March 6, 2016
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #425: Compare If You Dare
A normal part of life is the act of comparing. We get a car of a certain make and model, and we now look at every other vehicle like ours to see if theirs has the same optional grille and window tint as ours. We compare front yards, test scores, and gray-hairs-to-age ratios. Our nature is to see what we have, and instead of being content, we must check to see how we stack against someone else before we can accept what we possess.
I came to prison determined not to compare my sentence with anyone else’s. My attorney prepared me for this when he told me how bad off I was since I’d spoken so frankly and honestly with detectives before friends of mine retained his services. Thus, I knew not to be shocked if I heard of someone else doing less time than me. Instead, I’d accepted the fifteen-year sentence not as a predetermined number set by the law for punishing my actions (by now I know that determinate sentences are easily manipulated by the court system) but as a loving gift from my merciful Heavenly Father.
Many times over the past eight years I have had staff members pull me aside and tell me that they have seen a lot of cases and been around corrections for many years, and that in their opinion, I am doing an excessive amount of time for my charges. This has happened so many times that I have developed a standard response to it. I simply ask the officer if he or she would have the same opinion if I’d committed my crimes against his or her child. Then, without waiting for the obvious answer, I say, “Well, if it happened to someone in MY family, I’d have to come to terms with the fact that the perpetrator had received only fifteen years and wasn’t put away for life.” To me, that is the only sane comparison, and to fall into the trap of even letting someone else feel sorry for me is not healthy and it doesn’t build godly character in me. But far worse, to accept someone else’s well-intentioned sympathetic point of view as somehow valid requires that I doubt God’s sovereignty in my life. Could He have possibly intended for me to do less time than what the courts gave me? I could ask—all the while indicating that the courts have more power over my life than Almighty God.
I know that II Corinthians 10:12 talks about how unwise it is when we compare ourselves with others for any reason, but it feels so great to do so, especially if I either need the ego boost to feel superior or to get a little justification for feeling sorry for myself. I can’t say that I am perfect on this point, but I truly have not foolishly compared my crime and sentence with others and then gone away saying the all-too-familiar prison phrase: “Wow, must be nice!” Sound familiar? Yeah, it isn’t just used in prison. Ungrateful, envious people are everywhere.
The biggest test to my anti-comparison resolve came this very weekend. A friend I’ve known for twenty years flew out to visit me. Through letters over the past few years I’ve followed his particular life saga, which included wandering into a time of sinful behavior similar to mine. I didn’t know details, nor did I need to know, but I’d spoken to him by phone not long ago and was incredibly impressed and encouraged by his boldness and humility. After his incarceration, he’d been open with the church he had started attending, and they made it clear he wasn’t welcome there. Church after church did the same thing, claiming he shouldn’t go to their church and “offend the weaker brothers” at their church. What?!? To claim that the guy fresh out of jail without a support network or friends nearby, no church family, or job is supposedly the “strong” one, while the members of those congregations, who are fed by the Word each week and in close fellowship with other believers, are the “weak” ones is a deliberate twisting of Scripture to me. This is a sin, of course, but there is no way that a convicted sex offender can be the one pointing out sin. Everyone else but him can, so he just moved on.
Eventually, a church family welcomed him in, his past failures and all. Now he’s married to a beautiful young lady from that church, a testimony of forgiveness and God’s restoration.
So, why the temptation for me to compare? Well, with charges nearly identical to mine, my friend served all of ten DAYS in jail and will need to register as a sex offender for just ten years, while I got … who cares what I got! That story is HIS story and not mine. (He spoke to a lawyer first, then the cops. I did the opposite. Big difference.)
Seeing him there in the visiting room with his sweet wife wasn’t difficult for me at all … I’m happy for him, for his family, for the taxpayers in his community who weren’t saddled with the cost of a long-term incarceration like mine (around $750,000). And I am inspired to be open and honest with my support community as he has been. I believe firmly in the principle of honesty and transparency. God blesses this.
So, why compare? Why wish for what someone else has? My family is healthy while others struggle, and all my needs are met while others go hungry without a place to live. If I am complaining, I might as well compare with those who have less and learn to be grateful for a gracious God who knows just what I need.