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Prisoners of Their Own Hearts in a Me-Focused Culture

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Patrick Henry shouted, "Give me liberty, or give me death."

The next generation shouted, "Give me liberty."

The present generation shouts, "Give me."

We are all born, without exception, selfish in the core of our beings. This self-focus is entrenched in our sinful nature, and though there are compassionate people in society, the general human tendency is not to be focused on the well-being of other people.

Compassion is the focus of God. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16, NIV). In the same way, as God's children, we are to be more concerned about other people than ourselves. We are to love and serve others—God's entire ministry to us is about others. And to "love and serve others" doesn't mean just our friends! Jesus was clear when He said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

I have always believed that it is impossible to claim, "I am in Christ, and Christ is in me," and not be lovingly and compassionately invested in the physical, spiritual and emotional health and well-being of other people—no matter who they are.

For example, in 1997, about three years after coming to Times Square Church in New York City, I was invited to speak at Sullivan prison in Fallsburg, New York. I was ushered into a section of the prison with about 60 "lifers." These 60 men, whose greatest ambition was to kill a cop—in this case, an ex-cop—had nothing left to lose. What would another life sentence matter to them? They were already going to die behind bars.

David Berkowitz led the worship that night. You might remember him as the infamous Son of Sam and the string of six murders he committed between July 29, 1976, and July 31, 1977, in New York City. David is serving six life sentences and has asked to never be paroled because of the responsibility he now feels for the murders he committed and injuries he caused. He is now a wonderful Christian man, totally in love with his Lord. He has a ministry to prisoners who come in so beaten up that they can't brush their own teeth. He brushes their teeth for them and helps them wash themselves as he tells them how much God loves them. I know the Holy Spirit was and is with David—further evidence that the Lord can save and completely transform anybody and anything.

With the auditorium doors locked behind us, I was there with two unarmed guards, one trumpet player from Times Square Church named Angelo, and the 60 aforementioned lifers. As soon as I got up to speak, I told them that I was an ex-cop. Angelo, who was seated behind me, muttered, "Uh-oh." Angelo, who was a former inmate himself, scolded me later about how dangerous it was for me to confess that I used to be a cop, especially to lifers. No sooner had I mentioned that I was a former cop than one of the prisoners from the back of the auditorium stood up, walked down the aisle, sat down directly in front of me, folded his arms and glared at me.

"I'm not here because I've got nothing better to do," I told them. "I'm not here because I'm a do-gooder. I'm here because God loves you. I'm here because you can be free, even if you never leave these walls. Your prison is not built by men; your prison is a matter of the heart, and you are captive because you don't know the love God has for you. You don't know the freedom Christ died to give you."

When I finished speaking, I made an invitation. About eight men came forward. I hugged each one of them, one by one. It was a beautiful sight to see—a cop hugging men with life sentences. Every one of them was weeping and shaking like a baby. What a privilege it was to tell them that God loved them.

In Luke 4:18–19 Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah 61:1, saying, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (NIV).

Jesus stood in the synagogue, opened the Scripture and essentially said, "The Spirit of God is upon Me for you, and you, and you, and you..." There was no other reason the Spirit was upon Him except to alleviate human suffering and for the redemption of fallen humanity. Jesus' desire was to bring a fallen people into the knowledge of God and, ultimately, back to living with God for all eternity.

Again, I've always believed it is impossible to say that "Christ is mine, and I am Christ's" yet remain self-absorbed. The apostle Paul, writing in 2 Timothy, warned that perilous times will come. "Men will be lovers of self," he wrote (2 Tim. 3:2, NASB). That self-love would be the underpinning of everything else he was about to write. Loving ourselves and giving ourselves preeminence in life automatically means that our relationships with others are a form of religion that lacks the power of God. Paul ultimately says to turn away from self-serving religion. Any faith based on the life of Jesus Christ within us must be lived for the benefit and the sake of other people.

We can know in large measure the heart of God for people. I remember the story in Mark 8 where Jesus led the blind man away from the village of Bethsaida in order to restore his sight, which I think represents leading people away from a culture that confines and even tries to hijack the love of God and give credit to humankind for the things that God does. It's all about me, myself and I—with no room left for God.

"When he had spit on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, 'Do you see anything?' [The man] looked up and said, 'I see people; they look like trees walking around.' Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, 'Don't even go into the village'" (Mark 8:23–26, NIV).

The man's sight was only partially restored at first. It wasn't until God touched him the second time that he saw clearly. That's how it often works in our walks with God. He continues to touch our eyes and our hearts as often as needed until we see clearly and love willingly, sincerely and genuinely.

Carter Conlon is the senior pastor of Times Square Church in Manhattan, an interdenominational church with over 10,000 people in attendance, representing over 100 different nationalities and 700 home satellite fellowships worldwide. He is the author of the new book, "It's Time to Pray," to be released Nov. 6.

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