Yesterday was a very special day for me. It was the twentieth anniversary of my release from prison.
How am I planning to celebrate? By returning to a prison in Jessup, Maryland, to tell the men there how God turned my greatest defeat into my greatest blessing.
I remember the day I left prison as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was excited, because my early release had been a surprise. But I also was sad, because I was leaving behind the brothers I'd grown to love in that awful place. And I knew how desperately they needed help.
But all Patty and I wanted to do at that point was to be with our children, smell the flowers, and enjoy our freedom. My plan was to return to the practice of law and lead a private life.
Well, as is so obvious now, God had something very different in mind for me than a quiet law practice and private life. For not long after getting out of prison, I felt an irresistible conviction to spend my life working in prisons. In these 20 years since, God has used my life in ways I could never have imagined. The ministry of Prison Fellowship has now spread to 69 countries of the world.
Every day, inmates come to Christ through our in-prison evangelism programs and Bible studies. Just last year we heard from 2,000 inmates who had received Christ as Savior just by reading Inside Journal, the newspaper we publish and distribute in every prison in America. And Angel Tree® last year brought Christmas gifts and the Gospel message to 431,000 children whose mother or daddy is in prison.
Most importantly, Prison Fellowship has become one of the most visible demonstrations of the Gospel at work. In this respect, Prison Fellowship is just what our society needs to see in this secular era.
But what is most amazing is that I planned none of this myself. All I've done is respond to God's leading.
So what is the greatest lesson of these 20 years? Well, when I look back I think first of worldly accomplishments: academic honors at Brown. A doctorate in law. Arguing cases before high courts. Four years at the right hand of a president. And more recently, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
But none of this compares to what God has done despite me. He used my experience in prison as a broken man, sitting helpless in a prison cell, crying out like all the other men: "God, get us out of here!"
In my life, God has used for His glory my greatest defeat—the one thing in which I could not take credit or glory.
There's a lesson here for each of us: Everything comes down in the end to God's calling and our simple obedience.
That's why I'm celebrating 20 years out of prison by getting ready to "return" to prison tomorrow—to take this message of redemption to other men in the hope that God can also transform their greatest defeat into their greatest blessing.
And not just to people in prison. He'll redeem your defeats, too. All you have to do is give Him the chance.