compare some of the characteristics of each one:


THE REAL THING                             

  • We will be serious about it and consistently try to do the right thing.


  • We allocate regular, significant time daily to God’s Word.


  • People notice good, positive changes in the way we talk and act.


  • We have real joy, peace and more love


  • When we leave jail, our Bibles and God go with us.


  • We find a good preacher and a good church home and attend faithfully.
  • We will have fellowship daily with other Christians, and find a Bible study group to challenge us.

A CHEAP IMITATION             _________

  •  We are “on again, off again”, inconsistent, like we are “playing with God”.
  • We get too tired or too busy to try to read even the one page devotional from “Our Daily Bread”.
  • By the way we talk or act, our friends might never know or even guess we are following Christ.
  • We still have anger, depression and hate.
  • We leave our Bibles here on our bunks or on one of the tables when we leave.  We leave God here too.
  • We keep “intending” to go to church but never get around to it.
  • We go right back to our old friends and hang out in our same old places.




Personally, I want “the real thing”.  God got my attention.  I want the rest of my life to be the opposite of my recent past.  I don’t want to keep coming back here.

They say insanity is doing the same old thing over and over and over again and expecting different results.  I might be crazy, but I am not yet insane!  When I “came to myself”, like “The Prodigal Son”, I decided I was going to do something different, so I could be different, so I can finally make a difference in my own life, the lives of my family, and in my community.

When it comes to “Jail-House Religion”, I want “The Real Thing”!  Each of us gets to make our own decision.  What about you?!?

Be encouraged, be strong, be blessed – choose “The Real Thing”!  There is no better time to cry out for God.  He will hear you.  His Word says you are special to Him.  He will help you.  He loves you wherever, and however, and whoever you are now.  You do not have to “change” before you find Jesus.  He will change you if you let Him.


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