My grandmother taught me to put my trust in Jesus Christ for salvation when I was a child. But trusting the Lord with my life on this side of heaven hasn’t always been easy. It’s a daily choice to “cast all my anxiety on God” and trust His love for me when life seems so uncertain (1 Peter 5:7). Even now, I am going through situations where I must continually cast my cares on Him.
Like many, I grew up believing in God. But for years, my lack of trust kept me from going all-in. I’m a hustler by nature, so my constant mindset is to make things happen. After all, how will anything change if I don’t change it? But always trying to make life better led me down some dark roads and showed me that I have no control over anything in this world. Never have. Never will.
My childhood wasn’t easy. With my mother addicted to drugs and my father incarcerated, I often felt unwanted and worthless. All I ever wanted was to be somebody to, well, anybody. If it hadn’t been for the love and sacrifices of my grandmother, I don’t know where I’d be, other than still in prison or possibly even dead.
Grandma was a firm believer in God, a real lady of faith and strength. No matter what we faced, she always believed that God would make a way for us—and He always did. Grandma showed me how to trust the Lord and His Word.
“God ain’t gonna abandon us, Sean,” she’d remind me. We had many opportunities for Him to prove Himself faithful, and He always came through.
Grandma and I lived in Stantonsburg, a small eastern North Carolina community that didn’t foster hope and dreams. She’d stopped going to school in the eighth grade to work in the fields. We were as poor as they come. Life in our neighborhood was about surviving from one day to the next. The biggest dream most of us had was to graduate high school and get a job at the Firestone Tire plant.
So when college football scouts from NC State started looking at me, I was sure God had given us a way out of poverty. “We’re going to get out of here, Grandma,” I promised her, referring to our old broken-down plank house. We didn’t even have an indoor bathroom until I was ten years old, and that was in 1987. I was determined to change our lives for the better. All I needed was a football in my hands and the opportunity to play; the rest would take care of itself.
My hope for a better life was shattered when I found out about the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Incredibly, not one teacher or coach had ever thought to tell me about the SAT’s importance. News of this test broke my spirit. How could I ever go to college and play football without the SAT?
I felt betrayed and used by the athletic program and community. Everyone had cheered for me up and down the football field, but no one had thought to cheer me on academically. The Booster Club at my school had even purchased a letterman jacket for me because they knew my grandmother couldn’t afford it. I wish they would have paid for preparation for the SAT instead.
God did grant me another opportunity to go to college and play football, but I was too broken within to seize it. I reasoned that if nobody else cared about me, then there was no reason why I should care either. I felt like everything in life was rigged, and the cards were stacked against me. The day the coach drove off with my teammate to take him to college, hope died within me. At that moment, I folded and gave up on myself. I abandoned my dreams, and I quit caring and hoping.
I couldn’t understand why God would show me a vision of something I could have and then not let me have it. I soon learned that painful consequences emerge when you spiritually, mentally, and physically give up. Discouragement and despair gave way to deception, and those three D’s ultimately led to a dead-end life.
I had a hard time trusting God’s plan and being faithful to Him after this. I still believed in Him, but I couldn’t help but wonder if He believed in me. My desire to succeed and give my grandmother a better life, however, still burned deep within my soul. “What do I do now?” I asked myself. “Do what I told you to do,” God replied.
I jump-started my writing career by starting my own publishing company when I was 19 years old. I took poems I had written in high school and compiled them to publish my first book, One Man’s Anguish. I thought I was moving up in the world when, in 2002, the International Society of Poetry presented me with their prestigious International Poet for Merit Award in Washington, DC.
I scraped together every dime I could to attend that convention. I slept in my truck in a hotel parking lot all three days of the event. I brushed my teeth and sponge-bathed with bottled water I took from the convention. The other attendees had no idea I was sleeping in my truck. I would go up in the elevator with them and act like I was going to my room, and then I’d walk back down the stairs and go to my truck for the night.
Receiving that award sparked a glimmer of hope in me. For so long, I had felt like a nobody who had nothing to give or offer. No one had ever wanted to listen to me. How could I inspire anyone?
But now? I couldn’t ignore the fact that I held in my hand an award that exemplified my writing gift. It was proof that what I had to say did matter to people. The event brought back a God-given dream from my childhood—a vision of myself standing on a stage in front of many people. They were laughing, smiling, and crying. Surely this moment was going to change everything!
Then I got back home and had to face the reality of my life. Hope once again grew dim. It seemed like every time I was just about to make it off the streets, every time I was about to reach my breakthrough, something would arise to block or slow my progress. This time, not only was it about the streets; it was about family.
There’s an unwritten code on the streets that you protect your family no matter the cost. Love and loyalty have always been both a gift and a curse to me. For years, I had been dealing drugs. But then, a relative started using, and money went missing from some powerful people. Suddenly, it was scrambling time.
In my mind, I had two choices: I could help get the money needed to pay my relative’s debt so he could live, or I could go to war against his enemies and pray we survived. With our backs against the wall, it was all or nothing.
I went all-in once again on the streets, and I was completely out of control. Nothing mattered but winning this battle. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a jail cell, having been arrested for armed bank robbery, that I finally woke up to what I had become. Without all the distraction of the streets, I was suddenly left with only my thoughts.
“What in the world did I just do? I robbed a bank?! How did I get here? I was planning my book tour!” Thoughts like these flooded my mind. I had gotten there because I had gone all-in to the streets instead of all-in to God.
One year after receiving that prestigious poetry award, I was sent to Butner Prison to serve five years. I was 22 years old and not in a good place mentally. I was so tired of fighting and trying to survive, tired of being homeless and trying to make something of my life. On top of that, my mother had just died.
It might sound crazy, but I was thankful to have a mental break from the chaos of my life. Things had gotten so bad that I figured prison was going to be like a vacation.
When I arrived at Butner, I was placed in solitary confinement for the first 30 days because my paperwork had been lost during my transfer from jail to prison. God would use this time of isolation to bring me back to hope—back to Him.
God and I had many conversations in that lonely place. I had tried so hard to make something of myself, to bring myself to a place of happiness. But nothing had worked. I wasn’t angry with God for my being in prison—I had enough sense to know my own choices had landed me there. But deep in my heart, I knew there had to be more than what I was experiencing. Surely, my life was meant to have purpose.
Finally, I asked, “What do You want from my life, God?”
In my clearest consciousness, I heard God reply: “Everything you have been through, I have brought you through. I have saved you for a purpose, and now I am incubating you for a season. I’m refining you, making you like a diamond. When you get out, you will be a light and an example for others; you will spread the good news that the same way I saved you, I will save them.”
I couldn’t imagine how I could be a light to anyone. But then, the Lord showed me that it would be through sharing my story that others would find hope in Him. “Just tell them how I saved you. Tell them about everything you have experienced, and tell them it was Me who brought you through. Tell them how, when you were at your lowest, I lifted you up.”
He then showed me how He had given me gifts and talents to inspire and elevate others. It was time I got serious about using them as He intended. He assured me that if I used these talents for Him, He would open doors that no man could close, and my gifts would make room for me and put me in the presence of great men and women.
With nothing else to lose, I decided right there to go all-in with God, once and for all. Surrendering the details of my life to Him, I committed to using the gifts He had given me to glorify His name, to be a light in the dark, and to inspire the despondent in the same way I had needed inspiration.
God’s Spirit revealed that I would experience many burdens and challenges in prison in the days ahead. But He also showed me that if I would stay faithful, remain in His Word, and use my talents for His glory, He would carry me through to an incredible life journey.
I was facing a five-year sentence, and I decided to use my time in prison wisely. I often heard, “Sean, don’t just be ready to get out of prison, be prepared!” So with God’s help, I used my time behind bars to prepare for a new life. It wasn’t easy, and sometimes I felt like God was refining me in the hottest of fires. But in the end, He made me a new man by changing the way I think (Romans 12:2). When you change your mindset for the better, you change your life for the better.
In prison, I finally came to understand my worth to God. I learned how to love myself and appreciate who He had created me to be. I was far from perfect, but I was confident I was on the right path. God helped me see that I was way more than the nothing I had always thought I was.
One of the conditions ordered for me by the court was that I would see a psychologist and take anger-management classes. That led to a diagnosis of manic depression. Finally, I understood why I so easily lost hope and why one minute I could feel so low I’d want to die, and the next I would feel like I could conquer the world. Knowing this diagnosis helped me make great strides toward mental health.
I used my time in prison to develop my gifts of writing and speaking. I published two books while behind bars, wrote plays, learned to play the piano, and gave spoken-
word performances. Before prison, I had used these gifts for my benefit. Now I understood they were to be used to inspire and elevate others, to point them to God. And I learned I didn’t have to be perfect for Him to use me as a perfect example to help and save others.
I thank God for my time in prison. Ironically, going there was the best thing that could have happened to me; prison truly saved my life.
Today I’m a free man. I have the privilege of inspiring others to find God’s purposes for their life through various ministries and businesses God has given to me. When I meet people, I want them to see the power and grace of God in my life. I want them to see the light of God in me. I want them to know, if God did it for me, He can do it for them as well.
I want you to know that, too.
Maybe you’re where I was—you’ve grown tired of the fight. You keep hitting obstacles, and you’re frustrated that the better life never seems to be yours. Don’t give up hope.
Trust that God loves you and has a perfect plan—even when you can’t understand it. It’s not up to you to make things happen; God will move on your behalf. You just have to be willing to let go and let Him have His way.
Don’t let Satan steal your dreams. Don’t let him rob you of your joy, happiness, purpose, and gifts. Put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6) every day. Fight the good fight of faith and endure your race until the end.
As you go all-in with God, He will bring about the desires of your heart. Keep hoping against all hope and never give up, no matter how bleak things may seem (Romans 4:18).
God is faithful, and if you will surrender your life to Him and trust Him, He will make a way for you. Just keep pressing on in the faith, believing that nothing is impossible for God. The life He gives you will far exceed your expectations (Ephesians 3:20).
You are more than your circumstances. You are more than the streets. You are more than the nobody others have proclaimed you to be. You are more than your failures and the reflection you see in the mirror.
You are more because the God in you is more. And He is everything you need.
SEAN INGRAM uses his God-given gifts as an author, motivational speaker, spoken-word artist, actor, and educator to engage, enlighten, and elevate others from the dark into the light. Visit seaningram.info to book Sean for your organization’s next event.