After yet another arrest, I had taken a bottle of pills and closed my eyes for what I hoped would be the last time. I was so tired of making bad choices that shattered relationships and led me to jail. I lived in constant regret and hopelessness.

To my dismay, my plan didn’t work. I opened my eyes to find myself in a behavioral center, with my pastor standing over me. I closed my eyes and cried. Why was he here? Couldn’t he see I was a lost cause? I had made such a mess of my life and hurt so many people in the process. Why would God spare me? Surely my actions had already doomed me for hell.

But in my pastor’s eyes, I saw no judgment, only love. Could God also love me despite my mistakes? I had done so many terrible things, even though I knew God wanted better for me.

As a kid, I’d learned about God, the Crea­tor of the heavens and the earth, and His Son, Jesus Christ, who had died on the cross for my sin. My family lineage is filled with pastors, teachers, and evangelists. If it has to do with God and the church, someone in my family has been a part of it, and I’ve been in the middle of it.

Surrounded by Christian influences, I had absorbed many Scriptures and Bible stories. I could sing countless gospel songs from memory. It was all I was allowed to listen to growing up.

But my Christian background didn’t keep me from making a multitude of mistakes that brought great consequences. At 19, I got pregnant by a married man and gave birth to my son. At 22, I got drunk to prove to my friends I could do other things than just go to church. Heavily under the influence, I was raped and became pregnant again. I gave birth to my daughter, whom I did not raise. Those experiences damaged my already low self-esteem.

Most of my mistakes have stemmed from my insecurities. I’ve felt unloved, unworthy, deceived, and rejected—despite the great love many family members, particularly my grandparents, showed me. It’s a lie Satan sells many of us.

In order to be noticed, I acted out. I promoted myself in order to look good, and I often lied. My self-esteem existed in proportion to the compliments I received from people.

Deception ruled my life and reared its ugly head in many forms—manipulation, greed, hypocrisy, lies, and thievery. I quickly learned that self-promotion and deception is an exhausting job, and it doesn’t pay well either.

My first arrest came at 21. I was poorly managing my finances, but pride kept me from asking for help. I was arrested several more times for bad checks and other financial crimes. The last one left me feeling hopeless, and pills seemed the answer.

I was transferred from the behavioral center to the local jail, and I was numb. I could see nothing to live for and wanted nothing to do with God. I refused to be a part of anything pertaining to Christianity. Heavy mental-health medications and the resulting inactivity in jail added pounds to my already overweight body.

I hated myself and the way I looked. I hated who I had become. I didn’t like hurting people. It wasn’t who I was. People who really knew me considered me respectful, kind, and caring. So why did I continually commit crimes?

One day, a minister came to the jail to teach a Bible study in my pod. I heard her from my cell and was intrigued by her knowledge of the Bible. It took a month, but I finally gave in to the tug in my heart and joined her study. There, my heart softened, and I recommitted my life to Christ.

My hearing came soon after. My pastor had often said, “Melisha, God doesn’t work in deceit. Tell the truth and leave the rest to Him.” I took his advice and received a 12-year sentence in federal prison.

Entering the prison compound, all I could do was cry. I couldn’t believe my behavior had taken me all the way to the Feds. I had left behind my son, daughter, family, and the love of my life. I knew I had to pull myself together, so I immersed myself in Christian activities. I also led a Bible study to help other women grow in their faith.

These things were all great, but I soon learned that my actions were nothing more than activities to fill my time and make me feel good. Regretfully, that recommitment to God I had made in jail had only gone surface deep.

I studied the Bible, but only to teach others, not to absorb God’s truth so it could change me (Romans 12:2). I prayed for people, but not to worship or honor God, only to ask Him to meet our needs. I found my worth in the compliments I received for being a good Bible teacher. Foolishly, I accepted God’s praise and glory for myself.

The Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). My pride landed me in the prison’s special housing unit (SHU), where I was held in solitary confinement for violating a prison rule.

My embarrassment at being removed from my place of honor was a wake-up call for me. So many women had looked to me as a godly example! Yet there, in that place of isolation and brokenness, I finally came to know God, not just know about Him. For the first time, I became still before Him and listened. I began to study His Word for myself, and that ignited a passion and hunger that still burns strong.

In the SHU, God began to reveal my hidden hurts, insecurities, and sin. I allowed His Word to minister healing to my brokenness. God showed me that, while I had been remorseful over my actions, I’d had no true repentance. I was still deliberately sinning. I humbled myself before God, repented, and He lifted me up (James 4:10).

He opened doors for me to share my newfound relationship with Him and minister His love and grace to other inmates. Most of these women felt unloved, rejected. They just wanted to fit in with the crowd. I could relate.

After my time in SHU, I was transferred to another federal facility where God continued His work in me, especially in the area of my self-worth. He used a simple vision of the cross to help me see how precious I am to Him. I wept uncontrollably as I saw Jesus hanging on the cross and realized that His sacrifice over 2,000 years ago was for me today; it was personal. I finally understood my value and received His unconditional love for myself.

I also realized that only Jesus could bring the lasting change I wanted in my life. He alone could save me from my sin and bring freedom from the cycle of sin that had enslaved me. By renewing my mind with His Word, drawing strength from His Spirit, and with the support of strong godly women on both sides of prison walls, I have found freedom, strength, and lasting change.

I hope my story helps you understand that good works cannot replace a personal relationship with God. Doing for God should never be a priority over being with God. Besides, God isn’t impressed by what we do or how many Scriptures we memorize. He is pleased with our faith in Him (Hebrews 11:6) and our obedience to His Word (John 14:15).

Don’t wait until you get it to understand that God loves you and desires a relationship with you. Draw close to Him now. In Him, you’ll experience lasting change and have the strength to endure every trial. †