“I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. … One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12–14 NIV
Often there is a valley between what we are praying for and God’s answer, and the only way to get to His answer is to walk through that valley. The journey is rarely easy. Disappointment, discouragement, fear, and frustration challenge our faith, and we wonder if God has abandoned us.
I have learned, though, that God never lets us walk through dark valleys alone (Psalm 23:4), even though it might feel like it at times. In the fall of 2020, I found myself in such a valley.
As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in the free world, those of us doing time behind bars were also experiencing new levels of anxiety and helplessness.
When I heard of the possibility of a home confinement release, I half-heartedly began looking into it. I tried hard not to get my hopes up. And then I found out I was eligible, and I began praying constantly.
Finally, the day I had been waiting for came, and my caseworker gave me a release date of October 28, 2020. I was overjoyed, and my countdown began. I couldn’t wait to see my precious family again. I could almost taste my freedom!
And then, with just days left, my faith was severely tested. I had experienced many highs and lows during my ten years in the federal system, so this rollercoaster wasn’t new. My lowest point had been when the Holy Spirit brought me face-to-face with the person I had become, apart from God. This new development was just another dip in the ride.
I grew up in the church, but I was a fraud. I hid behind masks and carried myself with pride and arrogance. Like many, I claimed with my mouth to know God (Titus 1:16), but I wasn’t a true Christ-follower in my heart.
Most of my mistakes have stemmed from my insecurities. Since a child, I’d felt unloved, unworthy, deceived, and rejected—despite the great love many family members, particularly my grandparents, showed me. It’s a lie Satan sells to many of us.
Deception ruled my life in many forms, including manipulation, greed, hypocrisy, lies, and thievery. I quickly learned that self-promotion and deception are exhausting and seldom end well. They landed me in prison. Of course, the Bible does warn us that pride goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18).
It took months of isolation, loneliness, and despair to bring me to my knees in surrender to God. During a trip to the special housing unit, I finally quit playing games with God and decided to get serious about Him. There, I recognized my need for the forgiveness and grace that Jesus Christ had died to give me, and I embraced it wholeheartedly. (I shared more details in Issue 4, 2019 of Victorious Living.)
Blessings were waiting for me on the other side of that surrender—just as they await anyone who lays down their life at Jesus’s feet.
My true and lasting transformation began right there in prison when I stepped out into a genuine relationship with the Lord. In His goodness, God didn’t waste one experience or mistake, and He opened doors for me to share my faith and minister His love and grace to other inmates. It was a privilege to encourage and mentor other women with similar struggles and tell them about the Savior who set me free. I loved serving God as I did my time, but I was never so naïve to think that doing the Lord’s work would exempt me from trials (John 16:33). I should have expected Satan to rear his ugly head right as my release date approached, but I was caught off guard when I entered that valley.
Six days before my scheduled freedom, I received word from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that they had withdrawn my release date. They did not provide a new date or an explanation. The door just slammed shut in my face. Stunned, I slipped into a miserable state of uncertainty.
I had been so confident that the Lord would answer my prayers favorably that this came as a significant blow to my faith. Lies from the enemy flooded my mind, and fear of the unknown came in waves. I fought to keep my eyes on my source of strength, reminding myself, “God did not bring you this far just to leave you, Melisha,” but I was losing the battle.
I wasn’t the only one on this emotional and spiritual rollercoaster. I watched my incarcerated sisters deal with the same pain as they, too, had lost their release dates. I tried to encourage them, but I was weary myself.
When one of my mentees got her release date back, a spark of excitement came alive inside of me…but it was short-lived. I allowed myself a private moment of despair before accepting that she would be leaving without me. I was hurting and disappointed but forced myself to dry my tears, suck it up, and be there to support my friend. One by one, all my close spiritual sisters went home. I stayed behind.
I still held a tiny shred of hope that I would make it home by October 30, in time to surprise my mother for her seventieth birthday. When that day came and went, frustration and despair overtook me.
For several nights, I cried out to the Lord, pouring everything out to Him and begging for understanding. “Why is this happening, Father God? I know You have Your reasons, but I am so confused!”
I remember getting loud about it with Him as if He were deaf. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening and why. I was tired and felt alone, as if everyone had forgotten about me.
Interestingly, letting God know how confused and hurt I felt helped ease my despair. On the other side of my meltdown, I discovered His comfort (2 Corinthians 1:4), and my emotions began to stabilize.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter why it was happening or who was at fault. I understood that God was most concerned with my heart and my response to the situation. It was time for me to get it together if I wanted to have any peace. Psalm 37:7 teaches us to “Be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for Him to act” (NLT). I decided to do what I should have been doing all along—rest in God’s presence and trust His timing.
I collected myself and asked God to forgive me for letting these circumstances affect my trust in Him. I began to thank and praise Him for all He had done in my life over the years. And as I worshiped Him, His grace and peace flowed over me, bringing contentment with them.
“Lord,” I prayed, “I know my life is in Your hands. I am giving this situation to You and letting go” (Psalm 31:14). I felt His presence distinctly in that moment, and it comforted me.
With fresh confidence that nothing was going to touch my life that did not first pass through His hands, I rested in Him and His promise that I would be okay (Isaiah 43:1–2). I was safe in His arms. My job was to fix my eyes on Him and keep pressing forward. And as I did, peace came to my dark valley.
The day I’d been hoping and praying for finally came. On November 18, 2020, they opened the prison gates for me, and I ran outside and into the arms of my dad and sister. God had shown up and worked in my situation in a way that brought Him glory. No, the road getting to this moment was not pleasant. Still, the destination was pure joy as I reunited with my family.
I struggle to describe how surreal and wonderful it felt to hug and hold them. I didn’t have to let them go for the first time in ten years. We stood outside the prison gates, holding each other, crying together, and embracing this God-given moment with our whole hearts. Then I remembered where I was, and I turned to my family and said, “C’mon y’all, let’s get in this car and get out of here before somebody changes their mind!” My dad and sister laughed, but I was serious. I could not get out of that parking lot and away from that prison fast enough.
Once we were safely on the interstate, the first thing I did was call my son. “Can we do a video call?” he asked. “I just have to see your face, so I know that this is real.” That moment with my son was among God’s most precious gifts to me as a mother. It took time for me to believe that my freedom was true. It was so surreal.
Unexpected realities of life in the free world soon set in. After a decade of imprisonment, I was in for a rude awakening as new challenges hit me head-on.
It started with the ankle monitor they attached to me when I got to the halfway house. I knew it was coming, but wearing it brought a significant degree of discomfort and constant shame.
I had just walked out into a world that was anything but ordinary. Nothing was familiar. I was starting life completely over, and I often felt like an alien who had just arrived on earth.
Everything from my family to technology had changed. And in case these issues weren’t enough, the pandemic added extra layers of anxiety. Social distancing, face masks, restrictions on gathering in places that I had looked so forward to attending—there were so many changes. The worst thing was not being able to go to church because of COVID-19. Still, God had gone ahead and prepared the way for me. He knew I’d need structure and counseling after years of incarceration. He provided the right amount of both through the Dismas Charities halfway house. I called it home for over a year. They truly set me up for success.
I have been out for just over a year now, and adapting to my new normals hasn’t been easy. Relying on the essential disciplines I developed during my time in prison has helped me stay focused and encouraged. Maintaining my daily devotions with God has been my top priority.
Spending time in God’s Word and in His presence keeps me in peace and enables me to move forward. I cannot overemphasize the importance of studying and applying God’s Word to your life. Seeking out and walking with other Christ-followers is also essential. Godly friends are what will keep you standing when the way gets tough.
God has graciously kept me connected to my church, which has been there for me every step of the way. When I was a teenager making mistakes, they loved me. When I was arrested and attempted to take my life, my pastor was right there by my side. During my prison sentence, they loved me through thick and thin, never once considering me a lost cause. Their love has modeled the unconditional, everlasting love of Jesus, and God used them to draw me to Himself (Jeremiah 31:3).
Their seeds of faith and teaching, sown into my life before, during, and after incarceration, have kept me standing. My pastor, Bishop Richard Peoples Sr., has constantly reminded me, “Don’t let what you’re walking through cause you to get stuck, Melisha!” His words helped me press on through dark valleys.
My pastor’s letters and teaching CDs, sent to me in prison, strengthened my faith and enabled me to help others along the way. When I needed someone to speak the truth in love or to hold me accountable, the Lord used him and my church family. They sharpened me like iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17). And when I walked out of prison, their arms were open wide. I fell right into them. They have helped me navigate this new life that is so very different from anything I have known before.
God has given me opportunities to pour into others too. It’s important to give back and not just seek support from others. My Aunt Carrie hosts a daily conference call to uplift and encourage others. It helps people start their day off on a positive note with God. I joined her group immediately after my release. Since then, I’ve had opportunities to cohost and share my testimony with the group. I never thought my story could help folks in the free world, but many have told me how my willingness to be honest and vulnerable has inspired them. It gives them the courage to lean into the Lord for strength as they face their own valleys.
Nothing about my journey has been easy. I get tired. The many restrictions that still govern my life are overwhelming at times. But the Bible says that the testing of our faith helps us grow in endurance and character (James 1:3). God patiently continues to mold and shape me into who He needs me to be, so He can complete the plan He has for my life (Jeremiah 29:11).
I’ve learned valuable lessons as I’ve pressed on through this valley with the Lord. There is purpose in everything, including my incarceration and the challenges I face now. God has used everything I’ve been through to prepare me to answer the call He has had on my life all along.
My past has equipped me to do what I desire to do today. I want to advocate for the incarcerated and those recently released. I want to help churches understand the importance of consistency in a person’s life. We can’t just tell people about Jesus and then leave them to figure out life on their own. We must model His love and teach them how to have a relationship with Him. We must stand by people, even the difficult ones. They need the love of Christ demonstrated in tangible ways.
Recently released from home confinement, I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am excited to step into this new adventure of ministry with God, knowing that the Lord will be with me as He always has been. He is going before me, preparing the way.
Each day, I thank God for my freedom as I seek Him with all my heart (Jeremiah 29:13). Because of His great love for me, I want to be obedient to Him—and it feels like I’m finally making progress.
I hold on to the truth that the same God who carried me through ten years in prison will be with me as I walk through every valley ahead. I know that the best years of my life are yet to come.
Whatever you are praying for today, believe that the Lord will answer you (Psalm 66:19). He will! You might not get exactly what you think you want or when you want it, but don’t lose hope.
Circumstances often don’t make sense or look like they’ll turn out in your favor. Give Jesus your circumstances anyway and believe that He will perfect all that concerns you according to His will. He has your ultimate good in mind (Psalm 138:8).
God has started His work in you, and just like He did in me, He will carry it on to completion through whatever trials you face (Philippians 1:6).
In the meantime, do what I am still doing today. Fix your eyes on the Lord and keep pressing on. There is a glorious victory for you ahead. God will help you every step of the way.
MELISHA JOHNSON walked out of federal prison a woman on a mission. No longer an inmate, she is a voice for those she left behind. Working with churches and prison ministries, she shares her experience to help them better understand the needs of the incarcerated.