"He died for everyone so that those who receive His new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know Him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!" - 2 Corinthians 5:15-17, NLT
By the Grace of God
In June 1986 I was arrested on two counts of armed-robbery ("robbery with a dangerous weapon"), and eventually sentenced to seventeen years in prison. By October 1987 I had reached the end of my rope, and I cried out to God for the help and hope that only he can provide. I asked God to forgive my sins and I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. At that moment I really and truly did become a new person.
I served a little more than three and a half more years (for a total of five years in prison) as a model inmate. I studied the Bible in earnest, eventually completing several correspondence courses from Moody Bible Institute. My last year of incarceration was spent working on the inmate staff of the Governor's Executive Mansion. The governor commuted my sentence, I was given one year of supervised parole, and then things really got good with a wife, a college degree, and two children. (Click here for my full Christian testimony.)
A Daily Walk
Of course my new life in Christ has not been without its fair share of difficulties. Besides the normal concerns of everyday life, I have discovered that my criminal past will always be an additional load to carry. I always have been, and always will be, completely honest about my past. However, my past criminal actions have kept me from getting quite a few jobs, and it was the reason given for one termination (although there was actually quite a bit more to it).
I have discovered that no matter how crazy things may get, I will be fine so long as I keep my priorities straight: 1) faith, 2) family, and 3) friends. Regarding my number one priority (= my Christian faith), I need to stay focused on the basics of prayer, Bible study, and fellowship.
In Good Company
Despite the overwhelming evidence that I am not the same person who committed those crimes thirty years(!) ago, I know there will always be people who hold my criminal past against me. But besides the fact that I count God's forgiveness of infinitely greater value than man's approval, at least I am in good company:
The first human pair were also the first criminals. Adam and Eve broke the one law in existence at that time by eating of the forbidden fruit. As a result, the human race has experienced incalculable pain and suffering ever since. Despite Eve's criminal actions, God chose her to be the mother of us all and the one through whom would come God's Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Moses was a major law-breaker. He actually killed an Egyptian guard, buried the evidence, and then fled the country. After a life-changing encounter with God, he was used of God to: confront the most powerful ruler of the day; free an entire nation from slavery; and establish the Old Testament law code which is, at least in part, the basis for our modern laws.
David, the only man in the Bible to be called "a man after God's own heart," committed adultery, had his lover's spouse killed, and then married her. Although God demanded the life of the child conceived in adultery, he also went on to bless David and Bathsheba with a son who would grow up to be the wisest man ever to have lived - Solomon.
Jesus Christ was condemned by the Roman government as an insurrectionist and made to suffer a brutal and humiliating public execution. In the greatest possible instance of bringing good out of bad, God used Jesus' foreordained death to bring salvation to the human race.
All of this is not some sort of elaborate attempt to justify my criminal past. What I did thirty years ago was indeed a very serious crime for which I deserved to be incarcerated. My point is that God can and does change people. In my own case, Jesus Christ took a convicted felon and made him into, among other things, a law-abiding, productive member of society.
Take It from Me
For anyone - whether young or not so young - tempted to pursue a life of crime, take it from me: Crime does not pay! Even a single conviction can dog you for the rest of your life. Instead, do what I did before I did it: Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior before starting down the dead-end road to prison.
To everyone else - both nonbelievers and Christians alike - tempted to hold a person's criminal past against him/her, I would say: Consider that person's life today. Most importantly, remember God's grace and mercy upon you -- and then go and show likewise.