GROWING UP ON FALSE RELIGION
My parents divorced when I was about ten years old and my mother, not having completed high school, proceeded as best she could to raise my older brother, my younger sister, and myself on what she could earn working as a waitress at a corner café. 
It was through the influence of my (older) half-sister that I became involved in the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Because I was hungry for the acceptance they offered , I threw myself into studying their teachings and never questioned anything I was taught. After about five years in the organization, however, I began having serious doubts about their teachings. Jehovah (God) was supposed to be kind and loving, and yet he seemed more like the ruler of a foreign country -- powerful but distant and unapproachable. 
I became severely depressed. Previously a good student, I began skipping classes and eventually dropped out of high school.  I tried to commit suicide.
LIQUOR, DRUGS, & THE MARINE CORPS
About that time one of the few non-Witness friends I had told me about his plans to join the Marine Corps and travel around the world. It sounded great, and I decided to give it a shot.  Mom gave her permission for me to enlist (at age 17), and I was sent to the USMC Recruit Depot, Parris Island SC for basic training.  From Parris Island, I was sent to Meridian MS for training in my dual job field: Aviation Operations Clerical/Flight Clearance Dispatch (MOS 7041).  Meridian is also where I began drinking heavily. 
From Meridian, I was sent to work at a CH-46 helicopter reservist training detachment aboard the world's largest naval base, in Norfolk VA. Once there, it didn't take long for me to get involved in illegal drugs -- and lots of trouble, including U.A., AWOL, destruction of government property, and fighting.  I (barely) made it through two years in Norfolk and then was sent to the New River Air Station, in Jacksonville NC. By then the Corps was getting pretty tired of my antics, and so after a couple more incidents they gave me an official invitation to leave and never return, which came just a few weeks short of the end of my four-year enlistment. 
WASTELAND, PRISON, & JESUS
From Jacksonville, I headed back to my hometown of Burlington NC, got a job, and started living the bachelor lifestyle of parties, parties, and more parties. The next two and a half years became a blur as I went from one job to another, and from one living arrangement to another, headed steadily downhill. Other than getting stoned as often as possible, I had absolutely no plan or purpose or direction for my life.
Eventually I found myself out of work and evicted from my apartment. That's when I decided to rob a convenience store in order to get enough money to leave town.  Using a .25 caliber pistol, I robbed both a convenience store and a video rentals store, netting a total of about $250. The police apprehended me at the local bus station, and I was eventually given a 17-year prison sentence for two counts of armed-robbery ("robbery with a dangerous weapon").
Between the coffee, the unfiltered tobacco, the marijuana, and the stress, after about 16 months in prison I was a nervous wreck. That's when another inmate approached me and told me about Jesus Christ. He gave me a booklet that explained God's wonderful plan of salvation and what it means to live for Christ. I discovered that God loves all of us and wants to have a personal relationship with each one of us. Wow! I could hardly believe that God really cared about me.
There was one major problem, however: sin. As I learned, all of us are born sinful and thus separated from God. We are imperfect and unholy, while God is absolutely perfect and holy. Furthermore, God's justice demands that sin be punished by death and eternal separation from him. There is absolutely nothing any of us can do to change the situation. It's hopeless. In that respect, the most upstanding citizen is in the same boat with the worst criminal. 
But God loves us so much that he made a way to rescue us from sin and its eternal consequences. Jesus Christ voluntarily came to earth to offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins so that we could be made right with God. By turning from my life of sin and placing my faith and trust in Jesus, God would forgive me for all my sins. My broken relationship with him would be repaired, and I would be given both the desire and the power to know, love, and serve him more and more.
It all sounded too good to be true. And so naturally I was a little skeptical. In fact, I was a lot skeptical. But God got hold of my heart and would not let go. For two entire days I was absolutely miserable, knowing that I needed to open my life and heart to Jesus but afraid of what I might be giving up (!) And so I told God I would give him one year of my life, after which we would reconvene to renegotiate the contract. And so, as sincerely as I knew how, I asked God to forgive me for my sins and for Jesus to come into my heart and be the Lord of my life.
After that, I started reading the New Testament and was constantly amazed at what I was learning about Jesus. And I found that the more I read and prayed , the more I could see my life changing for the better.  (Within a few weeks I had completely forgotten about my "contract" with God. That was in October 1987, and since then I have never for even one instant regretted giving my life to Christ.) Besides the Bible and prayer, both fellow Christian inmates and outside volunteers proved to be indispensable sources of encouragement as I sought to faithfully live out my newfound Christian faith.
Eventually I was blessed with an inmate position at the Governor's Executive Mansion.  After a little more than a year there, my sentence was commuted, and I was paroled to a halfway house for recovering alcoholics.  (I had spent nearly five years in prison. ) I began looking for a good church to join. Eventually I found one nearby , which is also where I met my then future wife, Sharon. 
Sharon encouraged me to pursue a college degree. And so immediately after we were married I started taking courses part-time and eventually was accepted into a degree program at North Carolina State University. I worked a series of different jobs while taking classes.
Eventually I learned of the B.A. in Biblical Studies program being offered at nearby Southeastern Baptist Theological College, in Wake Forest, and I transferred in for that. [20a] Following graduation, Sharon and I moved back to Raleigh and started a family.
I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the fact that, contrary to what some folk teach, becoming a Christian does not make life a bed of roses. In some ways it actually makes life much more difficult, since it is harder to swim against the tide than to go with the flow. While I still experience problems and difficulties just like everyone else, there are some enormous differences between my old life without Christ and my new life with him. Simply put, today: 1) I'm saved. Out of his infinite love, God has saved me from sin and its eternal consequences. 2) I am no longer alone. Christ, my family, and other Christians are with me. 3) I am headed in the right direction. I strive to know and apply God's Word, the Bible, to my daily life. (Someone has said that BIBLE = Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth).  4) I know that God is using the everyday events -- including problems and difficulties -- in my life to draw me closer to him and make me more like Jesus Christ in my every thought, word, and deed -- and occasionally I even cooperate with him! 5) Whereas my old life was all about me, my new life is all about Jesus, including seeking to positively impact the world around me for his sake. As I read recently: "Christians often say, 'I've invited Jesus into my life,' but the reality is that Jesus invites us into His life. His purpose. His restoring work in the world He created. To this life, His Life, we are invited to join Him in the work of making all things new." 
BETTER THAN A PARDON FROM THE GOVERNOR
While doing research for an article on forgiveness, I came across the following, which for me pretty much sums it all up: "Divine forgiveness means more than pardon. The pardoned criminal is still a guilty person. Everybody knows that he committed the sin for which he has received his pardon. It is the punishment, not the guilt that is gone. But Christ's forgiveness also means that the sin is gone. The sinner has been cleansed as well as pardoned. Sinners were dead in their trespasses but God has made them alive together with Christ, 'having forgiven us all our trespasses' (Col. 2:13). Our sins are forgiven for Christ's sake (Eph. 4:32; 1 Jn. 2:12)." [ref]
THE GREATEST MIRACLE
Renowned Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe has noted: "Forgiveness is the greatest miracle that Jesus ever performs. It meets the greatest need; it costs the greatest price; and it brings the greatest blessing and the most lasting results." [ref]
No matter what you have been through, no matter what mistakes you have made, God loves you and is offering you forgiveness and new life. That's right, God loves you and he wants to have a real, personal, lasting relationship with you.
Here is what God's inspired, authoritative Word, the Bible, teaches regarding our need for God and what he has done to meet that need:
My prayer is that you will take a serious look at where you are in life. If you are living without Christ, you are not really living at all. As William Barclay has put it:
Jesus claims that he came that men might have life and might have it more abundantly (John 10:10). The Greek phrase used for having it more abundantly means to have a superabundance of a thing. To be a follower of Jesus, to know who he is and what he means, is to have a superabundance of life. A Roman soldier came to Julius Caesar with a request for permission to commit suicide. He was a wretched, dispirited creature with no vitality. Caesar looked at him. "Man," he said, "were you ever really alive?" When we try to live our own lives, life is a dull, dispirited thing. When we walk with Jesus, there comes a new vitality, a superabundance of life. It is only when we live with Christ that life becomes really worth living and we begin to live in the real sense of the word. [ref]
What's more, the Bible teaches us that this life is only a stepping stone to eternity, and that anyone who leaves this life without first having been made right with God through personal, saving faith in Jesus Christ will spend all of eternity in painful separation from him (see Revelation 20:10, 12a, 15). As one source explains: "A summary of all Scripture that speaks of hell indicates that there is the loss and absence of all good, and the misery and torment of an evil conscience. The most terrifying aspect is the complete and deserved separation from God and from all that is pure, holy, and beautiful. In addition there is the awareness of being under the wrath of God and of enduring the curse of a righteous sentence because of one's sins that were consciously and voluntarily committed." [ref]
SPIRITUAL GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT
Once you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, then the next step is to start growing and maturing in your faith. The key is to focus on the basic building blocks of the Christian life: prayer, Bible study, and fellowship/quality time spent with other Christians. Here is a good place to start. It is vital that you find and join a Bible believing church as soon as possible. And you may wish to check out this list of free, excellent informational resources that can prove especially helpful for the new Christian. You should also be aware that, as a new Christian, at some point you will probably have doubts regarding your salvation. This is actually normal, and there is no reason for alarm.
Lastly, a vital part of our Christian walk and witness is what the Bible calls "good works" (Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Timothy 6:18). Here it is worth noting J. I. Packer's practical steps for doing good works [ref]:
Our living should accordingly be made up of sequences having the following shape. We begin by considering what we have to do or need to do. Recognizing that without divine help we can do nothing as we should (see John 15:5), we confess to the Lord our inability and ask for help. Then, confident that prayer has been heard and help will be given, we go to work. And, having done what we could, we thank God for the ability to do as much as we did and take to ourselves the discredit for whatever was still imperfect and inadequate, asking forgiveness for our shortcomings and begging for power to do better next time. In this sequence there is room neither for passivity nor for self-reliance. On the contrary, we first trust God and then on that basis work as hard as we can. When we do so, we repeatedly find ourselves enabled to do what we know we could not have done by ourselves. That happens through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, which is the wellspring and taproot of all holy and Christlike action. Such is the inside story of all the Christian's authentically good works.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns you may have.
Greg Williamson / A Century 21 Disciple of Jesus
Click for most of this same info in a trifold brochure (pdf)
P.S. WHO ELSE BUT GOD?
There is an expression: "When you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he didn't get there by himself." It's obvious that someone had to put the turtle up there. In a very real sense, Christians are turtles sitting atop fence posts, put there by the grace of God. It's as if someone asked God, "How can I be sure you're as loving and gracious as you say you are?" His response is simply to display the church -- flawed, sinful, capable of stupidity and faithlessness -- as Exhibit A, demonstrating his infinite patience and mercy. How else would a group of such obviously fallen men and women get together and do anything for the glory of God? Who else but God would use people like us? You are a display case for the grace of God. Demonstrate his great kindness to you by sharing it with others. Use his patience with you to witness to others. [ref]
1. Several years later, Mom worked hard to earn her G.E.D., after which she was able to get slightly better jobs. |Back|
2. My parents were still together when my half-sister first introduced me to the "Organization." I became much more involved following my parents' divorce, eventually getting baptized at age 13. I began breaking away sometime after turning 16, and I never went back after joining the military at age 17. (My half-sister made her escape several years prior to my own.) |Back|
3. Like most cults, a major appeal of the Witnesses is the eagerness and enthusiasm with which they welcome newcomers. It is no exaggeration to say that the Witnesses became a surrogate family to me, and I spent an enormous amount of time with a handful of Witness families in particular. |Back|
5. I actually dropped out of the 10th grade twice. I went half a year, dropped out, reenrolled the next year, and again dropped out halfway through. Because I had "10 complete years of education," I was later allowed to enlist in the military with the proviso that I obtain my G.E.D. |Back|
6. By this time I had broken away from the Witnesses. I was no longer attending meetings, doing field service (= going house to house), etc. |Back|
7. Basic training lasted 11.5 weeks. I went in weighing over 200 pounds, and I came out weighing 165 pounds. |Back|
8. I was originally promised a job as a jet engine mechanic. Just prior to being sworn in, however, I was told that that particular job field was full, and I was offered a job with crash crew (airport fire & rescue). It was at Meridian that my MOS was changed for a third and final time. |Back|
9. The Witnesses could not disfellowship me for joining the military, since doing so could have been seen as an act against the government. Instead, they simply waited until I came home on leave and was spotted drinking, smoking marijuana, etc. Then I was disfellowshipped for "conduct unbecoming a Christian." I was never a moderate or social drinker; from the very beginning I drank to get drunk, period. Illegal drug use was a natural extension of my drinking, and included marijuana, barbiturates, amphetamines, and hallucinogens. |Back|
10. Article 15 Non-judicial Punishment (NJP) is one step below a court-martial. To get one was considered very serious, and two would almost certainly mean a discharge. By the end of my enlistment, I had a total of five. (I received my first one in basic training, through no fault of my own.) |Back|
11. I received an administrative discharge of Under Other Than Honorable Conditions. It was not a dishonorable discharge, but it did/does make me ineligible for military veteran government benefits. Many years later I tried having my discharge upgraded to Honorable but was denied based on the fact that I had been offered alcohol treatment/rehab while in the Corps. (Alcohol had been a factor in all of my disciplinary problems.) |Back|
12. My life at this point was a total disaster. I was drinking and drugging almost constantly. I couldn't hold down a job. I told myself that I was a societal outcast, and so society's rules/laws did not apply to me. That's how I justified the extremely reckless decision to commit armed-robbery ("robbery with a dangerous weapon"). |Back|
13. Our natural spiritual condition is not easy to accept. As one theologian puts it: "It is deeply offensive to human pride to have to accept the truth that our sinfulness is an inherited condition, and even worse when we realize that there is nothing we can do about it." [ref] For more info on the topic of sin, see A Theology of Sin. |Back|
14. My dad and stepmom gave me an NIV Study Bible as a Christmas present, and I read from it daily. The inmate who led me to Christ petitioned his former church, and they began sponsoring me for correspondence courses from Moody Bible Institute. I read Christian books. I listened to the Insight for Living Christian radio program and received their study guides. And I prayed almost constantly. |Back|
15. As I learned later, the instant I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior I was born again. The more I grew in my Christian faith, the more my life changed for the better. As the apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Galatia: "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23a, NLT). This is how Chuck Swindoll explains the new birth/new creation: "When Christ invades a life, He performs a miraculous act of re-creation, analogous to the extreme overhaul of creation itself that He will perform at the Second Coming. He brings into being something new. When this new life is born in us by the work of the Holy Spirit, not by human works (Gal. 6:15), we will be transformed from the inside out, changing our priorities, our relationships, and our actions. Only God can do this work in us, but once He has done it, we participate in living out the inner working (Phil. 2:12–13)." [ref] |Back|
16. Inmates perform the bulk of manual labor work in exchange for a reduced sentence. Each inmate has a regular, full-time day job, plus he/she also dresses up and plays waiter/waitress during the many evening and weekend social functions. My day job involved all aspects of lawn maintenance: watering (via a sprinkler system), mowing and blowing, edging/trimming, fertilizing, seeding, and sodding. |Back|
17. Since I had gone through alcohol rehab while in the military, I was already familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, including its 12-step program and group support meetings. The halfway house was a godsend. It forced me to accept the fact that alcohol is completely off limits for me. And the structured environment, along with the support of both residents and staff, was tremendously helpful. |Back|
18. As of the beginning of 2021, it has been 35 years since I was sent to prison. And yet despite the evidence that I truly was born again in prison, was a model inmate, and have been a productive member of society for almost 30 years now, still there are people -- even some Christians -- who will hold my criminal past against me for the rest of my life. However, because my incarceration remains an indispensable part of my Christian testimony I can neither deny it nor try to hide it. And while I am certainly not proud of my criminal actions, I remain grateful beyond words for Jesus Christ and the forgiveness and new life he gave me -- in the process transforming the lowest point of my life into the highest point of my life. |Back|
19. Several months after being paroled from prison I found myself being severely tested. I was out of work and facing eviction due to being unable to pay the rent. But I refused to believe that God had brought me this far just to let me slip through the cracks now. And he didn't. The church to which I belonged at the time and another ministry paid my rent for a month. Then through a Christian singles ministry I found a roommate. Friends offered me both odd jobs and lots of encouragement. Then a pastor in my church put his reputation on the line to help me get a full-time job at a company he had co-founded, as well as personally loaned me the money for a used car. I praise God for his working both through other people and in me to bring me safely through that difficult period. |Back|
20. When I first met her, Sharon was very busy finishing up work on her doctorate degree (in plant pathology = the study of plant diseases). She was not interested in dating, but we did spend a lot of time together in group settings with other single Christian friends. This actually worked out well, since it allowed us to form a solid foundation of friendship before we started dating. |Back|
20a. Sharon and I lived in a student housing apartment for about two and a half years. She drove the daily commute for her job at NCSU (one hour each way) while I pursued my degree and also worked a part-time job doing customer support for a Bible software company. The small town setting was idyllic and it is without a doubt one of the fondest periods of my life. |Back|
[W]e should never be satisfied with a person’s conversion. That is only the beginning. The same grace which brings a person to new birth is able to transform him or her into Christ’s image. Every new convert becomes a changed person, and has new titles to prove it, namely