I did not believe that God was real. From the time I was a kid, I had been dealt one painful blow after another, and if He was real, He sure wasn’t showing up in my life.

Alcohol abuse was rampant in my childhood home. My parents eventually divorced because of it, and when my alcoholic father married another alcoholic, I became vulnerable to a family member who molested me until I left home at 18.

Carrying around this family secret was hard. I was angry yet deeply ashamed of what had happened to me. Over time, those emotions became bitterness, and the poison of unforgiveness seeped into my heart and mind.

When I was 10, my stepmother swore off alcohol and started taking me to church. At first, I found comfort there and protection from my problems at home. I threw myself into all the activities the church offered, including going through the motions of being baptized. As I got older, I even helped in Vacation Bible School and worked with the youth. But I had no relationship with God.

While church felt like a safe place, it was only a temporary haven—I always had to return home to the abuse and chaos. I needed more than a place to hide.

Life grew harder as my eccentric stepmother became increasingly religious and controlling. She threw away all my cute clothes and forced me to wear only pants or dresses that covered my knees. I couldn’t even wear a bathing suit to the pool.

I couldn’t wait to escape. Upon high school graduation, I left home and ran straight into the arms of a man I thought would love and protect me. We were married two months before my 19th birthday without the support of my family.

Three months in, I knew I had made a horrible mistake. My husband grew increasingly abusive and controlling, and I had nowhere to turn for help. Still, I was determined to make our marriage work. Looking for more ways to control me, my husband next targeted my involvement with the church and refused to let me have a Bible.

I quit going to church and praying. It wasn’t doing any good anyway. Things got worse, and my heart grew hard. Blaming God for everything that was wrong, I washed my hands of Him and walked away.

I embraced and nurtured my victim mentality until the day I decided to eliminate the source of my current pain—my husband. He had controlled and abused me for seven long years, but we’d just had a baby. He wasn’t going to hurt her.

I bought a gun and waited for my chance. It came when he was released from jail on probation for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on another woman. I seized the opportunity. I shot and killed him.

But the pain didn’t stop; it intensified. Especially when, at 26, I was arrested for murder and sentenced to life in prison.

That was the darkest day of my life. My daughter—my only child—was nine months old. She had not even taken her first steps. That was the first of a multitude of milestones I wouldn’t see.

Knowing I had lost my daughter forever, I descended into depression. I was a lifer; what hope did I have?

I thought about turning to God, but my angry and bitter heart refused. “God hasn’t done anything for you,” I told myself. “He doesn’t want to have anything to do with you either. He’s mad at you. That’s why He’s allowed all these terrible things to happen in your life.”

I believed those lies and continued to run from God, the only One who could light up my darkness (Psalm 18:28), heal my broken heart, and set me free (Isaiah 61:1).

In prison, many people went to chapel, but I refused to go. I wasn’t about to sing praises to a God who was the reason I was locked up. Well, maybe He wasn’t the reason, but He certainly hadn’t stopped it from happening.

Funny though—even while I was running from God, He was still chasing after me. Something, some little voice in my head, kept challenging me to do more than merely exist in prison. I needed to prepare for the future. (What future?)

God was guiding me, but I didn’t know it yet.

I noticed how girls all around me in prison were getting hooked, overdosing, and dying. I didn’t want that to be my story, and my spirit rose up to fight.

That’s not common for a lifer. A life sentence in prison feels as much like a death sentence as the real thing. It’s hard for someone with that sentence to find purpose in continuing to live, and it’s easy for them to fall prey to Satan’s lies. Convinced that they have nothing to live for and nothing to lose, they give up and act out.

I started in that direction, but God kept whispering to my soul. I didn’t want to admit it, but I found myself hoping against all hope that my life had purpose. I even believed I might be released one day, and I began preparing myself for that possibility.

I got an education. Attending classes was exciting, and it wasn’t long before learning became my drug of choice. I devoured everything I could. As soon as I finished one program, I started a new one.

Many lifers thought I was crazy. They didn’t understand the hope in me. Even my friends told me I was stupid and to give up. I told them, “God’s going to open the doors for me one day and let me go. He won’t be mad at me forever.”

These are interesting words from someone who’s running from God, I know. But something in me knew He was real. I just wasn’t ready to acknowledge it all the way.

Staying busy helped the years go by more quickly. Finally, in 2017, I was allowed to go before the parole board. I was elated when they told me I’d be released in six months. All my hard work had paid off; I was going home!

But six weeks before my release date, the board decided that I would have to complete a two-year faith-and-character program first. I was livid. “They can’t make me do this faith-and-character crap,” I shouted to anyone who’d listen. “Where’s my freedom of religion?”

But the program was required, and if I wanted to go home, I’d have to do it. So, reluctantly, I signed up.

The intense training plus the job I was working wore me down. There were 479 women on the compound, and I oversaw all their laundry. It was exhausting, and one day, feeling like I didn’t have the strength to take another step, I nearly collapsed.

Feeling drawn to the vacant chapel, I went inside. Before I knew it, I was face-down on the floor, my arms outstretched. Years of remorse poured out of me as I cried out to God.

I began apologizing for my anger, for blaming Him for every bad thing in my life, for refusing to go to chapel, for not praying, and for everything else I could think of. I admitted I had purposely been running from God my whole life.

“Oh, Lord, forgive me,” I begged. “Help me, please. Take control—I can’t do this anymore. I need You. Take my life; it’s Yours. Whatever You ask, I’ll do it.”

An inexplicable peace (Philippians 4:7) and an unfamiliar rest (Psalm 73:26) settled over me. Somehow, the song “My Life Is in Your Hands” by Kirk Franklin filled the empty chapel, and I looked around in awe. God’s strength filled my soul (Isaiah 40:29; 2 Corinthians 12:8–10), and I knew that God would lead me home.

In June 2019, the State of Florida granted me parole. At 53, I was finally a free woman.

Being home after decades of living behind bars was challenging. So much had changed in 27 years. I had to learn about email and cell phones and computers. Surprisingly, I had to learn how to make decisions again too. Even ordering a fast-food meal was overwhelming—there was so much to choose from. Deciding what to eat after being fed routine meals for decades practically gave me a nervous breakdown. Only through the grace of God did I overcome my anxieties.

When you leave prison, you have to start from the bottom and work your way up. That’s a challenging task if you don’t have money, support, or transportation. But God provided.

My first job was at a grocery store. I walked five miles to and from work every day. God impressed on my heart to stay faithful and do whatever was in front of me for Him, not for other people (Colossians 3:23). As Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:7, I kept fighting the good fight of faith and trusting the Lord.

Trusting Him, though, required obedience too. Through studying the Bible and praying, I realized that I needed to forgive those who had hurt me. Hebrews 12:15 taught me that a bitter root allowed to grow would “cause trouble and defile many” (NIV). Matthew 6:15 taught me that I couldn’t receive God’s gift of forgiveness if I harbored hate.

It took time and commitment, but God helped me let go of my bitterness toward my childhood abuser and completely forgive him—even though he has yet to apologize. God also helped me forgive my husband who had abused me so badly. Only the Lord could infuse me with this spirit of forgiveness and love.

Family members witnessed my life transformation and began their own journeys with God. He challenged them with the same command to forgive. It took some time, but my daughter extended the gift of forgiveness to me. We now have a flourishing relationship.

Watching my daughter’s faith unfold has been a beautiful gift. She was 27 when I was released and understandably angry. Forgiveness restored our relationship; it set us both free from the poison of hate and bitterness.

I don’t know of any other person on life parole with a volunteer identification number, but now I return to prison to share the transforming power of God’s love and forgiveness with those who are still there. With God, anything is possible (Matthew 19:26).

If you had told me I’d (willingly!) return to prison after living behind bars for 27 years and 30 days, I would have said you were crazy. But I go every opportunity I have. I want everyone there to know they can be free—even if they never set foot in a free society again. A prison number or the length of one’s sentence doesn’t define a person’s worth. God does.

I was so scared the first time I went back into prison to speak. I pulled into the parking lot and sat in my car, crying. The warden called, wondering where I was. “I’m here,” I told her. “But I don’t know if I can do this. I’m scared to death.”

She came outside, wrapped her arms around me, and prayed. Peace and courage filled me, and we went inside. I was given visitor’s badge number 53. I cracked a smile. I was 53 when I walked out of those prison walls. It was a God-wink, for sure.

It’s been almost five years since I was released, but the truth is, God’s redeeming love, grace, and forgiveness had set me free long before I exited those prison gates. I can’t begin to count all God’s blessings. Every day, I wake up with a grateful heart—even through the struggles. I’ll forever praise God for lifting me from that bottomless, despairing pit of hate and unforgiveness that almost consumed me.

Please don’t let bitterness or hatred consume you. Satan wants you to be a lifer in a prison of despair—regardless of which side of a physical prison wall you live on. Don’t do it! Instead, let go of those consuming emotions. Forgive those who have hurt you, even if they never ask for your forgiveness. This isn’t about them. It’s about you being free. When Jesus, the Son of God, comes into your life, He sets you free no matter where you are (John 8:36).

It’s time to choose freedom. “The Lord is a God of justice,” Isaiah 30:18 says. “Blessed are all who wait for him” (NIV). Put those who hurt you in God’s hands and let them go. Then you can embrace His abundant life (John 10:10).


MARIANNE VAN DONGEN frequently returns to the same prison where she was incarcerated for 27 years, ministering to women through the Jesus Infusion (thejesusinfusion.org). She also volunteers with parole and probation programs and at various correctional institutions, helping persons who are reentering society to successfully complete the parole and probation process.