Blog - Victorious Living Magazine

Flourish in His Care

January 19, 2023

I love springtime! Sprucing up my yard and home with colorful flowers and beautiful plants is a favorite pastime that makes me smile.

A couple years ago, I added some pygmy palm trees to our home’s landscape. They are known to do well with proper care and a little pruning. I planted two in the yard and two in large planters. I was excited to watch them grow.

I thought I did a good job looking after them, but I soon noticed distinct differences between the ones in the yard and the ones in the planters. The trees I regularly pruned were noticeably taller and healthier than the ones that had not had as much attention. They were also producing tender new palm branches from the top center of the trees, each one reaching toward the sun. I marveled at how they knew to stretch toward their source of life. The two palms that received less attention were not exactly living their best lives.

My gardening lesson reminded me of Psalm 92:12–13: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God” (NIV).

The repetition of the word “flourish” in this passage piqued my interest, and I searched for its meaning. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a period of thriving” and “to grow luxuriantly.” The Hebrew definition, the original language of the Old Testament, refers to a “breaking forth” and “blooming.” In the New Testament, the word appears once and means “to put forth anew.”

God’s loving intention for His people is that we grow in maturity and fruitfulness as we shed our old nature and bloom anew.

I can’t speak for my palm trees, but in my human experience, growing is hard work. Flourishing doesn’t just magically happen for plants or for people. It requires a pruning process that can be downright painful and sometimes make you question the Lord’s goodness.

But I’ve learned that in those times, we must take our cue from the palm trees and keep stretching for the “Son.” Jesus’s light will sustain us and cause our faith and love for others to flourish (2 Thessalonians 1:3).

God’s pruning process comes in different forms. Sometimes it requires the removal of selfishness, pride, stubbornness, bitterness, hate, and jealousy. As we submit our emotions to God and renew our hearts and minds with His Word, we experience God’s perfect will for our lives (Romans 12:2). His Holy Spirit will help us grow in love, grace, and humility. He will develop a desire in us to walk in obedience to His Word.

At times, pruning requires the removal of people and things. Hebrews 12:1 says we are to cut away anything that hinders our steps. Sometimes even beautiful things must be cut away to make room for God’s better. Those are the hardest things to release.

You can trust the pruning process to the hands of the Master Gardener. Pruning is evidence of His love for you. God knows which branches to cut off so you can be fruitful and experience an abundant life (John 15:1–8). Whatever He removes will make space for something more beautiful than you can imagine.

Let His promises sustain you as you bloom into the person He intends you to be. God will help you grow, produce fruit, and remain full of life even into old age (Psalm 92:13–15).

Now that is some much-needed hope, isn’t it? May it nourish your soul as you flourish in your relationship with Jesus.

 

LINDA CUBBEDGE-SMITH was Victorious Living’s Prison Correspondence Outreach Director from 2014 until June of 2021. She is currently working on a book about the goodness of God and remains passionate about leading others to Him.

Your Pain Has Purpose

I’ve spent many years lying on bunks in jails and prisons, staring hopelessly at the ceiling. At the time, I’d bought into the lie that I had gone too far and it was too late for me.

Fear, regret, and defeat convinced me that I had wasted the best years of my life. Those thoughts overshadowed any positivity about my future. The emotional pain was so intense, I could feel it physically.

I tried to escape the weight of these emotions with drugs, pornography, and gambling, but those things only took me deeper into darkness. I would have died of an overdose if Christ hadn’t responded to my cries, but He did. He jumped into my pit and pulled me out (Job 33:28, Jonah 2:6).

Not once did He chastise or condemn me. Instead, He wrapped His arms around me and set my feet on solid ground. He traded my prison blues for His robe of righteousness and resurrected my life into one with meaning. Because of Jesus, my life is now a testimony of powerful restoration that leads others to freedom. (See Psalm 40:1–3.)

As a redeemed son of God, I now walk confidently through gates that once held me prisoner. I am a seasoned veteran with many battle wounds, but I am also an overcomer through Jesus Christ. He alone has given me the keys to freedom, and I am committed to sharing them with my incarcerated brothers and sisters.

It never ceases to amaze me how my painful past helps me get eye level with others. They have hope when they hear what God has done and is doing in my life. They realize if He could set me free, He can set anyone free!

With Jesus, nothing in my life is wasted—not even my biggest mistakes. Every experience has become an opportunity to learn and a powerful testimony of the goodness of God.

Did you know that the Apostle Paul wrote two-thirds of the New Testament from a prison cell? Paul rejoiced in his suffering and wanted everyone to understand that his time in chains had a divine purpose. He said, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12 NIV).

I can relate to Paul here because my incarceration has also served to advance the Gospel. Of course, my incarceration was due to my disobedience to God, not my loyalty to Him. But God’s mercy is for people on both spectrums—the sinner and the saint. He brings beauty from ashes for His glory, no matter how our ashes were formed (Isaiah 61:3).

It’s time to look at your past through God’s lens of purpose. Give Him those ashes. Don’t buy into the lie that your life is a waste; God never wastes anything.

Every broken road you have traveled has uniquely equipped you to help others. Through your life story, you may reach people for Christ that others cannot. And every time you find the courage to share the goodness of God, your testimony defeats the enemy’s hold on someone else (Revelation 12:11).

Purpose, though, begins with surrendering your broken life to Christ and then courageously journeying through it with Him. Despite all the pain you’ve been through, an overwhelming victory can be yours through Christ, who loves you (Romans 8:37).

Your testimony holds the key to someone else’s freedom. Please don’t keep it to yourself.

 

Kory Gordon spent 11 years in incarceration, where he gave his life to Christ. He is now an evangelist, sharing the Good News that set him free. In 2021, he founded Damascus Road, a nonprofit residential discipleship program battling addiction, recidivism, and homelessness. Email damascusroad2021@gmail.com for more info.

God, Be with Me

I’ve seen God move in miraculous ways in my many years. Like when I was flying combat in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

The air force assigned me to the F-105 Thunderchief aircraft and sent me to the Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. After three days of orientation, I flew my first combat mission.

I was more than anxious as I headed toward my assigned target, but I took the time to pray. “God, please be with me.” Praying to my heavenly Father brought peace and comfort. I would repeat that short prayer on all 91 of my subsequent missions.

On my 38th mission, my aircraft suffered enemy fire and lost all oil pressure. Ejection was imminent, and that didn’t excite me. At that time, ejections were only 80 percent successful. So I prayed.

Generally, with no oil, a jet engine will continue to run no more than a minute. I’ve even heard the time be as short as 15 seconds. Miraculously, my engine ran for over six minutes, allowing me to get away from enemy territory.

I told the electronic warfare officer in the back of our F-105G to prepare for ejection and headed for the closest airbase.

As I started my descent, the aircraft accelerated to over 450 knots (518 mph). I retarded the throttle and expended the speed brakes—and the engine seized.

My wingman came over the intercom. “You’re on fire! You need to get out.”

I pulled up the nose to slow the airplane and ordered the officer with me to eject. Two orders and some not-so-religious words from me later, he finally obeyed.

Smoke filled the cockpit. It was my turn to eject. I grabbed the ejection lever, said another prayer, and pulled hard. Wham!

The ejection seat fired, and my head slapped down hard on my knee. My chin strap went into my voice box; I couldn’t breathe. Disoriented, I fell from the aircraft. When I finally got my bearings, I realized my chute hadn’t automatically deployed. I quickly grabbed the D-ring and manually opened the chute. I breathed a sigh of relief and then focused on where I was going to land.

The chute was drifting toward obstacles. I tried to steer clear, but I went down hard and broke my ankle. Twelve minutes later, a rescue chopper was right above me. I’d never been happier! The other officer survived as well. After rehab, I, like many others who served, went back to fly 53 more missions. I took more gunfire, and you can believe, the words, “God, please be with me,” were always forthcoming. I had no better protection than the Lord’s help.

I believe God hears all our prayers. He knows our hearts. He hears us when all we can say is “help,” and He welcomes our longer prayers too, when we pour out our hearts to Him.

Of course, God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we think He should. Sometimes, for reasons we’ll never know, He chooses not to perform a life-saving miracle on this side of heaven.

Those moments are disappointing, and they can shake our faith if we aren’t careful.

I’ve said my share of “unanswered” prayers too. But I don’t give up on God or doubt His ability to hear and answer prayer. Instead, I trust His love for me and keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the heart of God (Matthew 7:7).

It helps when I think back on the times I’ve witnessed God at work. Those moments serve as powerful reminders of God’s power and grace and give me hope that if He did it then, He can do it now.

Whatever you are facing today, I encourage you to pray about it (Philippians 4:6–8). When you give your situation to God, He will give you His peace and enable you to face the difficult thing before you.

 

By Gerald B. Hurst, with Kristi Overton Johnson

Gerald B. Hurst served in the US Air Force for 26 years and has also served as a representative in the NC Legislature. Colonel Hurst has been married to his sweetheart, Amelia, for 65 years and still enjoys flying. He has flown over 5,300 hours.

Benched by God?

I have never cared about sports of any kind. Then I got married.

For the last two years, I have been in boot camp, learning to be the wife of an avid sports lover. Any game involving a ball makes my otherwise attentive husband oblivious to the world around him.

To keep harmony in my home and avoid being a nagging wife, I sometimes sit with him through the games, absorbing more information than I will ever need or use. I have learned about teams, players, touchdowns, field goals, offense and defense, and good versus poor sportsmanship.

Players who spend time on the bench consistently catch my attention. Whether they’re there because of injury, poor performance, or not following the game plan or their coach’s lead, being benched is a big deal. It can be a temporary setback, or it can define their career.

The player’s attitude and ability to receive correction and instruction is what makes the difference. Those who decide to use the experience to gain wisdom and guidance are likely to emerge as better players and possibly even better people.

The same principles apply to our life and our walk with Jesus. My ultimate bench experience happened the third time I went to prison. The first two times I got locked up, I didn’t know the Lord, and I wasn’t interested in trying to do better in life.

I didn’t see myself as the problem. I blamed other people and my circumstances for where I had wound up. The chaos and dysfunction of my life had become comfortable, so it didn’t even occur to me that I should try to change.

But after 25 years of repeating the same cycle, I was barely alive and exhausted from doing things my way. In His grace and mercy, God put me on the bench, and I finally realized my need for Him. There, I surrendered my life to Jesus and decided to let Him be the head coach of my life.

I spent the rest of my prison time immersed in my Bible. It’s God’s playbook for a meaningful life (Hebrews 4:12). If you want lasting transformation, God’s Word is where you’ll find it.

Once released, I surrounded myself with like-minded people who were invested in my success. Five years later, they still take the time to walk with me, share their wisdom, and cover me in prayer as I learn to live for Christ. When I mess up or when my thinking is skewed or I misbehave, they don’t just tell me what they think I want to hear. They tell me the truth about myself and lovingly redirect me to God’s Word.

No matter how you get to the bench, trust that God knows what’s best for you. He may require you to sit it out with Him several times throughout your life. Our heavenly Father deals with us individually according to what we need (Hebrews 12:7). If He puts you on the bench, sit there and learn!

Is yours a physical bench or an invisible one? Are you in a season of correction? Maybe God wants you to be still for a while and get your priorities straight. Pay attention! Look for the lessons and the wisdom around you. More importantly, listen for God.

Spend your time on the bench wisely. Ask the Lord to show you in His Word how to change, how to break old habits and behaviors, and how to become more like Him. God disciplines you because He loves you (Proverbs 3:12). He wants you to become everything He created you to be—for your good and His glory (Ephesians 1:4–6).

 

CHRISTINA KIMBREL serves as Victorious Living’s production manager. Once incarcerated, she now ministers hope to those held captive by their past and current circumstances while sharing the message of healing she found in Jesus.

You Don’t Have to Go Back

January 12, 2023

I had just a few months left on my ten-year prison sentence when a friend said to me, “I don’t know how you’ve been able to do these ten years, Danny.” Without thinking, I said, “One day at a time, John.”

If you think about it, we’re all doing time somewhere. The question is, what are we doing, every day, with the time we’ve been given?

There are two things we all do, no matter who we are. One, we live till we die, and two, every day we’re alive, we make decisions. Good decisions generally lead to good results, and bad decisions usually lead to bad ones.

I’ll admit, I have made more than my share of bad decisions—but that doesn’t mean I have to continue making them. No way! It took serving time in 12 federal prisons and 5 county jails in 8 states for me to come to my senses, but I’ve now made it my aim to make the best decisions I can.

I’m in my 70s, and I have been out of prison for 20 years now, clean and green. I guess you could say I’ve “learned a thing or two, about a thing or two.”

Society has decided that incarceration is a form of punishment that will deter an individual from making the same bad decisions a second time. But does it?

Recently, I asked the men at a Bible study I teach at a halfway house to raise their hands if they had done more than one bit. More than half of them raised their hands. One man had been down 11 times. But then he said, “This is the last time, because I’ve found Jesus.”

Hold that thought!

What is it about Jesus that can prevent someone from going back to prison? Shouldn’t the shame, guilt, and financial hardship we’ve placed on our families be enough? Or living miles away from everything we love? How about living in fear and constantly looking over our shoulders?

For so many, none of those things prevent them from going back to their old ways and ultimately returning to prison. But Jesus can change things. Galatians 3:22 says, “we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ” (NLT).

I got right with God during my first two weeks in jail by accepting Jesus into my life. In that moment, I knew that I was corrected. Sure, I still had to serve the rest of my time and work through some wrong thinking, but from that day until now, Jesus has been doing time with me. He’s helped me overcome every obstacle I’ve met. He’s given me His strength, wisdom, peace, and power to face each day.

Is Jesus doing time with you, or are you still trying to do everything your way? Whatever trial you’re facing, are you doing it with Him or on your own?

I’ve tried doing life my way. It didn’t work. But when I began doing things God’s way, everything changed. He is the reason I am an ex-con, an ex-drug dealer, an ex-drug addict, and an ex-alcoholic.

I saw a poster once that said, “Never be a prisoner of your past. It was just a lesson, not a life sentence.” With Jesus, you can be free from your past, once and for all. His truth and Spirit can set you free (John 8:32; 2 Corinthians 3:17).

Stop trying to do things your way. Let Jesus change your heart and mind so He can change your ways and future. You don’t have to go back to your dead-end ways; you don’t have to be a statistic.

Life is about decisions, and the most important decision you can ever make is to ask Jesus to be your Lord and Savior. Go ahead, make it today. When you do, Jesus will come into your life and serve your time with you.

 

DANNY R. COX was called by God to be an evangelist while serving time in prison. He is now a credentialed evangelist and correctional chaplain and serves on the board of KOJ Ministries. Danny shares his story in churches and prisons worldwide. His book, High on a Lie, may be purchased on Amazon in English and Spanish. He is the founder of Prison2Preacher Ministries.

Commitment and Consistency: Keys to Transformation

In July 2012, I received an email saying my soon-to-be ex-husband had been awarded full temporary custody of our two sons. Two days later, my children and I were separated. My heart broke into a million pieces.

My sadness turned to rage, and I took on the victim role. Roots of bitterness grew deep, and I hurt many people (Hebrews 12:15). Intense shame and depression set in, and I slid into a hopeless pit. I lost all sense of who I was and my life’s purpose.

I had no one to blame but myself. Seven years of poor decisions caused by drug and alcohol addiction had led me into dark places where I had neglected my children. The court ordered that I would have supervised visitation, pay full child support, and attend family drug court for a year.

I set out to avenge my motherhood, but I was quickly overwhelmed because I didn’t know the Lord and I was fighting my battle alone. Four months into the court program, I failed a random drug test. The court took disciplinary action, but I didn’t have the courage or strength to follow through with the requirements.

My shame and selfishness kept me from taking responsibility and fighting for my life. I gave up and gave myself over entirely to my addiction and a life of lawlessness. I became homeless, revolving in and out of psychiatric hospitals and jail for years. My children were distant memories.

If you read my story in Issue 03/2022, you know that the light of Jesus Christ overcame the darkness of my life (John 1:4–5) while I was in jail awaiting a prison sentence. Right there, Christ made me new—He gave me a new heart, a clear mind, new desires, and a new will to live and love again. His presence and Word gave me strength, courage, and hope for future reunification with my children. My heart clung to the promise that with God, all things were possible (Matthew 19:26).

Then He stepped in and made a way for me to go to the Phoenix Rescue Mission, a Christ-centered facility providing solutions for people trapped in cycles of homelessness, addiction, and poverty. There, I committed my whole self—heart, mind, body, will, emotions—as a living sacrifice to God and renewed it daily (Romans 12:1). I laid my relationship with my children and their father on God’s altar. Only God could bring the healing we needed.

The first few months I was at the Mission, I wasn’t allowed to have contact with the outside world except through writing to approved people. Each week, I wrote my two sons. I didn’t know if they were getting my letters, but I continued to pursue them in faith.

Three months into the program, I received permission to call them twice weekly.

God planted the words commitment and consistency in my mind. Commitment and consistency were new ideas for me, but I’ve since learned they are critical components for life transformation.

A couple months later, my boys were approved to visit me. I loved those weekend visits! We would talk, laugh, and play games. I was grateful their dad allowed these interactions.

Eventually, I got a car and gained even more freedom. I felt hopeful and eager. I was ready to be their mom again and to have unsupervised visits. But their father said, “Not yet.”

This delay hurt, and I felt rejected. I’d worked hard and made significant progress.

But my addiction, actions, and brokenness had betrayed the trust of many, especially my sons’ father. It would take time to unravel and reshape the mess I’d made. I had to trust God’s timing and His ability to heal and change hearts. If I rushed the process, I might cause more delays.

“Commitment and consistency, Sheridan.” The Lord kept urging me to stay the course, to not react to my hurt feelings, and to keep my eyes fixed on Him. His plans were good (Jeremiah 29:11); I just had to trust them.

And then I learned my ex and his family,  including my boys, were moving to Georgia. My heart broke as my reunification plan fell apart. “No, God!” I cried. “Why would You save me and change me, only to let my boys move away from me?”

I wrestled with my emotions for a hot minute but returned to the truth—God had a plan, and I could trust it. I saw that I had two choices. I could either succumb to the crippling heaviness of this news and the uncertainty of my reconciliation process, or I could “lean not on my own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5–6) and “be still and know that He is God” (Psalm 46:10).

Leaning on my minimal and faulty understanding had consistently led me to destruction. I had to remain committed and consistent in my relationship with God, no matter what my emotions were telling me. God knew the end of my reconciliation from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). His plan would prevail. “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21 NIV).

I was amazed at the peace in my heart. Before giving my life to Jesus, a circumstance like this would have taken me out. I would have played the victim card, used drugs, fought for my rights, and been depressed and filled with despair.

Instead, because of God’s presence, power, and promises in my life, I was able to receive this news without sliding into that hopeless pit. He had transformed my heart and mind and made me a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). This new creation was no longer doing old things. Praise God!

My sons often asked me when I would move near them. I wasn’t able to answer them definitively, and that hurt. I still had to complete the program at the Mission and finish three years of probation before I could go anywhere.

“Whenever God allows it,” I’d reply. I had to surrender to the unknown and trust that God was working behind the scenes to bring about His plan. And you know what? That’s all God asked me to do.

While I waited, I strove to remain faithful to the Lord. I started working in ministry, completed my probation, restored my civil rights, and returned to school.

God impressed on my heart to pay the child support I owed, including seven years of arrearages. I had no idea how to do this—the bottom line didn’t add up. I was already working two jobs and didn’t have enough money to meet my personal needs. But God soon blessed me with a promotion. “Commitment and consistency” kept ringing in my ears.

I flew back and forth from Arizona to Georgia to visit my children for the following year. Before too long, their father agreed to unsupervised parenting time. I burst into tears of joy at the news, and a year later, I moved to Georgia.

Today, my husband and I are coparenting with my ex-husband and his wife. Only God could restore such brokenness and bring forth such beauty (Joel 2:25). Only He could transform my messed-up self into a mother who is now part of the solution and not the problem. And only He could have softened my ex-husband’s heart to bring us into this arrangement.

You know, God can do the same for you. You have to realize, however, that transformation and restoration take time. It’s a process that starts with surrendering your heart, mind, life, and desires to God. It requires unwavering commitment and consistency to God and doing whatever is necessary to move toward your goal, no matter how difficult or long it takes.

Along the way, God will give you His strength, peace, and contentment for the journey. Trust Him.

 

Sheridan Correa is a biblical counselor who is trained in trauma-informed care. She’s a wife, mother of two teenage boys, singer, and avid runner who has been radically changed by Jesus. She joined the Victorious Living family in 2022 as digital content manager.

See Yourself as a Champion

Recently, world-class athlete Vennesa Vieke asked me what I thought it takes to be a champion. For the next year, she and I spent time together talking about how I had achieved my success. It was fun, going back and sharing my 35-year athletic journey with my new friend. (See her story in Issue 03/2021.)

What I’ve learned is that if you want to be a champion in anything—sports, relationships, careers, ministries, you name it—the principles are the same. If you want victory in your physical, mental, and emotional health, you must apply these principles. But here’s the kicker: mentally agreeing with them won’t get you anywhere. You’ll have to do the hard work, make sacrifices, and persevere daily.

If you want to be a champion for the kingdom of God, you have to use the same principles.

Let’s talk about that phrase, a champion for the kingdom of God. I chose those words deliberately because I’ve realized there are many champions of God who are not actively being champions for God’s kingdom. There is a profound difference.

As believers, we are all champions in God’s eyes. And our champion status isn’t based on what we do. It’s based on the simple fact that we are God’s children. There are no chumps in God’s family, only champions.

Right now, maybe you’re thinking, “No way am I a champion. I’ve never succeeded at anything. You have no idea what I’ve done or what has happened to me. God couldn’t possibly see a champion in me.”

The Bible says otherwise.

If you’ve put your faith and trust in Jesus for salvation, then you are His champion. The blood of Jesus has made you one. Romans 3:25 says, “For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood” (NLT).

While we were still sinners—not after we got it all together and had a champion’s success record—God sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us. Jesus’s blood makes us right in God’s sight (Romans 5:8–9). Because of Jesus, God can’t even see our failures. It’s the work of the cross that makes us His champions, not what we do.

There is nothing we can do to become more of a champion to God. He loves us just as we are for one simple reason: we’re His kids. There are no conditions to our heavenly Father’s love. You can’t earn it, and you can’t lose it. It just is, and it’s everlasting.

There aren’t different degrees of God’s love either. His love doesn’t change. He can’t love you any more than He does right now. And He doesn’t love one person more than He does someone else. This is great and amazing news.

So if we’re already champions, isn’t that all there is? No. Even though God loves us and even though He sees a champion when He looks at us, that doesn’t mean every believer will live the life of a champion. Not every believer will determine to be a champion for God and His kingdom.

I didn’t for a long time.

I was all about championing my kingdom. I was focused on using my gifts and talents for my glory, not His. I didn’t realize there was more to being a Christian than asking Jesus to forgive me of my sins and give me eternal life (John 3:16).

I knew I was supposed to go to church, pray, and read my Bible, but I didn’t understand that God wanted to partner with me in life and use me for His kingdom purposes. I had no idea someone could be a champion for God’s kingdom, and I certainly didn’t know how to be one.

Let’s look at the life of Moses to understand this better. God created Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. God knew Moses was the right person for the job—even after he’d killed a man and had to hide out in the wilderness shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep. (Check out Exodus 1–2.) Does that sound like someone who’s a champion? A wanted man, a murderer, living in obscurity?

Thankfully, when God chooses people to champion His causes, He doesn’t look at their outward appearance, their past, or where they live. He looks at the inner qualities He put in us.

God created Moses to lead. He allowed Moses to have unique and even painful experiences to prepare him for the task. He wanted to journey with Moses to help him develop those leadership qualities.

In Exodus 3–4, we see God inviting His champion to go on this adventure with Him. A voice from a burning bush? You can believe God had Moses’s attention as He began to reveal what He wanted him to do.

God was like, “Moses, I’ve chosen you to champion the cause of My people. I’m going to use you to save them from the Egyptians. I want you to lead them, protect them, and teach them how to live and love Me.”

But Moses couldn’t imagine himself leading anyone. Maybe before, but now? No way. So he began to object.

“Me?” he said. “Appear before Pharaoh? But God—! Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt? What if they don’t believe me? What if they won’t listen to me?”

Even after God promised to be with Moses, even after He gave him instructions and the words to speak and supernatural powers, Moses still refused to accept God’s call. He only saw his limitations: “I–I can’t be Your mouthpiece, God. I st–stutter.”

Do you ever feel like Moses? Do you have trouble seeing yourself as someone God can use? When you think of the word “champion,” do you have difficulty seeing yourself in that category? Or do you see yourself as the least of the least, when God is saying you are a mighty warrior?

Well, I have some good news. God uses the least of the least to champion His causes!

Consider 1 Corinthians 1:27–28: “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (NLT).

Have you ever been called a fool? Worthless? A big fat zero? Have you ever felt despised or rejected? Well, you are who God wants to use.

Your past doesn’t matter; neither do your limitations. All that matters is that you are willing to be used by God. Friend, God is in you, and Christ in you is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

You can face anything and do anything God has called you to do (Philippians 4:13) because God’s Spirit lives in you. The very power of God, the heart of God, the mind of Christ is in you (1 Corinthians 2). His Spirit empowers you to do what He asks you to do. It’s not by your might or power; it’s by His (Zechariah 4:6). You are a champion because God, the greatest Champion of all, lives inside you!

It’s time to start walking with your head held high. I love Leviticus 26:13, where God says to His children: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt so you would no longer be their slaves. I broke the yoke of slavery from your neck so you can walk with your heads held high.”

We aren’t to walk in shame or be overcome with guilt. We aren’t to walk burdened down by the weight of sin or the words of others. God sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us. And in doing so, He freed us from the penalty and power of sin. He broke the yoke of bondage.

Now, I am not suggesting that we get all puffed up with pride and become overconfident in our abilities. No. Our confidence is in God and His love for us. God declared our worth when He created us, and He has promised to be with us every day since.

Have you ever thought about the moment you were created? According to Psalm 139, God was at work in your mother’s womb, fashioning and forming you with His very hands. Maybe you think, “God didn’t plan me. I was an accident. I was unwanted, a product of violence.”

There is no life outside of God. He is the Creator, Giver, and Sustainer of life. (See Job 33:4; Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; and 1 Corinthians 8:6.) Negative circumstances around your conception or birth do not negate the fact that God created you, He loves you, and that He has a good plan for your life that He wants you to fulfill.

You, no matter who you are, are God’s masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10). He created you on purpose and for a purpose. Your earthly parents might have cursed the day you were born, but God didn’t. He wanted you to be born because He values your life.

Not only that—He took great delight in forming all the delicate parts of your body (Psalm 139:13). God knit you together. You are wonderfully fashioned, and when He looks at you, He smiles. He has precious thoughts toward you that outnumber the grains of sand (Psalm 139:17–18).

You’re His prized possession, worth even the life of His only Son.

It’s hard sometimes to remember that. The world likes to remind us of our shortcomings, as does Satan, the enemy of our soul. But God thinks differently, and it is time we align our thoughts with His. We can’t live the life God intends us to live without doing so.

Let’s do an exercise. Write down the negative words your parents, spouse, children, so-called friends, or coworkers have spoken over you. Write down the negative thoughts you’ve had about yourself too. How many are there? Ten? A hundred? Maybe a thousand?

With a pen, place a dot of ink on your paper to represent each countable thought. When you’re done, compare those dots against all the grains of sand in the world. The sand represents God’s thoughts toward you—His good, precious, innumerable thoughts. Remember Psalm 139? No matter how many negative statements you came up with, there’s no comparison!

Friend, God thinks you are the bomb, and it’s time you realize it. You can’t be the champion He has created you to be if you don’t believe you are champion material. God does not create junk! He doesn’t make mistakes. He created you—you!—on purpose and with a purpose. Why should it matter what other people think or say?

Let’s continue our exercise. Dive into God’s Word and discover His thoughts toward you. Write His words next to the negative ones you listed. For example, if you wrote, “You are a failure,” write next to it, “I am not a failure. I am the righteousness of God.” If you wrote, “You will never amount to anything. You are just like your father.” Write down this truth, “My Father is God Almighty, and I was made in His image. He has great plans for me and will help me accomplish them. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength!” Exchange each lie for the truth of God.

Search the Bible daily and renew your mind with God’s thoughts toward you. If you want to know God’s will for your life, you have to renew your mind. Change the way you think about everything, including yourself. As you do, God will transform you into a new person—the champion He created you to be (Romans 12:2).

Capturing negative thoughts, rebuking condemning words (2 Corinthians 10:5), guarding your mouth (Psalm 141:3)—it’s a full-time job. But it’s worth the effort.

 

KRISTI OVERTON JOHNSON encourages and equips people for victory through her writings, speaking engagements, and prison ministry. To learn more, go to kojministries.org.

More of Jesus, Less of Me

“Go for it! Have some fun! You deserve this. Everybody has it better than you. Your mom’s sick. Your dad’s a drug addict. God cheated you. Life cheated you. Everybody cheated you.”

Anger and self-pity fueled me for decades. It never mattered that I knew that what I was doing was wrong. My inner voice always urged me to move forward. I was a victim, and the world owed me.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve felt sorry for myself. It started in elementary school when I began comparing my home life to what I imagined my peers experienced. I could never pinpoint exactly what they had that I didn’t, but I knew it was better. I lost sight of any good thing in my life and focused only on the negative.

I loved my family and knew they loved me, but our home was dysfunctional and chaotic. Dad was a full-blown crack cocaine addict and alcoholic. His addiction brought much grief into our home, especially for my older brother, whom Dad abused. My brother was my father’s stepson; perhaps that’s why he targeted him so fiercely. Whatever the reason, it made me uncomfortable because Dad treated me like the golden child.

Dad’s addiction led him in and out of jail and eventually to prison. It also caused us to move a lot. By the time I was 15, we had moved ten times.

My mother was loving, but she had her own struggles, primarily due to her battle with diabetes. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t in intense pain or homebound. She ultimately became blind and addicted to prescription pain pills. Her addiction and physical misery made it difficult for her to be emotionally present for my brother and me, but she did the best she could.

Extended family provided much-needed support. My grandmother, aunt, and uncle loved our family well. We often attended church together.

I heard many stories about Jesus when I was a kid. Early on, I believed that God had sent His Son to die for me. I even prayed to receive His gift of eternal salvation. But as often happens, my Christian faith stopped at my head and never settled in my heart.

I had no relationship with God outside of the church, nor was I interested in developing one. To me, God was to blame for the chaos in my home, especially Mom’s sickness. She passed when I was 15, and that was just proof that God didn’t care about us.

Dad was in prison then, and my brother had moved from West Virginia to Ohio. I felt so alone, lost, and overwhelmed by the uncertainty of my future. Where was God, and why was He allowing me to endure such hardships?

Anger pumped through my veins as I recounted how He had cheated me.

My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Herb, a kind Christian couple, welcomed me into their home. They loved, accepted, and supported me daily, and they modeled God’s sacrificial love and faithfulness. Through them, I learned the benefits of hard work and integrity and experienced a stable home life for the first time.

But the anger, resentment, and self-pity inside kept me from accepting their love or God’s gift of a new life. I spent the best years of my life at my aunt and uncle’s home, yet I wasn’t satisfied. By focusing only on the things I didn’t have, I forfeited the very things I had longed for in a family.

During my two years in their home, I partied, smoked, cussed, and messed around with girls. I occasionally dabbled in weed. Tired of their watchful eye, I devised a plan for my brother to obtain legal guardianship of me. Because I was 17, I could make that foolish choice without my aunt and uncle’s permission. They knew it would not end well for me as my brother was involved with drugs too.

The court granted my request, and I moved to Ohio. My brother enrolled me in high school, but after only six months, I dropped out and dove headfirst into a life of destruction. I traded weed for methamphetamines, and for the next 13 years, I served a harsh master.

I did whatever I had to do to satisfy my addiction, including manufacturing and selling the drug myself. My choices caught up with me when I was 30, and I was arrested. It was the first time I’d ever been in serious trouble, and there I was, facing prison time.

While in solitary confinement in jail, I came across a Bible. I opened it a few times, but my heart of stone couldn’t receive anything it had to offer. I still blamed God for my miserable life.

The day before my sentencing hearing, my lawyer visited and told me he was getting me a great deal. His promises brought me a sense of hope. That night I decided I’d better make one more deal. “God,” I said, “if You’ll come through for me tomorrow, I’ll follow You. Do this for me, and I’ll trust You. I’ll even read the Bible.”

But God wasn’t playing my Let’s Make a Deal game.

The lawyer didn’t show up for court. Instead, some wet-behind-the-ears, state-appointed attorney represented me. This new guy knew nothing about my case, and the judge sentenced me to a mandatory three years in prison with no possibility of early release. I sat in disbelief as life as I knew it came to an end.

The officer took me back to solitary confinement. The clanging of the chains connected to my hands and feet was the only sound in the corridor. As I shuffled, I searched for some emotion but felt numb.

Back in my cell, I punched the wall to feel something. Anything. Nothing. I turned on the small 5-station radio in my cell. I couldn’t stand the silence.

“Drunk on a Plane” by Dierks Bentley echoed through the cell. I quickly changed the station. I wasn’t in the mood. Suddenly, “How He Loves” by David Crowder Band rang through the emptiness. It’s a song about the unconditional love of God, and the words brought me to my knees.

It was a surreal moment. Years of anger and resentment toward God drained from my heart in tears. I was so tired of fighting for my rightful place in this world. It had only led to one painful, lonely, rock-bottom place after another.

In that humble posture, I heard God’s voice. “Trust Me anyway.”

I reached toward the small window at the top of my cell and surrendered to the love of Jesus. “Okay, God. I will trust You anyway!”

Immediately, His presence engulfed me and the space around me. Peace replaced years of frustration and fear. Love replaced hatred and bitterness. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I no longer felt like a victim. It was an instantaneous transformation of the heart.

Back in general population, the guys immediately knew something was different.

“What in the world happened to you?” they asked. Just a few days before, I’d been dealing and stealing. Now, I wasn’t even cussing.

“Jesus happened.”

From then on, I read the Bible daily and sought God’s will. I was about to spend three years in prison and—I must admit—I was afraid. But knowing God would be walking through those prison doors with me brought comfort, courage, and confidence (Deuteronomy 31:8).

I wanted to honor the second chance God was giving me and do my part to better myself. If I wasn’t willing to invest in myself, I certainly couldn’t expect anyone else to care.

I sensed God telling me, “If you’ll commit yourself and do the work, I will help you get to where you need to be.” Now that was a good deal!

My first commitment was to obtain my GED. Since math had always been a difficult subject for me, I asked another inmate to tutor me. Every day after lunch, this former doctor helped me. It wasn’t easy preparing for the GED, as the test had recently become more complex. I studied for hours daily. It’s like they say: Nothing worth having is easy.

I scored so high on the test that I was asked to tutor other inmates for the GED. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time, I was a leader. That alone was a testament to what God can do.

Not only had He saved my soul, but He helped me understand things I had struggled with before. He was changing me, making me a better man. I found the confidence to pursue a college degree from Ashland University. They offered an associate’s program to incarcerated people that other universities would accept.

I studied hard and was amazed when I made the dean’s list. I’d never cared to apply myself in school, so I’d had no idea what I could do academically. Once released from prison, I completed my education and received my associate’s degree from Ashland.

God’s Spirit continually reminded me, “You’re worth the work, Ronnie.”

I had never felt worthy of anything good. Nor had I believed I could ever be anything other than a drug addict. But God thought differently about me. He didn’t see an addict or a boy raised in poverty who’d lost his mom and dad. He saw a son whom He loved.

Believing I was worthy helped me continue down this new path. It wasn’t always easy. There were many times, especially after I was released from prison, that I was tempted to quit college and return to where I’d been. But God kept spurring me on. “You’re worth the work, Ronnie! Keep pressing forward with Me.”

After I graduated from Ashland in 2018, I became a youth pastor at a local church. I wanted to help kids discover their worth in God.

For so long, I had wanted nothing to do with Him, and now, I was bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others! People used to cross the street to avoid me. Now parents and youth were coming to me for advice. It was incredible.

Only God could transform this dirty, lying, and conniving manipulator into a man other people trusted.

New doors began opening for me, and I left my youth pastor position to travel nationwide, sharing my story. I also took a job at Christian Healthcare Ministries. God brought promotion after promotion as I stayed faithful. It’s just like Luke 16:10 promises: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” (NIV). Today, I am over the training and development of more than 300 employees.

This incredible new life started with a simple: “Okay, God, I’ll trust You anyway.”

The moment I died to myself and my perception of life, God raised me. He gave me new eyes and a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) and set my feet on a new path (Proverbs 3:5–6). And as I humble myself before Him daily, God continues to lift me (James 4:10).

Not too long ago, I had John 3:30 tattooed on my arm. It helps me remember the important words of John the Baptist about Jesus. “He [Jesus] must become greater; I must become less” (NIV).

John knew the secret to life: more of Jesus, less of self. It’s the only way to experience the abundant life Jesus promises in John 10:10.

How about you? Will you choose to trust God anyway? Will you lay down your anger and disappointments, uncurl your fists, and open your heart to the One who loves you—even if life hasn’t happened like you thought it should? And will you believe that you are worth a better life?

Right now, your experiences might have brought you lower than you ever imagined possible. I know. I’ve been there. But I’ve learned that with Christ, rock bottom is a great place to lay a foundation for your new life (Matthew 7:24–27).

God’s got good plans in store for you (Jeremiah 29:11). How can you experience them? Remember John 3:30. More of Him and less of you.

Trust God today. When you do, He won’t waste any time restoring and rebuilding your life.

I won’t promise His plans will be easy. But no matter what you face, God’s goodness will meet you there. And His grace will help you move forward to great heights.

Don’t focus on that thing you never had. You’ll miss the better thing God has for you today.

 

RONNIE HOPKINS is the training and development coordinator for Christian Healthcare Ministries. He is also a spokesperson and advocate for educational opportunities in prison.

Graced for Success

In the early 2000s, I began a long journey of redirection. It started with one step, then a series of steps until finally, I arrived in a spacious place where today, I am passionately living out my God-given purpose and helping others do the same (Psalm 18:19). God’s love and grace rescued me from the powers of darkness that had held me captive since my youth (Colossians 1:13).

Did I deserve His kindness? No. I had rebelled early in life and trampled His gifts, especially the gift of loving parents. After eighth grade, I ran away from home and dropped out of school. I wanted to do things my way.

My parents tried desperately to get me back on track, but I ignored them. My only focus was making money. I imagined it would give me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. So I found a place to live with a relative and got a job at the local Burger King.

Every morning I rode my bike to a place that tells its customers to “have it your way.” Well, having it my way might have been desirable for a hamburger, but not in life. I needed God’s way, but it would take years of hardship for me to figure that out.

Selfish desires, irrational decisions, and a lack of direction carried me into dark places where I experienced much physical, emotional, and mental pain. It still hurts to revisit that time of my life.

By 17, I was pregnant with my first child. I had an on-and-off relationship with the baby’s father and gave birth to two more children with him in the next couple of years. As often happens to baby mamas, the father gave no support.

I did my best under the circumstances, but the weight of raising and providing for three children was a lot to carry. Not to mention I was far too emotionally immature to care for them properly. How thankful I am for immediate family members and community programs that provided support.

One day, a case worker knocked on my door and told me about a program that assisted parents with young children. This program would allow me to attend a local community college and obtain my GED while my children participated in a Head Start program.

The thought of getting my GED kindled new hope in me. For years, my educational status had prevented me from obtaining jobs outside of food service. I was only 19, but my future had already seemed set in stone. Suddenly, I could see a way to take a step toward something positive in my life. Maybe there was a future for me after all.

I entered the program excitedly and set what I thought was a reasonable goal to pass one test a month. Obtaining my GED took longer than expected, though, as I had trouble staying focused. I would get inspired, then fall away.

Math slowed me down. It took three attempts for me to pass that exam. I didn’t know it then, but depression was contributing to my inability to stay consistent. At the time, all I knew to do was push my feelings down and keep trying.

My teachers noticed my determination and asked me to be a guest speaker at the basic skills recognition ceremony. I was surprised when my speech and a picture of me in my cap and gown were published in the local newspaper. It was my birthday, and I couldn’t have received a better gift.

The newspaper article and picture proved that good things are possible to those who work hard and believe. I showed it to my children with pride and encouraged them those good things were possible for them, too.

From that day forward, I set more goals and entered the local community college to pursue my college education. Filled with newfound confidence, I refused to count myself out or be content with just getting by and relying on others. I wanted more out of life and was determined to defeat every challenge that came my way. My children were looking up to me, so giving up wasn’t an option.

I began pursuing a degree in human services technology. I wanted to help people, especially women like me who struggled to make ends meet. It felt good to take daily steps to better myself. But in 2005, I lost focus when the father of my children came back around. I got pregnant again and had to put my education goals on hold for nearly a decade to care for my four children.

Looking back, I see that continuing a relationship with a man who didn’t stay and didn’t care enough to provide for his family was unwise. But I couldn’t see past the moment. Insecurities and an unhealed heart led me to make many choices that resulted in hard consequences.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my children and would make every sacrifice again for them. But being a single mom and living in poverty was hard—for my kids and for me.

I often felt discouraged by my circumstances and would isolate myself as I fought depression and suicidal thoughts. Only by God’s grace were my kids and I able to survive that long, dark season.

The church was the only place I experienced a sense of relief. I started attending with the kids around the same time I got my GED. We’d walk down the street to church each Sunday, and there, I’d find the strength to make it through another week.

Being in the presence of God, His Word, powerful worship music, and fellowshipping with other believers lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders. I knew no matter what, I needed to cling to my faith. And I did. But I didn’t yet understand the importance of living in Christ daily.

God used my children to draw me closer to Him. My children have always been my motivation to live a better life. I wanted them to be proud of their mother and see that they could achieve their goals if they focused and worked hard.

But God showed me that it was even more important to teach them to live a life of faith daily. Worldly success is worthless if they don’t know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (Philippians 3:8).

I began to seek God daily through prayer and studying the Bible. I was determined to give Him more than church attendance. Soon, God’s Holy Spirit convicted me of my life choices. He showed me that my going to church and then hitting the clubs and hanging out was sending mixed messages to my kids.

Having one foot in the world was also causing me to be unstable. James 1:8 says that a person who divides their loyalty between God and the world is unstable in all they do.

Setting a bad example for my children was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to live a life of faith that honored God and exhibited character worth imitating—and God gave me the power to accomplish it (Philippians 2:13).

I returned to school again, and in 2014, I finally graduated with my college degree. My older self told my younger self, “Girl, you did it!” I thanked God for this joyous day. Later that year, I got married—something I never thought I’d experience. But the honeymoon didn’t last long as my kids and I tried to adjust to our new family unit. We all struggled, and soon, my children rebelled.

I kept pushing down my emotions and pressing through situations as I’d always done. It seemed to be paying off when in 2016, I started a job at East Carolina University in an administrative role. I could hardly contain myself when I sat down at my very own desk in a private office. I rejoiced in the Lord and thanked Him for bringing me so far in life. He had helped me overcome so many obstacles (Philippians 4:13).

But things fell apart in the fall of 2018. My husband and I separated, and my son, arrested for double homicide, was facing the death penalty. (Instead of death, he is now serving a 38-year sentence in prison.)

His arrest took a toll on my mental state. Life had thrown me many curves in the past, but I’d always managed to bob and weave and keep moving. This time, I was drowning in sorrow.

Satan had a heyday with me while I was down. He reminded me daily how I had missed the mark as a mother and wife. He told me God’s plan would never come to fruition for my kids or me and that I had experienced all the good I ever would. It didn’t take long before I was engulfed again in a hopeless pit of despair and self-pity. All I could see was an endless dark tunnel with no light, closing in on me. I lost sight of all the progress I’d made.

A good thing happened during this dark season though. For years, I had refused to talk to anyone about my mental health or seek medical help. I’d used God as an excuse, telling myself that He alone was my Healer; I didn’t need anyone else.

Don’t get me wrong—God is the Great Physician, and He can heal anyone of anything. But I wasn’t actually receptive to His help because I didn’t want to confront the painful issues of my past. Finally, I realized that unless I faced my past with God, I had no hope of breaking free from the darkness that held me captive.

It wasn’t easy, but I started sharing my pain, first with God and then with other trustworthy people. I took the cap off the place in my heart where I stored my emotions and painful traumas and let them rise to the surface. One by one, I gave them over to God.

First Peter 5:7 (NIV) invites us to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” As I realized the depth of God’s love for me, I trusted Him more with my pain. As the old traumas, disappointments, emotions, and my sinful behavior came to light, I would write them down, pray, and then release them to God. It helped me to remember that God’s love was unconditional and that no matter what I shared, He would not reject or judge me (John 3:17).

With time, the light of His love overcame the darkness that had tormented me (Psalm 18:28; Matthew 4:16). The Lord also gave me strength and peace to seek professional help. I am grateful for those He put in my path to help me. God never gave up on me, even when I wanted to give up on myself.

Today, praise God, my mental and emotional health is more stable. In 2020, God graced me to launch a nonprofit called Striving with Vision. I now have the privilege of helping women discover their worth in Christ and encouraging them to strive toward a better future. My past victories with God have equipped me for this journey. In the process, I’ve found that serving others helps me avoid becoming consumed with my own struggles, especially my son’s incarceration.

There’s a saying, “Nothing worth having is easy.” I know this is true. My life has been one fight of faith after another. But the “good fight of faith” is what we must all face if we want to be victorious over our circumstances (1 Timothy 6:12).

Satan and this world are not just going to roll over and let you experience the goodness of God’s plan. You must be willing to face the fight! God will strengthen you for the journey and grace you for success.

It may not seem like it now, but there is hope for your tunnel’s end. Keep casting your cares over to God. Remind yourself daily of the victories you’ve already experienced and cling to your faith that more will come. And then rise, aim, and move forward with purpose (1 Corinthians 9:26).

In Christ, you are a conqueror over every situation (Romans 8:37). No circumstance or person has the power to stop what God has purposed for your life (Isaiah 54:17; Jeremiah 29:11). Well, no one except you. Your unbelief in God, refusal to believe in yourself, and unwillingness to keep going will stop you in your tracks every time.

Right now, maybe you’re fighting that good fight of faith. You’re taking steps with God toward a better future. I’m so glad. Keep going; you’re going to make it. You can be victorious.

But maybe, like I often did, you’ve gotten sidetracked, knocked down, or delayed. Friend, it’s time to get back up. It’s not too late. God’s love is big. Nothing you’ve done or experienced has disqualified you from the good things He has for you.

Get your eyes off your circumstances, your failures, and those deceitful emotions. Instead, give them to God. He will help you. Then rise and take the next step He has for you.

Don’t know which step to take next? Ask Him. He’ll show you the way (Proverbs 3:5–6; James 1:5). And when He does, move in faith and purpose with tightly secured boxing gloves.

You’ve got this because God’s got you!

 

LATOYA WILLIAMS is the founder of Striving with Vision, an empowerment support group, and an ordained minister. To find out more about her nonprofit or to invite Latoya to speak at your event, visit strivingwithvision.com.

From Guns to Grace

My childhood is shrouded in mystery. I’m 41 years old, and I still don’t have answers, but this much I know: God wasn’t confused. He wasn’t absent. He’s always had a plan and purpose for my life (Jeremiah 29:11). I just had to come to the end of myself before I could receive them.

No one has ever explained why my biological mom didn’t raise me or why I lived with another family. I’ve always had more questions than answers. My mom battled something great; whatever it was, she ended her life when I was ten. Everyone worked hard to protect me—from what horrible truth, I’ll never know.

After my mom passed, the family I lived with adopted me. They let me choose my last name. I decided to use both surnames and joined them with a hyphen: Lightsey-Copeland.

Even though Mom wasn’t around much, she always made sure I knew she loved me. No matter what had happened, she would always be a part of me, so I wanted to honor her. But I also wanted to honor Mrs. Copeland, the woman who ensured I never wanted or needed anything. She was my mother now, and I even got three big brothers out of the deal!

In the Copeland home, I experienced love and positive male role models. But I took them for granted and became vulnerable to the world’s influences. My thoughts were quickly shaped by the lies of an enemy I was not even aware of, much less equipped to fight. Satan was prowling around like a roaring lion, and he was about to try to devour me (1 Peter 5:8).

I remember playing outside our apartment one day, when this guy walked by with sagging pants, a cocked baseball cap, and a gun in his pocket. I admired the confidence in his stride and thought, “Wow! He’s cool.”

I didn’t know who he was, but I wanted to be like him. I stopped playing with Legos and digging holes in the dirt and headed into high school with a new style and attitude.

My new look quickly attracted the wrong kind of attention. The colors I wore insulted gang members in my neighborhood, and I had to deal with them daily, even though I wasn’t in a gang. I was in their territory, and that’s all that mattered.

I couldn’t even walk to the bus stop without having to defend myself, but I didn’t back down, no matter how many fights I had to endure. I stood my ground and did what I wanted, and eventually, the bullying and the fighting stopped.

My rebellion grew rapidly, as did my ego. I started messing with drugs, using first and then selling. Once I tasted that fast money, I couldn’t walk away. It made me feel powerful, accepted, and like I was somebody.

I kept my grades up so my mom wouldn’t think things were off with me. Plus, I didn’t want to disappoint her. I followed the house rules, did my homework, and excelled in sports. After I graduated from high school, I went to college. But that didn’t last long.

I lived a double life, walking a tightrope between two opposing identities. My street ego grew and grew, and I felt invincible. Giving in to the lure of the fast life, I dropped out of college and hit the streets full time.

And then, one day a drive-by shooting happened in front of my mom’s house. No one was hurt, but it was quite the reality check. Those bullets had my name on them. I was ashamed as I realized the danger I’d brought to my family, not to mention the heartbreak.

But there was more disappointment ahead, and there was nothing I could do to prepare my family for it. I didn’t even see it coming until it was too late.

Something told me not to leave the house that day, but with full-blown arrogance, I ignored the warning and headed out, looking for trouble. I found it in a strip-club parking lot. Before the night was over, a man was dead, and his blood was on my hands.

I fled the scene and hid in a shed in the backyard of an abandoned house. Adrenaline pumped through my racing heart as I heard police sirens and a helicopter in the distance. I was twenty-eight years old and on the run for murder.

I’d never prayed before or even thought about God, but as reality sank in, I somehow knew He was my only hope.

“God, please help me.”

I didn’t expect an answer. At that moment, I felt as far away from God as a person could get. Why would He even listen to my prayer? I had just murdered a man!

But He heard it, and He didn’t waste any time responding.

“Are you ready to surrender your life to Me, Andre?”

It was a gentle but direct question, and I knew without a doubt that it was Him. I wasn’t one to hear voices.

What caught my attention was the use of my name. To think that God would know me by name! Suddenly, His presence was tangible, and I realized I wasn’t alone.

Frightened, I continued to run from the authorities and evaded capture for two weeks. But as I ran, that encounter never left my thoughts.

What could God possibly want with me? The thought was confusing. As far as I knew, my life was over.

When the cops finally caught up with me, I was relieved. They booked me into Pima County Jail and charged me with first-degree murder. The weight of what I’d done hit me with such force that I could barely breathe. I became numb and was unable to process what was happening.

Mom came to see me, utterly shocked by the charges against me. She had no idea the depths of my rebellion. “Son, I know you didn’t do this terrible thing,” she said. “Tell me what happened so we can straighten this all out.”

There was no fixing the situation. I had to tell her the truth. I was totally to blame for what had happened.

Alone in my cell, God’s question kept coming to mind, “Are you ready to surrender your life to Me, Andre?”

Fear. Shame. Guilt. Grief. Anger. Confusion. Waves of emotion washed over me. What did I have to give God?

“I don’t have anything to give you, God.” I finally told Him. “I’m a mess, and I’m probably in prison for the rest of my life.”

I knew nothing about the Bible, but when I picked one up, the Lord wasted no time speaking to my heart. He showed me Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV).

I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was reading. Jesus died for me even though He knew I was a sinner? Why? I had never paid attention to Him. Why would He care about me? But that’s what it said.

Wow.

I kept reading the Bible and learned so much. Jesus was a perfect man and also God. He died a horrible death so that I could have my sins forgiven. That blew my mind. I became hungry to learn all I could about Jesus, the resurrected Savior. I was fascinated by His teachings and the people He chose to be His disciples. What a motley crew! Then I learned about King David and how God used him even though he was an adulterer and a murderer (2 Samuel 11–12; Psalm 51).

As soon as I could, I got baptized and committed my life to follow Jesus no matter what, even if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison.

My case dragged through the court system for two and a half years. As I awaited my sentence, I leaned into God’s Word for courage and comfort. I discovered who I was in God’s eyes. Satan had been feeding me lies about my identity since my youth.

I attended church with my Spanish-speaking cellie, who was also a Christian. I didn’t understand much because the service was in Spanish, but it didn’t matter. God’s presence was there as those men sought the Lord. I soaked it in like a plant that hadn’t been watered in years.

God showed me that He had pursued me since I was a kid. He revealed people He had used to sow seeds in my heart about Jesus. God knew that, eventually, I would turn to Him, and just like the father of the prodigal son, He waited patiently for me (Luke 15:11–32).

I remembered a picture my mom had hanging in her house. As a child, I wondered who all those people were sitting around a big table sharing a meal. Now I know it was a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus and His disciples (Matthew 26:26–29). Thinking of that picture now comforts my heart. I think maybe Mom knew Jesus too.

Waiting for trial was exhausting. I had no plea bargain, so when my court date arrived, I expected to get the maximum sentence. I thought I was dreaming when the jury found me guilty of a lesser charge, second-degree murder.

The judge’s voice was kind but firm on sentencing day. “Sir, I believe that you are a decent man who lost your way when you started hanging out with the wrong people.” She then handed me a 12-year sentence. It was nothing short of a miracle.

God’s hand touched my life that day in a way I will never forget, and I came to understand grace and mercy in a way many don’t. I was receiving a gift that I could never earn or deserve, and I knew it.

Within a week, I walked through the gates of Arizona State Prison to begin serving my time. I connected immediately with other men of faith. Wanting to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, I surrounded myself with those whose lives were testimonies of His transforming power. God worked through them to help me change.

Before long, I felt God calling me deeper. My salvation, a reduced prison sentence, and this new life weren’t for me to keep to myself. God wanted to use me for His purpose and glory (Ephesians 2:8–10). He wanted me to tell others about His grace and to help them avoid the mistakes I’d made.

Helping others was something I’d never considered before giving my life to Christ. To better prepare, I took advantage of the education available behind bars and obtained an associate’s degree in alcohol and substance abuse disorders. I also worked as a peer support facilitator, helping to prepare men for their release.

It was a privilege to pray for them and introduce them to Jesus, the true Friend who would be there every step of the way (John 15:13–14). So many people want to leave prison, enter the world, and live right, but it isn’t easy to do. With Jesus, these men could succeed.

Still wanting to deepen my roots in Christ, I signed up for a discipleship training program offered by Alongside Ministries in Phoenix. A mentor journeyed with me while I was still in prison. He became my friend and prayer warrior and met me at the gate the day of my release. He even took me out for a delicious breakfast before dropping me off at the ministry’s residential program that I still call home.

It felt great to be out from behind those bars, but Jesus had already set me free long before I walked out of prison. He freed me from the wages of my sin and gave me eternal life the day I believed in Him (Romans 6:23).

And not only was I free, but I was rich beyond measure. I didn’t have any worldly possessions, but I had eternal life, joy, peace, worth, and purpose.

Today, I work with and encourage men coming out of prison who are learning to walk with the Lord. It’s only been a few years since I was where they are now. Only God could have rewritten my story.

Genesis 50:20 says that God can take what the enemy meant for our harm and use it for good. Romans 8:28 promises that God works all situations for good for those who love Him and are called to His purposes. God has kept these promises and more. His undeserved kindness will remain beyond my comprehension.

I’ll never forget that I took a life and brought pain to undeserving people. I wish I could go back and make it right, but I can’t. All I can do is live my life in thankfulness, serving others and sharing the hope of Jesus. I want to honor God so He can bring purpose out of the pain I caused.

God offers this same chance to you. I hope you’ll accept it.

If you’re like I was, you’re wondering what God could  possibly want with your life. And why would He bother? Let me tell you: God doesn’t look at what you’ve done. He looks at who He knows you can become.

He is calling you by name, inviting you to come, right now, just as you are. God loves you no matter what you’ve done. The blood He shed for you on the cross of Calvary can wash away the blood on your hands.

Brothers and sisters, the forgiveness of sin is a gift of true freedom that no one can ever take away from you, no matter where you find yourself (John 8:36).

 

ANDRE LIGHTSEY-COPELAND, having experienced God’s faithfulness and grace for himself, seeks to share that message of hope and victory to everyone he encounters. He enjoys the fellowship of his Alongside Ministries community and uses his testimony to encourage his family and students at St. Mary’s Skill Center in Phoenix.

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