In 1984 a woman named Velma Barfield was executed in North Carolina—the first woman in the United States to receive the death penalty in over twenty years. She had murdered six different people, was arrested and convicted, and later freely admitted her guilt. In fact, while in prison she even wrote a book called Woman on Death Row, in which she described her conversion as a born-again Christian. In her prison cell she fell to her knees in prayer and begged for mercy, while wondering, “Could Jesus ever forgive me after the terrible deeds I had just done? Could He ever love me again?”
At first it seemed there was no answer—but finally one night Our Lord apparently appeared to her and said, “Yes, I died for your sins on the Cross. Won’t you let Me come into your life and give you a brand new life?” As Velma wrote, “Right then and there I confessed my sins to Him. I asked Him to forgive me. He came into my life that night.” This allowed Velma to face death peacefully, filled with genuine sorrow for her sins and the assurance that she was truly forgiven. After her execution someone found her Bible, filled with notes written in the margins; as she had told a fellow inmate, she was unable to get through the day without reading the Word of God in Scripture (William J. Bausch, Storytelling the Word, pp. 134-135). In effect, by living in a sinful, violent, self-centered way, Velma had spent most of her life casting her nets into the sea and having them turn up empty. One day, however, a Stranger asked her, “Have you caught anything?” By admitting her guilt, Velma honestly answered “Nothing”—and then, by following the Stranger’s instructions, she found forgiveness and spiritual freedom. In the same way, if our nets are empty because we’ve been living by the values of this world, Jesus invites us to cast our nets again by living for Him—and if we do, miracles of grace will be ours.
After the Resurrection Jesus had sent word to the apostles that He would see them again in Galilee. While waiting for Him there, Peter and some of the others decided to spend their time fishing. They were professional fishermen, but all night long, as they cast their nets, they came up with nothing. Only when Jesus appeared to them along the shore and instructed them to try one more time were they successful, hauling in an amazing catch of fish. God’s grace allows us to do wonderful things beyond our own abilities. As the Book of Revelation says, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.” Jesus truly earned and deserves all these things—but He is also very generous in sharing them. Most of the apostles had been so afraid that they abandoned Jesus on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday they were hiding behind locked doors—but a short time later, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (5:27-32, 40-41), Peter and the others were able to speak boldly to the religious authorities, and actually rejoiced to suffer in the Name of Jesus. Divine grace made it possible for the apostles finally to cast their nets in the right direction, thereby changing everything.
Before his conversion in the year 387, the future Saint Augustine lived a sinful life, even fathering a child out of marriage. His conversion took place in the city of Milan in Italy; when he returned to his native North Africa, he spotted the mother of his son on the street. In order to avoid temptation, he turned away and started to walk in the other direction. She called after him, “Augustine, Augustine, it is I.” Without stopping he called back to her, “Yes, but it is not I”—in other words, he had become a new creation and, spiritually, a different person. (David F. Burgess, Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, p. 51). Augustine’s previously empty and unsatisfying life had been filled by Christ, and he was determined to guard and preserve the grace he had been given.
Many people today are coming up empty in life because they’re casting their nets in the wrong direction, trying to fill their deepest spiritual needs with passing worldly values and pleasures. This is impossible in the long run—simply because we are “hardwired” or created with a deep and abiding need for God; there is an emptiness in our souls that only the Lord can fill. As Saint Augustine noted from his own experience, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. If only many more people understood this truth, and if only Christians did a better job bearing witness to it, our world would be a much better and happier place. Unfortunately, many of our fellow citizens cast their nets in life looking for worldly success and for money and material things—but even if they succeed in finding them, their hearts are ultimately restless and unhappy. Other persons cast their nets searching for fame and popularity—but these things do not bring them lasting peace and joy. Still others cast their nets in the seas of self-indulgence and pleasure—but their frantic efforts to enjoy themselves don’t come close to meeting their deepest needs. Only Jesus can do that—but we have to follow the example of Peter and the other professional fishermen who humbly obeyed the Lord by casting their nets in the place He indicated.
When our best efforts are coming up empty, we must pray for the Lord’s guidance and then do our best to obey Him; when we are blessed by Him, we must use and share what He has given us, as Peter did when he brought over some of the fish he had just caught and allowed Jesus to prepare a meal with them. Most importantly, when the Lord asks us “Do you love Me?,” we must answer “yes” by our willingness to serve others in His Name. The world does not understand or value this self-giving way of life, but as Christians, it should become very natural and fulfilling for us—for our goal is not supposed to be a long and comfortable life on earth, but eternal life in Heaven.
By the time of her execution by lethal injection, convicted murderess Velma Barfield had become a different person—just as Saint Augustine had become a different person as a result of his conversion. They no longer cast their nets into an empty sea, but instead brought forth treasures of mercy and grace and peace—all because they finally surrendered themselves and placed their lives in God’s hands. The same dynamic should be at work in our lives. Jesus is aware of our ongoing needs and of our deepest hunger— and the more we place our trust in Him, the more we’ll find the inner freedom and joy for which we long.