How do you handle a life changing event? We’ve all experienced them in some form or another—events that change the trajectory of our lives. In fact, if you’re alive, you’ve probably got another one coming. Life changing events (LCEs) can either make us or break us.
Life changing events can be either positive or negative. Positive LCEs include getting married, having children, being promoted at work, and buying a home. We celebrate positive events. Negative LCEs, on the other hand, are harder to deal with. These can include losing a loved one, getting divorced, losing a job, or being addicted to drugs or alcohol. Negative LCEs come in two categories—those that are beyond our control and those for which we bear some or all of the responsibility.
I can identify two specific negative LCEs that have had an especially profound impact on who I am. I am responsible for the first one—my actions resulted in my going to prison for 12 years. The second one, the death of my parents during that time, would have happened whether I was incarcerated or not. Their death has left a hole in my life that only my faith can fill. But prison? That was all my own doing.
Looking in the proverbial mirror at our own faults and shortcomings isn’t easy. In fact, most of us find it far easier to blame others for what we see there than to take responsibility for what we know we did. If we can convince ourselves (and others) that whatever happened wasn’t our fault, then we can play the victim. When blaming no longer works, then we move on to justifying. “Everybody’s doing it,” we protest. “No one’s going to find out, and it’s not like I’m hurting anyone, anyway.” But this does no one any good. Worse, we are lying to ourselves.
While we shift blame and justify our actions, inside, we are building negativity. It took many years before I looked at myself truthfully and admitted to my own culpability for the circumstances of my life. My pride, my ego, my misguided priorities—these led me to think I was above the law. My actions betrayed my upbringing and the values I thought were my own. As a result, I served 12 years in prison.
When I did finally look at my life honestly, the reality was overwhelming. I was separated from my family, I had lost the respect of the people I cared about, and I was still staring at a long prison sentence. Suddenly, the anger I had been projecting on others by blaming and justifying my actions, turned inward.
I became angry with myself for the things I had done. The weight of guilt for the hurt I had caused threatened to crush me. I was ashamed of how I had lived my life. And I was consumed.
All I could think of were the mistakes I had made and the consequences of those actions. I could no longer see any of the good things I had ever done. I had been a good businessman, a good son, father, friend. But all of that was gone. All that was left in my mind were those few monumentally bad choices.
I had to learn that the only way to get past the negativity those feelings caused was to forgive myself for what I had done. It was impossible to change the past, but I could not live with the self-hatred that was threatening to undo me.
But did I deserve forgiveness?
As I examined myself, I realized I had turned my back on my faith. I had allowed my outward success to replace my relationship with Jesus. It wasn’t until I was locked in segregation that I rediscovered my faith.
The essence of being a Christian is in realizing that Jesus was crucified to provide forgiveness for the sins of all believers. So if God had already forgiven my sins, why could I not forgive myself?
A passage that sustained me through this time was Matthew 9:13. Jesus said, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices. For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” I reflect on this passage every day. Jesus’s forgiveness is what matters most in my life. It allows me to fulfill the purpose He has in store for me.
My life changed when I took responsibility for my actions, confessed my sin and my need for Christ, and gave Him control of my life. I was still in prison, but now I had a purpose. I could teach others what I had learned and help them better prepare to return to society with a positive mindset, a spiritual foundation, and a functional plan to gain employment and housing and restore family relationships.
I developed a program called Values- Aligned Goal Setting©, that teaches those who have experienced a life changing event to successfully overcome the challenges and barriers that lie ahead.
During my last five years in prison, I was privileged to present that program to hundreds of my fellow inmates. In the two years that I have been back in free society, God continues to give me the opportunity to help others through the programs I conduct and by sharing my testimony.
I still mourn the loss of my parents. I still wish I had behaved differently in 1996 when I committed my crime. And I struggle with knowing that there are some who have not forgiven me for what I did.
But I can’t change any of that.
My bad choices put me in a dreadful place, but God used them to bring me back to Him. I’m a fallible human being, yet I do not have to allow my mistakes to define who and what I am.
I accept responsibility for what I did, and I am deeply sorry for those I hurt. But my faith is rooted in forgiveness, and that allows me to move forward and do more with my life.
We all live with regret, but with faith and self-forgiveness, we can forge ahead with purpose, determination, and a commitment to be better versions of ourselves.