One of the biggest challenges of the Christian life is the struggle to believe. If we really believed that God answers prayer, then we'd pray more. If we really believed that God wants what's best for us, then we'd be more obedient. And if we really believed that God's Word changes us, then we'd be more faithful in reading it. One of the ways that God seems to grow our faith is through amazing demonstrations of His power. By showing us that cataclysmic change is possible, He encourages us to keep pursuing incremental change in our lives. This week God encouraged me through the incredible transformation of a Japanese murderer, named Tokichi Ishii.

While the full account is recorded in the book, A Gentleman in Prison, I learned of Ishii's story through an article by John Piper. Ishii was a notorious criminal. Having been sent to prison more than twenty times, he was finally sentenced to be hanged for murder in 1918. Even in prison, he was incurable, attacking guards and refusing to admit his guilt. Before being sentenced to death however, he was sent a New Testament by two missionaries who had faith in a God for whom all things are possible. After a visit, Ishii began to read the gospels, particularly the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. But it was Jesus’ grace-filled words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) that touched the hardened criminal. He would later write:

I stopped: I was stabbed to the heart, as if by a five-inch nail. What did the verse reveal to me? Shall I call it the love of the heart of Christ? Shall I call it His compassion? I do not know what to call it. I only know that with an unspeakably grateful heart I believed.

The street couldn’t cure him. Prison couldn’t reform him. Guards couldn’t get through to him. But the Bible changed him. And changed him spectacularly!

He continued to read the Scriptures voraciously. Once when reflecting on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:10, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything,” he wrote the following:

People will say that I must have a very sorrowful heart because I am daily awaiting the execution of the death sentence. This is not the case. I feel neither sorrow nor distress nor any pain. Locked up in a prison cell six feet by nine in size I am infinitely happier than I was in the days of my sinning when I did not know God. Day and night ... I am talking with Jesus Christ.

Ishii’s testimony and the change that he experienced in the face of death encourages me in a number of ways:

  1. God’s Word is powerful. God really changes people through His Word. God uses the Bible to lead children to faith. God uses the Scriptures to lead adults to faith and maturity. God uses the Bible to break patterns of sin and blindness. God’s Word is powerful and active and effective as a living force for good in our lives if we’d only give ourselves to reading and reflecting on it.
  2. The Bible is understandable. I can’t count the number of people who have told me that they’ve given up on trying to read the Bible because it’s too difficult. Ishii didn’t have access to great Bible teachers or reference works (e.g. ESV Study Bible, Gospel Transformation Bible) that now you can download on your phone (e.g. OliveTree). The Japanese Bible is far more difficult to understand than our English Bibles. But Ishii reminds me that desperation and perspiration are the only requirements for growing in a meaningful relationship with God through the Bible.
  3. Profound change is possible. So often we tend to excuse ourselves and give up on others. But if God is able to soften the heart of a man like Ishii, there’s hope for all of us. He reminds me to dream again of the life that the Scriptures declare possible through faith and dependence on Christ.

Are you stuck in your relationship with God? Have you allowed yourself to believe that meaningful Bible study is for other people? Have you stopped growing and changing and repenting? God has so much for all of us if we’d only believe in Him and the treasures that He has for those who seek Him.

In awe of Him,