Faith and a Felon Like Me
by William Sirls
I remember sitting in a federal courtroom back in October of 2007, waiting for the judge to sentence me on charges of wire fraud and money laundering. At the time, I had pretty much restricted my chats with God exclusively to those times when I needed something, and believe me, when you are about to find out how long you are going to be locked up, it’s a good time to touch base with the guy upstairs.
Even though my plea agreement had a sentencing range of 46-57 months, I remember closing my eyes and asking God to somehow keep me out of prison . . . to give me just one chance to fix the mess that I had created. I promised him that if he would do just that one thing for me, I would be a better father, a better friend, a better man . . . whatever he wanted.
Through his incredible grace and power, it only took God around ten seconds to answer my prayer.
His answer was no.
So in December of 2007, I was off to the US Penitentiary-Hazelton in the beautiful and snowy mountains of West Virginia to begin a 52-month sentence away from my children, family, friends, and the life I knew. Just like a little kid being put in timeout, God wanted me there, because something was missing.
Looking back, I think it is unfortunate that by many people’s standards, I was the guy that had everything most people want. I had the big job, the big house, the big car, the beautiful wife (now beautiful ex-wife), and two beautiful daughters. But what people didn’t know is that I was without the single most valuable thing any of us could ever have, and though an incredible price was paid for it, it is absolutely free to all of us—a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Prior to developing that relationship, I was like a lot of people who call themselves Christians.
I went to church as a kid, and then as an adult, went only a few times a year not counting weddings, funerals, and holidays. I usually found the service to be boring and without substance that I could relate to and spent most of the time looking at my watch or studying the bulletin, trying to figure out how many more songs I had to listen to before I could leave. At the same time, on the days I went, afterward I felt good about myself for going. But I also found it convenient to be one person for an hour or so on Sunday and someone entirely different the rest of the week.
Ten years later, I now know what the problem was. I was way too busy to stop for just a few seconds and ask myself the single most important question any of us could ever ask ourselves:
Do I really believe?
The question never really crossed my mind. I was caught in a daily routine, like so many of us, where I woke up, went to work, came home, ate dinner, kissed the kids goodnight and then woke up the next day to do it all over again. I never carved out time to spend with God. I called myself a Christian without really understanding what it meant to be a Christian. I believed that I was covered and that, even though I only went to church once in a while, all good people went to heaven when they died. I also believed that those who went to church every Sunday were a lock for the Pearly Gates.
I was wrong.
I recently had a chat with some friends about that thing we call faith. We shared the many different ways we each had come to know Christ. For some it was fast, for others it was a long journey, but regardless, I noticed a common thread. Developing a true faith was a process, like a muscle that needs regular exercise to strengthen. The more they worked on their faith (in good times and bad), the stronger it got, but just like a firm bicep, when ignored, it weakened.
These individuals who practiced their faith had experiences that were quite different from other friends who told me they “tried” going to church, but their lives never got better. Many people want to simply wake up one day, say they believe, add a little water, and then hold out their hands for the manna God would bestow on them.
The problem is, when a Christian says they believe, they have to mean it.
Have you ever asked yourself: Do I really believe? It’s a biggie, so if you have, perhaps you can pinpoint the time and place when you realized you truly believed. Or have you just gone through the motions your whole life, like so many people who consider themselves Christians, without understanding what it means? By not accepting the gift of true faith, so many remain blind to the gifts around them.
Over the last six years, I have said a thousand times that I wouldn’t wish prison on my worst enemy, but I always followed it up by saying that there are few things that I would trade the prison experience for. I say that because even though all of us always have the time (a word I now respect more than ever), prison gave me little more of it to slow down, pray, read the Bible, and experience fellowship with other Christians. It also taught me to be patient and watch what happens when I made a habit of these things. And when I did, I could see God manifesting himself in my life every single day in so many ways I never before imagined. And then one day I asked myself if I really believed. Did I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, born of a virgin, who died and was resurrected for the forgiveness of my sins? After careful thought, the answer was yes.
Once you say you believe and you truly mean it, that doesn’t mean the manna will start falling. But what it does mean is that you can keep your eyes open for blessings that happen in your life every day. Keeping your eyes open means realizing that there are people who pray every day for what you already have. Those two good eyes, the cancer-free body, the healthy children . . . just think about it.
Though I would strongly discourage anyone from taking the route I did to find time for God, I hope you will slow down and ask yourself if you truly believe. We should all do this, and if at any point you aren’t one hundred percent convinced . . . pray about it and ask God to help you. Be patient and he will.
Do you believe? This is the ultimate question. Because not all good people go to heaven. Not all churchgoers go to heaven. The only ones in heaven will be the saved ones who truly believe.
And there is nothing like true belief . . . that absolute sense of certainty that God is who he says he is, that he is going to do what he says he is going to do, and that we all have access to him through his Son who died for all of us . . . even a felon like me.
William Sirls has experienced great highs and tremendous lows—some born of chance, some born of choice. Once a senior vice president at a major investment firm, he was incarcerated in 2007 for wire fraud and money laundering, where he learned a great deal more than he ever bargained for. Life lessons involving faith, grace, patience, and forgiveness are evident in his writing. He is the father of two and makes his home in southern California. His first novel The Reason, will be released as a major motion picture starring Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr. in the spring of 2017. Visit William on Facebook, on Twitter @williamsirls, or at www.williamsirls.com
We’d like to hear from you. Please share your comments below or like us on your Facebook page. Be sure to check back each month for more articles and products available at your local Christian bookstore.