I have a family member who has "done time". He went to jail when he was barely 18. Then, due to a minor mishap that violated his parole, he was sent back a second time. At that point he decided to serve out his full sentence so that when he was done - he was done.
I saw him last month for the first time in several years. His formerly shaved head, replaced by a gorgeous mane of hair. The scrawny frame of his youth, now filled out and muscular. His rebellious and dark teenage angst, replaced by quiet politeness.
We didn't have a whole lot of time to talk, surrounded by family as we were. But my mind has been awhirl ever since with the many things that I would like to say to him.
First thing would be: I have been there. No, I've never been locked up in an actual prison but I have been in a spiritual and emotional one. I have screwed up royally and regretted it. I have acted impulsively and then instantly been awash with the horror of what I'd done. I have been trapped in a cell of wrong thinking and destructive behavior. If God's book were the standard by which we were judged, and not the legal codes that govern cities and states, I would deserve more than one life sentence - if not the death penalty. I would like you to know that you are not the only one in the family with a history, not the only one who made some big mistakes.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8
Secondly, I would ask you to not live in regret. Regret causes you to walk backward, live in the past, and repay for the crime again and again. Regret is like a constant emotional flogging that robs you of hope for the future. Regret says that we hold the keys to our own destiny and we have hopelessly ruined it. Regret is the belief that we have made more of a mess than God can clean up and we have blown it beyond repair. It tells us that, with that kind of past, we really can't expect anything good to ever happen to us. There is a way to turn around and walk forward away from regret and that is to choose to believe what God says over what your past says:
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11
Next, I would say: Even though the cell door has been unlocked, there are some who would like to keep you imprisoned. But when you've owned up to your mistakes and taken the punishment for the offense, it's time to walk out of the cell and into freedom. The world wants you to wear the label of who you were emblazoned across your chest for all to see: "Felon" - "Sinner" - "Divorced".... scarlet letters that loudly declare our guilt. The problem is, if we believe we are what those labels say, then that is what we will continue to be. You see, I could do nothing to earn penance for my vast array of sins. I finally crawled to the cross and laid each one of them down. I sat there at Jesus feet until He declared me pardoned. Then I began to see what His Word said I was. The power of His truth peeled off those ugly labels one by one and replaced them with new ones: "Forgiven", "Redeemed", "Loved". Today I walk free, without shame, without regret, without accusation because I did some time at the foot of the cross and believe that Jesus' forgiveness and pardon is real and without limitation. I hope you can learn to walk in freedom too.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36
Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. Galatians 5:1 (The Message)
Finally I would say: Dear one, I love you. I believe in you. I believe that God has good plans for your life, that He has given you special gifts and talents and He wants to help you discover those. I think that you are through with childish things and I believe that you grew into a man while behind those bars. That's what I see when I look at you now. I am praying for you and have faith that my God is powerfully able to answer those prayers!
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20