Isaiah 61:3 NIV says, “To all who mourn…he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory.” What a promise that is.
My life was incredibly broken, and I could see no chance of restoration. Even now, as I find myself enveloped in the reality of God fulfilling the promise of Isaiah 61 for me, I struggle to wrap my head around why He would love me so. I have done nothing to deserve it. It is purely a gift of God’s mercy and grace.
My life has been a fierce spiritual battle between God and Satan—one that it often seemed Satan was winning. Before I even made it to kindergarten, the enemy had already worked through people to wound my heart, strip me of my innocence, and twist my mind.
At 13, as a matter of survival, I left home and took to the streets. It was the only choice I thought I had, but it led me to a very dark place. Like many girls, I ended up trafficked as a teenage prostitute. I became a crack and heroin addict, and by 18, I was in prison for the first time.
For almost 30 years, I stayed in a vicious cycle of addiction, heartache, homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence, and every darkness imaginable. I’ve been in and out of jails, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals more times than I can count. Through my own choices, I lost custody of my two young daughters to child protective services.
By 2015, I was overwhelmed with hopelessness. I’d had a chance to reunite with my daughters, but I let it slip through my fingers. I was trapped in my addiction and life on the streets, and I was running from an outstanding felony warrant.
One day I was at my 11th-floor apartment, and my sense of despair almost drove me to suicide. I’d been evicted from the apartment but had snuck back in to get high. While I was there, the cops came looking for me. When they knocked on my door, I panicked. I was not going to jail that day! Desperate, I went out on the balcony, climbed over the railing, and shimmied to the corner of the building. Cops on the ground saw me. They tried to reason with me; I begged them to shoot me, and I threatened to jump.
But there on that ledge, I started thinking about my daughters. What would happen to them? I’d made such a mess of things. I decided I needed a cigarette to calm my nerves, so I made my way back to the apartment. I was so high, it never dawned on me that police were in there hiding. As soon as I got inside, some burly cop tackled my 92-pound frame to the ground, and it was over.
The police arrested me for the felony warrant, and in the process, they found drugs in my pocket. In a matter of seconds, my troubles had multiplied. These new charges, added to my already lengthy criminal history, would leave the court no alternative but to sentence me to prison for the third time.
Once in jail, I was kept on a suicide watch. I was desperate to end the pain of this life. I was frail and malnourished because of my addiction and lifestyle, and I lay on the floor of my cell for days, going through severe heroin withdrawals. I just wanted to stop breathing.
It was in this pitiful state that I cried out to God for help. Sure, I had called out to Him many times before, as many do in their time of need, but this time was different. Somehow, I knew God was real and that He was watching over me. It was the only possible way I was still alive after the abuse I’d both endured at the hands of others and inflicted on myself.
I didn’t have a specific “God encounter” to speak of, but I did experience a strange sense of peace. I had never experienced anything like this before—it was a peace that surpassed all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Despite my rough circumstances, the God of Peace met me, right there on the cold, dirty floor of my jail cell.
Eventually, I was taken off suicide watch and placed in general population. My cellmate ended up being someone I knew from the streets—and she kept asking me if I believed in God. Then, she talked to me about Jesus and read to me out of her Bible. That girl was on my last nerve!
I was still going through some pretty intense withdrawals and just wanted to be left alone. But God knew what He was doing when He trapped me in that room with her. He used her to bring the truth into my life that changed me forever.
I remember lying on my top bunk, trying to kick the effects of heroin, while she lay on her bunk below, reading God’s Word to me. Slowly but surely, the things she read began to sink in, and something deep inside of me began to realize God’s intense, unconditional love. He had rescued me from myself and my addiction, from imminent death, and from my enemies, both seen and unseen.
In that county jail cell, I asked Jesus to forgive me of my sins, and then I handed Him the broken, shattered pieces of my heart and my life. I surrendered everything to Him and began a journey of getting to know the Lord in a personal way. Shortly afterward, I was sent to prison.
There, while I was reading my Bible, I came across Psalm 18:16–19. This scripture leaped off the page and spoke directly to my heart, bringing me great comfort. It says: “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me” (NIV).
Suddenly, I felt seen by God, and I knew my life mattered to Him. At the sound of my cries, He had snatched me right out of Satan’s hand, even in my utterly broken state. And as the verse says, He brought me out into a spacious place, which happened to be Arizona State Prison, Perryville, so that He could begin to heal me.
The two-and-a-half years I served in that prison positioned me to see and learn the power of God as He stripped away the lies of the enemy from my heart and mind. He taught me that I am not an orphan, but instead, I am the daughter of the King, and I am worth everything to Him. He revealed the greatness of His presence and the power of His love—a love I had not earned.
Romans 5:8 taught me that, even while I was still a sinner and determined to destroy the life God had given me, Christ died for me. He had sacrificed His life—He died on a cross!—to pay the price for my sin, and He rose from the dead, all so that I could have not only eternal life, but abundant life here on earth as well.
God also taught me how to arm myself for the spiritual battle against my very real enemy, Satan, whose sole mission is to steal, kill, and destroy my joy, peace, and life. He exposed Satan’s methods of keeping me chained to my past hurts and mistakes. And He helped me overcome the victim mentality I had developed.
It took going to prison this third time to learn these truths, but praise God, I did! Behind a barbed-wire fence, the Son of God set me free. And since then, He has continued His work of healing in my heart, mind, and physical body. He is even restoring my relationship with my daughters.
My life is testimony that God can deliver anyone from the deepest depths of darkness. He pursues the lost and the broken because of His great love for them. And then, He chooses to use us—yes, the ones the world threw away—for His purpose and His glory.
God exchanges the burned-out ashes of our lives for beautiful things. He gives us joy instead of mourning and praise instead of despair. And in God’s hands, we can become like great oaks that the Lord displays before the world for His glory.
I know, because that’s my story. And it can be your life story too.