In yesterday’s Daily Article, I made the point that mortality is a fact for us all. Reflecting on stories in the day’s news, I stated, “Evil people like the Son of Sam killer can develop heart disease. Heroes like John McCain can develop brain cancer. The death rate is still 100 percent.”
John McCain is still a hero and he still has brain cancer. But a kind reader sent me an extraordinary note about the Son of Sam killer that I asked his permission to share with you today.
An amazing story of redemption
Dr. Steve Foster is pastor of Community Bible Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In December 2009, he visited the “Son of Sam,” David Berkowitz, in prison.
Thirty years earlier, Berkowitz terrorized New York City, killing six people and wounding seven others. Police mounted the largest manhunt in New York City history, arresting him on August 10, 1977. Berkowitz claimed to have been obeying the orders of a demon manifested in the form of a dog belonging to his neighbor “Sam.” He pled guilty to second-degree murder and has been serving six consecutive life sentences.
I remembered his story when reading that Berkowitz has now been hospitalized for a heart problem. What I didn’t know was the rest of the story.
Dr. Foster tells it well: While in prison, Berkowitz came to faith in Christ. Such “conversions” are often a play for media attention or sympathy from parole boards, but his has clearly been sincere. For decades, he has been ministering to other prisoners in Jesus’ name. He has especially focused on those who are suicidal and emotionally disturbed.
In his blog post, Dr. Foster notes: “It was hard for me to imagine this man as the former Son of Sam. He was humble, gentle, self-effacing.” Berkowitz has developed a writing ministry with Christian ministers around the world; his testimony has been used by Prison Fellowship in many of their prison outreaches.
Berkowitz views his imprisonment as just punishment for his crimes and has regularly refused even to attend his parole hearings. He has also issued a public apology, asking for forgiveness from those he has hurt.
Dr. Foster says that he left his meeting with David Berkowitz with Paul’s testimony in his mind:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 1:12–14).
I am delighted to retract my description of David Berkowitz as “evil.” He is not who he was. His transformation shows that the gospel that changed Paul’s life still changes lives today.
Partner with the God who redeems
How can you and I experience and share this transforming power with our culture? Several personal journal notes I have made in recent days help answer our question.
One: Delight God by depending on him.
I recently read in Psalm 147, “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (vv. 10–11). To “fear” and “hope in” God is to revere and trust him.
God loves you no matter what you do, but he delights in you to the degree that you depend on him.
Two: Go where he sends and say what he says.
Jonah 3 tells the story of the prophet’s ministry in Nineveh. This city and its people were bitter enemies of the Jewish nation. Yet, when Jonah warned them of divine judgment, “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (v. 5).
Clearly, the Holy Spirit had been at work in Nineveh before Jonah arrived. I noted in my journal: when we follow God, he leads us where he has already prepared the way for us.
We are like farmers planting seeds in soil—we can go where the ground has already been plowed, or we can try to plow it ourselves. However, only the Holy Spirit can convict of sin and change lives. If he does not convict people, we cannot convince them. Obedience to God is fruitful; disobedience is fruitless.
Three: Submission to God brings peace.
Yesterday’s reading in Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest includes this observation: “Whenever you obey God, His seal is always that of peace, the witness of an unfathomable peace, which is not natural, but the peace of Jesus. Whenever peace does not come, tarry till it does or find out the reason why it does not.”
David Berkowitz has clearly chosen to depend upon the Lord. His ministry from prison is now being used to touch lives around the world. And the peace Dr. Foster witnessed in his countenance is evidence that the Prince of Peace rules his heart.
After his meeting with Berkowitz, Dr. Foster responded in his blog post: “Grace. Abundant grace. Amazing grace. Poured out from God upon those who need it. And all of us need it . . . whether we recognize it or not.”
Do you recognize your need of grace today?