Redeemed by Paul Holway (Hear the interview on the K-LOVE Morning Show)
When you are a ten-year-old boy and you want to find a way to escape the pain that burns like acid within you, you look for release in the strangest places. Some choose to bully their classmates. Others choose to torment their teachers. I chose a different and much more dangerous path. My rage and pain went far too deep for easy release, and I soon would ruin a part of my life and that of many others forever.
I was born and raised in a Christian home in Gunnison, Colorado. We attended church every Sunday, and I learned about God and read all the stories in children’s church. I had two parents at home as well as an older brother and a younger sister. My dad, a devout believer, was very involved at church and was often gone because of church-related events. I regularly saw him, though, praying in the mornings when I got up. My childhood, as my family, appeared as normal and healthy as any other.
But in the same way that I did not know anything more about Jesus than the stories in the books, I barely knew my father. My mom, though, I knew far better. I knew the way my skin stung when she first spanked me and how the red patch of flesh would turn into the beginnings of a bruise the next morning. I knew the feeling of fear rising inside me during the thirty-minute bus ride home on the days I had gotten into trouble at school; mile by mile, minute by minute, I became increasingly scared to face her. Not surprisingly, I had started acting out in school and was sent to the principal’s office regularly.
I was pretty short and heavy when I was ten, and I guess I was an easy target for bullies. Unable to defend myself, I just soaked up the abuse. Unable to talk to anyone, I seemed to have no other choice but to stuff all my feelings down inside. Unable to exercise any kind of power or control over my life, I started to hurt and kill small animals. They could not defend themselves any more than I could.
I was mad at everyone, but most of all I was mad at God. Even though I really did not understand or know who God was, I knew it was his fault. I hated him for taking my dad away and taking up all his time. I didn’t fit in with my family, and I didn’t fit in at school. I was a loser, and my self-hatred became stronger and stronger. I began thinking of ways to kill myself. When the school bus dropped me off, I would think about lying under the tires so the bus would run me over. When out rock climbing, I would stand at the edge of a cliff and think about jumping and ending it all. But I was too scared to go through with any of it, which makes what happened next even more inconceivable.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼On November 17, 1988, I was twelve years old and going through yet another miserable day. I had gotten into a lot of trouble at school that day, and I knew I would be in even more trouble when my mom got home. While on the bus ride home, I tried to think how I could possibly avoid the punishment I had coming. I had so much fear and anxiety about facing my mom, but what could I do? I couldn’t run away; I had nowhere to go. Finally I came up with a plan that would make everyone forget what I had done at school and make sure my mom never touched me again. The plan was unfathomable and still makes me shudder twenty-five years later. I decided to shoot my little sister, Bethany.
As soon as I was home, I loaded my dad’s hunting rifle and went into her room. She was playing and, when she saw me, asked what I was doing. I didn’t say anything. She didn’t even see the gun. I pointed it at her, pulled the trigger, and shot her. Immediately after the gun went off, I panicked. My ears were ringing from the noise of the gun, and I still remember the strong smell of gunpowder. After running all through the house, screaming and crying, my only thought was to call my mom at work. What I had just done seemed to come and go. One minute, it was so real; the next, it felt as if I were dreaming. My thoughts and feelings were so scattered. After what felt like an eternity, the EMS, the police, and my mom came running through the door. The paramedics put Bethany in the ambulance and left for the hospital. My mom drove our car, following the ambulance. All she kept saying to me was, “Why did you do it?” and “You need to pray that she lives.”
Bethany died on the way to the hospital. She was only eight years old.
That night I was put in the county jail. I remember my dad stayed with me so I would not be alone. Having him there in my cell provided a source of comfort, but comfort could help only so much. Killing Bethany had removed something from inside me. It felt as though part of my soul had been ripped out. I cried that night until I had no more tears to shed. I was later sentenced to juvenile life—a five- year term—and my heart hardened even more as my hatred for life grew.
Years later my mom told me that on the day I shot Bethany, she looked me in the eyes and saw something evil there. She said it wasn’t her son. According to her, I looked at her as though I was possessed by something. She felt a demon was looking at her through my eyes. She said that the next time she saw me, it was gone.
Being a twelve-year-old kid locked up with fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, I had to grow up fast. I learned to keep to myself and stay quiet, blend into the background so I wouldn’t be noticed. Surrounded by staff who could care less and a bunch of delinquent kids, I had to figure out most things on my own. I went through so much counseling, I couldn’t stand it anymore; I quickly learned to say what the counselors wanted to hear and watched as they passed on to someone else.
Nothing was fixed inside me, and the inner battles remained. I had so much pain, grief, and hatred that I began hurting myself by hitting walls and making razor burns on my hands and arms. I knew that I deserved to hurt. When I punished myself, I felt better for a little while but not for long. Feeling better only made me feel worse.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼When I was sixteen, with one year of my sentence left to serve, I was allowed to have a guitar, and I started teaching myself how to play. My plan, once I got out, was to become a biker, hang out in bars, and get into fights. That’s all I wanted. Human life meant nothing to me, so why do anything else other than drink and fight? Yet something was happening. People I didn’t know continually came to visit me and to talk to me about God. It happened so often I began to wonder if God was really real. They sure seemed convinced. They didn’t judge me the way everyone else did. These visitors also looked genuinely happy, and I was very curious about what made them different. I started having a faint hope during their visits. But my hopes would fade quickly the moment I went back to my cell.
One day a woman I had never seen showed up to visit me. She gave me a Bible and sat and prayed with me. She visited a couple of times a month, and I liked her. I also liked to listen to the group of bikers—the Christian Motorcyclist Association—who came to the jail once a month for Bible studies. The first seeds of my interest in God were beginning to take root. My parents, of course, never stopped praying for me. Our church never stopped praying, both for me and for my family. Even in my confinement, God was there with me. God was there, even in my darkness.
After I was released from jail, I went back home to start my senior year of high school. It was a difficult transition, to say the least. I had to move back into the very house where I had killed my sister. Her room had been remodeled, so it was bigger and did not look as it did before I was sent to prison, but I still felt uneasy being there. I didn’t feel that I belonged—neither in the house nor with my parents. I didn’t know them as my mom and dad. I knew they had forgiven me, and they welcomed me home with open arms, but the last five years away from them had caused an emotional separation. The things I had learned about being a teenager, I learned from the older kids in the cells next to me. A friend in jail taught me how to shave. Things boys normally learn from their fathers, I did not learn from mine. I avoided talking at all about Bethany with my parents or anybody, for that matter. How could anyone look into the eyes of the people whose daughter’s life you took? I couldn’t.
But at school something was different. Before, I had felt totally alone. But now I felt accepted by some of the students. I even hooked up with a few of my old friends. I started drinking and smoking weed with them and then taking speed to stop myself from crashing. I would wake up some mornings with my heart pounding in my chest as if it were going to explode.
I would drive the seven miles in and out of town, from and back to our home, drunk and high, but I never once got in an accident, not even when snow and ice covered the roads and accidents claimed others’ lives. I often had no recollection of even making the drive. God was looking out for me.
And how did I repay him? I ventured into some very ungodly things. I hated myself, and I learned to cut my arms with knives and burn myself with lighters. Even though I had served my time, I thought I still needed to be punished. I cut my left wrist deep enough that I severed the nerve and tendon, losing all feeling in two of my fingers.
My wake-up call came after I stole a pistol from a room in the hotel where I worked. I faced a felony charge for possession of a weapon by a previous offender. The district attorney wanted to throw me in prison for a long time. But by God’s grace my attorney got me three years’ probation without any jail time. That is when I knew—something had to change right then, or I was done. I decided I needed a fresh start with new friends, so I left town and moved in with a woman who is now my wife. I still smoked weed and drank but quit using speed. I met some bikers, who happened to be Christians, and one night they invited me to church. I was married by that time, but my wife did not want to go. I went. I was desperate.
As the pastor was saying a closing prayer, a rush of emotion suddenly just hit me square on. All the feelings I had held in for so long—all the people I had hurt, the lives I had messed up—all of it began to surface. I was crying, and I couldn’t stop. I got up to leave, but my friend stopped me and called the pastor over.
I told him everything. I told him about the hatred, the stealing, the fighting, the drugs, and about killing my little sister. I had nothing left to hide. I thought he might reject me because of all the awful things I had done; he wouldn’t have been the first. But, instead, he asked me to pray. He asked me to admit that I had done wrong, tell it all to God, ask him for forgiveness, and accept that his Son, Jesus Christ, had died so I no longer would have to face the consequences I deserved. Those words changed my life forever. From that moment on I was forgiven.
Forgiveness changes everything, but it is not a miracle drug. Life was hard, and I had to face the consequences of my choices, in my marriage, my heart, and my soul. Not a single day goes by that I do not think about my sister. Even as far as God has brought me, there are still days that are difficult to get through. When I look at my past, I know that I am a murderer, a liar, a thief, and an adulterer. I’ve had idols before God, cursed his name, and degraded my parents. But my story does not end there. My story is not defined by my crimes or my sins. My story is defined by the rescue of God— the forgiveness, love, and grace he has poured into me.
If my tragic story shows anything, it is this: no matter how bad or messed up our lives may be, there is hope. Always, there is hope. It doesn’t matter how many crimes we have committed or how many people we have hurt in the process. Jesus always offers hope. No matter how much hatred we have endured or pain we have inflicted, God always gives us hope. He loves us unconditionally, regardless of our messed-up lives.
Jesus died so that we don’t have to. There is no better sacrifice than that. We just need to ask for forgiveness of our sins, believe in our hearts that Jesus died and that God raised him from the dead, and follow Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Do it, and your life will never be the same. Do it, and see for yourself what it means to live an adventure scripted by God himself.
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It's a God Thing is a collection of 46 real, modern day miracles written by YOU! Each day this week, listen to the K-LOVE Morning Show as we interview the authors and read their stories right here at klove.com.
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