You sit alone in a small prison cell and wonder: How in the world did I get here? You’re cold, and the vent above you lets out stale warmth that feels and smells like bad breath. It’s hard to keep your eyes closed for more than a few minutes. The weight of your mistake hangs around your neck, making it difficult to breathe. Light begins to fade and darkness sets in; from this moment forward your life seems impossible.
The small window in front of you is the size of a license plate, and through it all you can see are miles of winter wasteland. As shades of gray pour through this tiny slit, you begin to question everything: “God, how can anything of value come out of this mess?” A rush of adrenaline sends shivers down your spine, and the fear you’ve tried to suppress finally makes its way to the surface.
You’re marked, not only by your orange jumper but also by the label you’re now forever cursed to bear. You’re the scum of the earth, a degenerate. No one could begin to understand your heart and the regret you feel under the weight of your awful sin. To the other prisoners, you’re fresh meat and an easy target; no one is going to miss a man with your record.
The steel door racks loudly, and a fairly rotund guard squeaks his way between the frame. He lets out a gruff command: “Prisoner, Warden wants to see you in his office.”
As you’re led through halls to Warden’s office, your thoughts overwhelm you: “God, I have no clue what is about to happen, and I know I have absolutely no control over my life. Please protect me, and deliver me from this place.”
Warden’s door is now directly in front of you. Your fate literally lies behind it, and all you can do is pray for mercy.
Before we open that door and crawl into this man’s story, consider this: What is your greatest sin? The one thing you’ve kept secret from everyone else? Is it an unforgivable thing, wracking you with guilt too great to hide?
What if your sin’s discovery lands you in prison, and everyone in the world knows about it? There is no way you can pretend you’re normal then.
Paul,* as we will call him, can truthfully answer those questions. He has lived them. He is a man who has been broken and beaten down by the severe consequences of a sin many have never struggled with. However, his heart is soft and his faith so profound that when he shares his experience, the first thing you want to do is wrap your arms around him and tell him how much God loves him.
His story isn’t for the faint of heart, and at times it may be a little difficult to swallow, but it is a story that reflects God’s grace, love and forgiveness.
Back to the Beginning
For many years, Paul lived in a small western town and served as an associate pastor and youth minister at a local church. Like the town, the volunteer staff was small, and usually Paul had little or no help. Volunteers would come and go, but in the end it was often up to Paul to develop community among those teens and build a program where truth was taught and Jesus was lifted up. Paul felt pressure to create a fun and exciting ministry for them. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the weight he placed solely on himself would contribute to his downfall.
Paul was beginning to receive a lot of attention from his efforts—especially pleasing to him was the attention from attractive girls in his youth group. The more they admired him, the more Paul’s ego was fed. As his ego grew, the enthusiastic praise he received from the girls began to seem more like flirtation and physical desire.
To him it appeared as though the girls were making advances, when really most of them weren’t. A secret sin had found a place to dwell in the darkest corners of Paul’s heart.
There was very little to do in that small town. Paul found it extremely difficult to come up with creative activities to get the teenagers involved in—or even a little bit excited about—the Bible. For those kids, the nearest entertainment was a raggedy, old rope swing by the river or a local hangout they referred as The W.
One late night, some of the students suggested they all go to The W and stay up to watch the sunrise. Paul agreed to take them and told them he would stay and chaperone to prevent anything from happening to them. Therein lay the irony.
“It seemed like an innocent idea at the time,” he explains. “I told myself it was for them. I just wanted them to feel like they were a part of something greater and to realize the power that God’s Word has and what it means to be loved by Him. I was well aware of the secret sin in my heart. I just didn’t believe I would ever act on it.”
Paul ignored the seriousness of his lustful thoughts, and he didn’t realize his lack of spiritual discernment was about to get him into more trouble than he could handle. In the over-packed car, waiting for the sun to rise, everyone felt the heaviness of their eyelids, and before they knew it, fell asleep—Paul included. When he opened his eyes, Paul found one of the young girls lying across his body in an inappropriate embrace. He moved her to the side and woke everyone else to see the sunrise, but it didn’t matter. Physical contact had been made, and now Paul’s mind was being filled with a new form of temptation.
“In that moment, it’s almost like fantasy and reality blurred,” he remembers. “I never had any intention of lusting after girls in my youth group, but when I look back and see my lack of maturity at the time, I can see why it (the blurring) happened.”
It would be a tidy ending to this story if Paul overcame his sin in that moment, but that’s not what happened. His interactions with the youth group continued to be immature, and that, coupled with his newly formed fantasies, eventually led him to stumble into two separate affairs with teenage girls.
How could something like that happen more than once, you ask?
“It’s like any other sin,” Paul explains. “You engage in it, and then the guilt, remorse and regret are so overwhelming for you to register that you engage in it again to make yourself feel better.”
No matter how much Paul tried to ignore his sin, it eventually caught up to him. One morning, when Paul was getting ready for his day, an unexpected knock came at his door. It was the senior pastor of his church, and he had a stern, heartbroken look on his face. In that moment, Paul knew why he was there.
The second young girl had written about Paul’s behavior in her journal, and her mother had read it when she was cleaning her daughter’s room. While Paul never engaged in sexual intercourse with her, a very clear and sacred line had been crossed. It was the moment of Paul’s reckoning, and he accepted full responsibility for his actions.
He tendered his resignation and drove himself to the nearest police station where he gave a full confession. On the day of his trial, Paul pled guilty and received a reduced sentence. However, inside the prison system, the other inmates grant sex offenders zero respect, and their lives and physical well-being are almost always at risk. What this means is that even though Paul received a reduced sentence, his real trial was about to begin.
Behind the Door
Earlier in this story, Paul was standing before Warden’s door, and things were looking very bleak. Fear had consumed him, and he was asking God to help him in any way He could. “I knew that what I did was wrong,” Paul says, “but I didn’t want to lose my relationship with God. I had repented of my sin and asked Him over and over just to get me through this.”
When Paul walked through Warden’s door, he was expecting the worst. In fact, the worst is what should have happened as his warden explained how, when he was evaluating Paul’s crime, he was going to place Paul in the prison’s maximum-security wing. However, something had changed his mind. Warden said, “So, you must know some pretty important people. We’re going to look out for you here. Instead of sending you to max, you’re going to the medium yard.”
Paul remembers, “I honestly didn’t realize the weight of this gesture at the time, nor did I have any idea what the warden was talking about. But the reality is that I might not have lived if I had been sent to max. People with a sex offender tag attached to them often don’t make it on that side of the fence.”
Years later, Paul learned exactly what had persuaded the warden. The story is so random and unfathomable that divine intervention is the only reasonable explanation.
After Paul’s conviction, an old college roommate found out about his predicament through the grapevine. It had been decades since Paul heard from him, but his old friend knew Paul’s heart. Having sensed Paul’s remorse, his friend contacted an aunt who happened to be a prison warden in another state. The crazy part is that this old roommate’s aunt just happened to be close friends with the warden at Paul’s prison. She pleaded with him to help Paul in any way that he could; the rest is history.
God heard his prayers and intervened.
“It was unreal how God provided for me in prison, and my faith is stronger because of it,” Paul says. “During my entire stay, the most unpleasant thing that happened to me was another inmate was rude to me once. That was unbelievable considering I knew guys who were beaten, tortured and worse for the same crime.”
Labeled But Still Redeemed
These days, Paul leads a fairly normal and mundane life. He’s a loving father of three and an entrepreneur who lives and works out of his small apartment. On Wednesdays, he attends a men’s small group where he can continue to learn and grow in the Holy Spirit. There are few beyond his close friends who know the details of his sin and prison time, but anyone who digs deeply will find out. In prison, his label as a sex offender marked Paul, and that label didn’t disappear after prison.
Paul is still paying for his mistake all those years ago. He is one of the fortunate ones in that he has a place to live and work that meets the state criteria. He’s a registered sex offender for life, unable to redeem himself to society from the penalty of his sin all those years ago. But the good news is the King, the Savior of sex offenders, has forgiven him.
“I’m not proud of what I’ve done,” he insists, “but it reminds me just how much I truly need Jesus.”
Paul says it was difficult, but he was never alone.
“There were definitely some dark times,” he says. “Times where I was cussing mad about my predicament. Then one day, I felt God wrap His arms around me and tell me that He loved me. From that moment on, I never questioned our relationship again.”
Sometimes we believe we are worthless and unredeemable, that our own form of awfulness marks us, too. However, Paul’s story clearly shows God never gives up on His children. Where you and everyone else only see the stained garments of your life, He sees the cloak of Jesus’ righteousness, and it covers you completely.
(*We have agreed to not use Paul’s real name in order to protect his family’s privacy and the privacy of those involved.)