What I’m about to share happened a decade ago when I was a teenager. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s my story. But today, because of the redemptive love of God, I can look back over all the ugly events of my life and be thankful.

I grew up in a middle-class home with my mother, stepfather, and two sisters. By no means was I a perfect kid, but I do think, overall, I was a pretty good one. I stayed out of trouble and refrained from drinking or doing hard drugs, and had a pretty good relationship with my parents and siblings. If there were any problems in our home, I was oblivious to them.

Around the age of 13, however, I noticed bills were going unpaid, arguments were heating up, and my mom and stepfather were gone from the home for days. Most of my relatives had quit coming around, and family gatherings like birthday parties were a thing of the past. I learned at school that these were signs of drug abuse. I felt helpless as I watched my family deteriorate right before my eyes.

One day, my stepfather had had enough, and he packed his things and left my mom (a severe crack addict by this time) and my younger sister and me. My older sister had already moved out. Two days later, I came home to find my mom cozy on the couch with a new man. Even as a teenager, I knew this wasn’t right. My stepdad had just left our home. Who was this dude, anyway?

Mom introduced me to her new boyfriend, and three weeks later, he moved in. We were in for a rocky road. To my 16-year-old, 120-pound self, Steve was a giant of a man, and he terrified me. He was 6 feet tall and weighed 240 pounds. He loved hard liquor and displayed explosive anger. My fears would soon prove warranted.

Our home life quickly turned violent. Unfortunately, years of drug abuse and distrust between family members meant no one was there for my sister and me when we needed them most. I harbor no bitterness toward my extended family or the authorities, but at the time, I couldn’t understand why no one would come to our rescue. People knew about the vio­lence and drugs in our home. They’d heard our cries for help. The police and the department of children and family services (DCF) had been notified, but no one did anything to help.

I’ve often tried to figure out why. Maybe they just didn’t want to get involved. Humans naturally run from hard situations, and ours was a mess. Maybe they were afraid or didn’t want to be inconvenienced. They might even have thought the conflict would resolve itself. I don’t know the answers, and it’s not my place to judge. But I do feel there could have been a different outcome in my life had someone taken action. Regardless, God caused it all to work together for good (Romans 8:28).

People did show up, though, the day Steve was lying on the ground bleeding from stab wounds.

Steve had come home severely drunk and volatile. His fists were swinging. Instinctively, I grabbed a knife. I knew if Steve got past me, he was going to hurt my mom or sister. He got hold of me and squeezed so hard I thought I was going to pass out. Out of fear, I started stabbing him.

I wasn’t counting, but it turns out I stabbed Steve 21 times before he let me go and fell to the ground. When he did, blood was everywhere. My mom was hysterical as she called 911. Steve died an hour and a half later.

Within 15 minutes, authorities lined the street of my home. DCF immediately stepped in and took my sister and me into the system. They placed her in our uncle’s care and took me to jail. There I was charged with second-degree manslaughter.

I was held in a juvenile pod for 15 months at the county jail while I awaited trial. I finished my junior and senior years of high school there. I also learned some things that academics couldn’t teach me, like that there are some good people in this world. I learned this from the old Christian man who visited me at the jail each week. This total stranger would leave his family to share God’s Word and his life experiences with me. He was the nicest man I’d ever met.

After I went to prison, God continued to place people like this man in my life to reveal His kindness and love to me, to hold me accountable, and to show me how to be free of my past. He provided faith and character programs, as well as a mentorship through the New Destiny program at Marion Correctional Institution, a program operated by Xtreme SOULutions.

God also sent other prisoners—people who had once done horrific things—to show me His better way. At first, when I saw them reading their Bibles and going to chapel, I thought, “You’re all idiots! If God is so good, then why are you here?”

What I was really asking was, “If God is so good, then why am I here? Why have I encountered such hard situations? And why didn’t anyone—people, authorities, or God—intervene?”

I was so angry with God. Funny how I could be mad at someone I didn’t even know. I hadn’t ever spoken to Him, read His Word, gone to church, or prayed. I didn’t know a thing about God, yet I assumed it was His fault that my life had turned out the way it had.

God used those ministers and prisoners to help me understand that He wasn’t the source of my pain; He was the answer to it. And He showed me that those Christian inmates reading their Bibles weren’t idiots; they were wise men who had found something real, and their lives reflected it.

Unlike other men who were filled with hate and continually fighting against the world, these inmates smiled and handled complicated prison situations with kindness. I was drawn to their godly character and the joy, love, and peace they displayed. I decided to be a follower of Jesus Christ myself.

Now just because I placed my faith in Jesus doesn’t mean everything magically became easy. Nor does it mean I suddenly made all the right decisions and had good thoughts. I had a lot of spiritual maturing to do, and that would take a series of deliberate, daily choices.

I had to study God’s Word, obey it even when I didn’t want to, and trust the Lord with my ugly past and uncertain future. I had to choose to let people go and to release them from the debt I thought they owed me. I had to decide not to hate people and to forgive them for their actions and inaction.

I also had to choose to forgive myself. I had taken a man’s life.

All of this took a lot of help from God. And it took time. But eventually, my hard, angry heart began to soften and heal. I became less frustrated, less stressed, and more thankful—even for the hard things in my life, like being in prison. With God’s help, I could see how prison had saved my life, and the life of my family. The drastic events of our lives provided the wake-up call we’d all needed. Today my sister is doing great, I have the coolest nephew, and my mother has been clean for years. God has restored our relationships.

Maybe you can relate to being angry with God and people for the circumstances of your life. Maybe you’ve struggled with being able to forgive. I know it isn’t easy, but with God’s help, it can be done. Your choice to release your past and every offender into God’s hands will free you to live. Don’t torture yourself by living in hate and bitterness any longer, step into the better life God has for you. You owe it to yourself to be free!