People think they know what my life was like before prison when I tell them about my drug use and my violent nature and my criminal acrivity. But there are a lot of things I never talk about. Parts I leave out or only mention briefly or vaguely.
People are much more understanding, forgiving and less judgmental when you talk about drugs, violence and crime. But much less so about other things. So I don’t share them out of fear. Then there was the inner disposition of my heart which I don’t talk about simply because I don’t like to think about it.
My life before prison was not just drugs, violence and crime. Nor were those the only sins that plagued my life at the time. Those sins, the ones I’ve always been willing to talk about, were just symptoms of my wicked heart. And they weren’t even the symptoms that were most destructive to my life and the lives of my loved ones.
We can claim to just be victims of unfortunate circumstances or victims of our sin. But often we just use those feelings of being a victim to make us feel better about not being what we know we should be. I was not a pleasant person at all before prison. My greatest, most destructive sin, was honestly the sin of selfishness. I wanted the world to revolve around me and give me everything I wanted without me having to give back anything in return.
Since that was how I expected the world to treat me that was how I treated everyone in my life from girlfriends, to friends, to family. Sometimes I jokingly say that when God saved me from my sin He also saved a lot of other people from it too. But there’s really nothing funny about that because it’s the truth.
One story I have shared with a select few is what I call my park bench epiphany. Between the time I moved out of my dad’s house at 18 and when I got locked up at 20 I was homeless several times. Each time, because of my pride and my love for my sins, I refused to call my dad. I knew I could have but I also knew it would require me to change my lifestyle. Not only was I not going to do that I was dead set on showing my father that I did not need him.
So I slept in my car or bounced around from one friend’s house to another during the times I was homeless. Until one night that was no longer an option. The girl I was sleeping with at the time was married and we were planning on draining her husband’s bank account and running off together with his money. But then she saw him and decided she wanted to work things out with him.
That night I tried to kill her, and her husband and the five goons he brought with him. Those are the kind of things I don’t talk about. Fortunately, for myself and everyone else involved I failed. But the girl I was living with at the time was there to wtiness it and terrified and put me on the street.
I went through my usual routine. Started calling friends looking for a place to crash. At this point I had blown my car engine up and taken a baseball bat to it in my anger so I had no car to sleep in. And after I called everyone in my phone book I also didn’t have a friend’s place to crash at. They were all tired of going through this with me and said they couldn’t do it anymore. Except for one.
But she said I had to find somewhere else to go the next day. So the next call I made was the one I had been trying to avoid for the past two years – to my dad. When he picked up the phone I broke down into tears and in between sobs I managed to get out, “I can’t do this anymore.” He didn’t ask any questions except for where I was. Which happened to be in San Antonio 200 miles away from him in Houston. He told me to stay put and he’d be there in the morning and he was.
I wasn’t even in Houston with him for a month before I started using drugs again, selling drugs, sleeping with women I had no business sleeping with, beating people up and my new favorite hobby – robbing people. After four months of that nonsense I came home one night and my dad was fed up. Told me to get my crap together or get out. So I got out because I wasn’t fixing to stop. I was having too much fun.
That’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize when I talked about my sinful life before prison. I enjoyed my sin. I was not a victim to it. I enjoyed physically hurting people, emotionally abusing my girlfriends, cheating on them, taking advantage of other women and walking all over my friends.
My dad and I got into a huge fight that night. I pulled a knife on him and he came at me with some sort of metal rod. I’ve never told my dad this but I didn’t pull that knife just to scare him or protect myself. I had murder in my heart. When I pulled that knife out of my pocket the only thing I could think of was sticking it in his throat.
My little brother came running out of the apartment, somehow managed to restrain my dad while yelling at me, “Just go, Joseph! Get out of here! Y’all are going to kill each other!” He must’ve seen the same look I had in my eyes in my dad’s eyes too. That was truly a dark night for the Sterling family.
I spent the next three days and nights sleeping on park benches with nothing but the clothes on my back and a bicycle I had stolen. That’s where I had my park bench epiphany. That the world not bending to my selfish will was not why my life was the way it was. Rather, my selfish and evil heart was my problem.
I went home that third night. When my dad got home from work we broke down in each other’s arms. I finally admitted to him that I had a problem and needed help. He vowed to help me get all the help I needed. Twenty-four hours later I was back to my old ways. Three days later I was running from the cops after robbing a store at gun point.
I didn’t cry out to God that day I admitted to my dad that I had a problem and I needed help. But I believe that God heard my cry that day. Because I wasn’t getting away with my foolishness anymore. I ran from the cops for 45 mins. And I almost got away. But then my lungs collapsed on me.
It felt like someone had reached their hand in through my back, grabbed my lungs and squeezed the air out of them. To this day I think it was the hand of God. Stopped me dead in my tracks. I didn’t know it at the time but I learned that day that God does not give up on those He loves.
He has promised that He will never leave us nor fosake us. And He’ll do whatever it takes to give us the life He created us for. Whether it’s a park bench epiphany or snatching the air out of our lungs just long enough for us to get caught and get the help we need. He demonstrated this when He gave up His Son so that we might live.