Being Blessed And Blessing Others In Prison

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Who am I? I was imprisoned for being a Christian. I am a famous author of some of the best-selling books. I wrote my most famous books in prison. These books have been used greatly by God to encourage and challenge the church.

Who do you think these statements are referring to? Perhaps the apostle Paul comes to mind. He clearly matches the criteria. The famous pastor from Bedford, John Bunyan, is another who, like Paul matches the descriptions above. Though none of his writings were God-breathed Scripture, he was nevertheless used by God to encourage the church through his writing. When we compare Paul’s life and Bunyan’s life, we see some striking similarities. These similarities are helpful to explore because in them we see the godly response of two men in the face of tremendous suffering and persecution.

Both Paul and Bunyan Experience Suffering of Similar Nature.

In 1672, after spending twelve years imprisoned in Bedford, John Bunyan was released. The suffering Bunyan experienced was certainly different than the experience many others had during that same time. John Piper says, “We must be careful not to overstate or understate the terror of the days. We would overstate it if we thought he was tortured in the Bedford jail. In fact, some jailers let him out to see his family or make brief trips. But we would understate it if we thought he was not in frequent dangers of execution.” [1] In Acts 28:16, toward the end of his ministry, we see Paul in a similar situation. It says, “…and when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him.” Later in the chapter, we find that Paul spent two years under house arrest preaching the gospel in Rome. Oddly enough, the narrative ends rather abruptly but the author Luke gives us a glimpse into some of Paul’s last days.

The mistake we can make as we study the lives of both these men is to underestimate the nature of their suffering. The reality is this in both cases, these men lived daily with the uncertainty of death before them. “For example, in the Bloody Assizes of 1685, more than three hundred people were put to death in the western countries of England for doing no more than Bunyan did as a nonconformist pastor.” [2] Furthermore, church history tells us that Paul was beheaded not long after the account we read in Acts 28. Both Paul and Bunyan understood that the stance they took for the gospel could, at any moment, cost them their lives but rather than running from risk, they embraced it because they knew that, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Both Paul and Bunyan Wrote Extensively While in Prison. 

We must be careful here not to misunderstand the comparison being made. The letters Paul wrote while in prison were and are God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Though Bunyan was a gifted writer and used greatly by God, it would be a grave error to place his writing in the same category as Paul’s writing. Simply put, they are dissimilar in nature. However, both men are similar in this way. They refused to see prison as a hindrance to their ministry. While in prison, “Bunyan’s writings were an extension of his pastoral ministry, mainly to his flock in Bedford, who lived in constant danger of harassment and prison.” [3] During his life, he wrote over fifty books most of which were written while in jail. For Bunyan, suffering drove him to write and his writing has had a profound impact on the church. In a similar way, Paul was unwilling to see prison as a hindrance. Philippians 1:12-14 says, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Paul viewed imprisonment not as a hindrance but as a means to further the gospel and his response is to write the Philippians, under inspiration, and encourage them with this truth.

Both Paul and Bunyan Saw Their Suffering as Designed by God.

It is not often that we speak of suffering as something designed by God but this is exactly what we see affirmed in the Bible. In Philippians 1:29 Paul says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” In the same way it has been granted to us to believe, we have been granted to suffer. This is the language Paul uses throughout his writing. He speaks of suffering as a gift given by God. “As with suffering saints before and since, Bunyan found prison to be a painful and fruitful gift.” [4] In his book Seasonable Counsel, or Advice to Sufferers Bunyan said,

It is not what enemies will, nor what they resolved upon, but what God will, and what God appoints; that shall be done…. No enemy can bring suffering upon a man when the will of God is otherwise, so no man can save himself out of their hands when God will deliver him up for his glory…We shall or shall not suffer, even as it pleasith him. [5]

For both Paul and Bunyan, “The key to suffering rightly was to see in all things the hand of a merciful and good and sovereign God and ‘to live upon God that is invisible.’ There is more of God to be had in times of suffering than at any other time.” [6] Both Paul and Bunyan understood this truth and it allowed them to suffer well. Though their lives were vastly different, Paul and Bunyan’s sufferings at times were very similar. And, when it all was said and done no doubt Bunyan would affirm with Paul that, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”


 

[1] Piper, John. The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. United States: Crossway Books, 2001, pp. 48.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp. 62.

[4] Ibid., pp. 41.

[5] Bunyan, Seasonable Counsel: Advice to Sufferers, pp. 722.

[6] Piper, The Hidden Smile of God, pp. 71Be