Book advice for a friend (long)

Discussion in 'General discussions' started by Paul1976, Jan 5, 2019.

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  1. Paul1976

    Paul1976 Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi All,

    My basic question is whether I can get some suggestions for books to help a friend get his relationship with God back on track. I suspect he needs solid books on suffering, but I'm open to other suggestions. There are a LOT of specifics I'll go through below that affect which books might be most helpful to him.

    I have a friend who has been serving an extended sentence for a serious crime of which he is guilty. I was close friends with him between about twelve through fifteen years ago and am very grateful for his friendship and significant help when I knew him. He and his family were exemplary members of my church, we memorized scripture and prayed together, and I spent a great deal of time with him. I was stunned to learn he did what he did.

    I've felt a burden to correspond with him and do what I can to support him. Virtually all of his Christian friends abandoned him. He is imprisoned more than 1000 miles away, and quite far from even small airports, so visits aren't an option. But, I have written him monthly for the past two years.

    He is struggling with severe spiritual depression. He is realizing that he will likely spend the rest of his life, or, at best, the vast majority of his remaining life is a rather small, depressing, isolated prison. His family has a 25 year no-contact order in place, so he’s essentially lost everything. Yes, he admits guilt for the crime he is serving time for, although he believes the punishment was overly harsh in his case. (By the standards of Levitical law, he got off easy.) He is now about two years into his sentence.

    His depression really kicked in about 9 months ago. He has basically tried to cut ties with all Christian friends and is no longer attending prison chapel services. I don’t know as much as I’d like, but the reason he briefly gave is that he has such serious doubts and questions he doesn’t want to hurt the faith of other believers. My instinct is he probably believes this, but it may be an excuse in his mind.

    His doubts are about God’s goodness. He has decided all the Bible’s promises of blessing must ONLY apply to the next life, and not to this one. He (perhaps realistically) sees no hope for reconciliation with his family or for release. He seems to be sincerely worried that bringing his questions to other Christians will cause them to stumble in their faith. One thing he said is “What good is it to do anything spiritually if I’m already saved and if it will make no difference in the next fifty years of my life?”

    It’s easy for me, with a great job, wonderful family, and decent-sized book collection to relax in a comfortable chair with a nice red wine and write to him about how God’s goodness includes this life as well, and that knowing God more richly, loving Christ more dearly, and becoming more Christ-like in spite of difficult external circumstances is goodness and mercy from God. I would like to think I could still believe that were our circumstances reversed, but I’ve never faced anything like what my friend is facing.

    A bit more information. Is my friend a Christian? I honestly don’t know. He believes himself to be a Christian. He takes his faith quite seriously – he’s read through the bible many times since his incarceration. His sin isn’t (quite) as bad as David’s, and genuine Christians aren’t immune from falling into grievous sin. But it is hardly a good sign either. His response to his situation has been more consistent with someone who is intellectually Christian in what he believes to be true, but lacks the New Birth and an authentic relationship with Christ. Of course, genuine Christians aren’t immune from depression and extended periods of doubt.

    He comes from a pretty typical Baptist tradition that considers itself moderately Calvinistic, which means quite Arminian except for eternal security. I came from a very similar overall background, and now see it as a theology designed to convince unbelievers they are saved since they said a prayer, walked an aisle, intellectually accept a set of beliefs, and no longer need the gospel (since that got them in the door) but get to move on to bigger and better things.

    He’s extremely Bible literate although he understands relatively little of reformed theology. There are certainly some major theological issues he would benefit from understanding better. However, I do not believe that is the right place to start.

    My instinct is to get him a solid book or two on suffering. I just bought him Martin Lloyd-Jones book “Spiritual Depression” for Christmas (I knew much less of his specific struggles when I ordered it in Nov.). I have not yet read it myself, but will when I get a chance. I don’t want to just spout theology at him. I could easily correct him from scripture, and have some with an attempt to be gentle and do more listening. At the end of the day, he needs to see Christ as a treasure that, were he to see, he would gladly exchange all he had to obtain. Theology won’t do that for him unless he sees what the theology is describing.

    I also don’t want to push reformed theology specifically at this point. (While, technically, I do want to, but I don’t think it would be wise.) He’d probably read a reformed author, but I don’t think he would read or at least take seriously a book specifically on reformed theology. The tradition he comes from is highly suspicious of it. (Amillennialism is about as liberal as theology can get, unless one starts talking about sprinkling babies.)

    Anyway, I do apologize for making this post so long. However, I really want to help my friend, and his situation seems precarious. I still can’t see how to shorten it without removing information you would need to understand it. I have seen so much wisdom and insight here that hopefully you can help me with identifying better books than I could on my own. Other advice and (more importantly) prayer would also be appreciated.
  2. greenbaggins

    greenbaggins Administrator Staff Member

    The book on depression by Ed Welch is the best thing I've ever read on depression. He really gets into the skin of a person struggling with it. That is vitally important, because feeling like anyone hears or understands is a critically important first step. He describes the situation so well, and shows the pathway to hope in Jesus. Highly recommended. You will probably have to limit yourself to paperbacks. They don't usually allow hardbacks in prisons.
  3. Paul1976

    Paul1976 Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks! I am aware of the paperback restriction. I left it off the post intentionally in the hopes of allowing suggestions that may be useful in other contexts.
  4. PaulCLawton

    PaulCLawton Puritan Board Freshman

    I would tend to say that typically, giving a book on depression or suffering to someone who is going through such a season - while logical - may not actually be particularly helpful. Reading a book on depression or suffering can be good for someone prone to such things during a "lighter" or more prosperous time for them, i.e. preparing your ship for the storm during calm weather, but not always during the storm itself.

    This is a very simple idea, but I would suggest sending your friend a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism, "The Church's Book of Comfort". It may also do very well to send him (if possible) some recordings of sermons on the HC, many of which are available online of course.

    It may also be worth (if you haven't already) checking to see if there is a Reformed church in the area of the prison which is engaged in prison ministry, it might be possible to drop them a line and ask them to look in on your friend.

    May God bless your efforts.
  5. Paul1976

    Paul1976 Puritan Board Freshman


    I appreciate the response. Hopefully I can get a few more voices about the wisdom of sending anything further on suffering or spiritual depression. I certainly haven't faced anything of the magnitude of what my friend is facing, so I could use solid advice from those with more experience here.

    I'm a bit leary of an old confession since I don't want to overtly push reformed theology at the moment. Yes, it would help if he came to examine and appreciate it, but his tradition has little regard for catechisms/confessions. Also, the prison chapel service is run by an individual who happens to be a very conservative version of reformed. The problem is it seems This has actually caused problems as the individual has really pushed specifics my friend finds distasteful (infant baptism specifically) quite harshly.

    While reformed theology is so helpful to really appreciate the Bible, it probably isn't the most important thing my friend needs. He needs to see Jesus as a treasure infinitely more valuable than anything else he possesses. He needs to know that God is sovereign and his sin hasn't foiled God's plans for him. He needs to know that genuine believers do not drop out of their walk or forsake the church indefinitely (although they may end up doing so for a season). While reformed theology would help him see that more clearly and easily, I'm concerned going right to it could simply turn him off to anything I say/send or even sever my relationship with him.

    I think I'm looking for "subtly reformed" material like what John Piper writes. His books are undergirded by reformed theology, but it is packaged in such a way that an average churchgoer who doesn't understand the doctrines of grace can read and digest. It will eventually push many to investigate reformed theology (as it did me), but it can introduce reformed thinking without turning him off. (Yes, I know Piper is not entirely reformed theologically, but he's quite solid on good portions of it.)

    Regarding sermon series, he's never responded to whether there is a way for me to get audio sermons to him. That would certainly make things easier as I know a lot of worthwhile sermon series that would help him greatly.
  6. JimmyH

    JimmyH Puritan Board Junior

    I highly recommend Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians. His explanation of grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone, truly drove home the blessing of justification as a once and for always gift of God to my psyche. I struggled miserably with trying to work my way to salvation for decades before I finally understood that fact.

    I googled my friend Reverend Marcus Riggins but unfortunately couldn't come up with much. He was a heroin addict in Patterson, NJ who murdered a dealer to steal a quantity of heroin and cocaine from the man. He was apprehended and sent to prison for life.

    I met him in the state prison in Rahway NJ where, in the 1980s, I was bringing a meeting into the prison on recovery from substance abuse/addiction on behalf of a 12 step group. By then Marcus had become an ordained minister and was a changed man.

    He went on to get a parole and became the chaplain of the Passaic County Jail, and met President Reagan sometime in the late '80s, or early '90s. There used to be info on that through google, but I couldn't find it at this time.

    The point is, your friend is paying the consequences for his sin, but he is justified through Christ. He can let the Holy Spirit work within him and turn his experience into a ministry for others. Presenting that train of thought to him might plant a seed that may bear fruit, turn him from introspection/depression to having a new purpose in his remaining life in this world of time.

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  7. Cedarbay

    Cedarbay Puritan Board Freshman

    Paul, this sure touched me and I promise to pray for you and your friend. I pray he meets someone like Jimmy H's friend or another ex-con who understands the pain of prison and the peace only the Savior can bring.

    I agree that MLJ and Welch are top notch.

    What about a care package with useful items, if allowed? Could lift the spirit a bit.
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2019
  8. Paul1976

    Paul1976 Puritan Board Freshman

    JimmyH - I really like the suggestion of Luther's Galatians commentary. I have not (yet) read it, but perhaps it needs moved up my reading list. I'll certainly take a look. Regarding stories like the individual you mentioned, I think he would benefit from somewhat different stories at the moment. His thinking seems to be going like this:

    I sinned badly > God is punishing me > There is no realistic hope of the punishment being lifted > I have no future hope in this life > What's the point?

    [Of course, we can see some theological flaws in that line. God does not punish his children, but disciplines them. God could choose to remove the circumstances at any time. And (most importantly), our relationship with Christ so greatly surpasses any other circumstances that there grounds for hope for joy, and meaning in any circumstance.]

    Memoirs of an individual who remained incarcerated but lead a meaningful life for the Lord while in prison could help.

    CedarBay - Thank you very much for your prayers and concern. Very good idea on the care package. I do not believe I can send items directly. I sent him money earlier which can make his situation much easier. He now seems to finally be able to access a modest source of long-term income that should cover everything he needs and then some.
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