International Christian speaker Danielle Strickland rebelled against her parents and God during her teenage years, becoming embroiled in a life of drugs and crime. An encounter with Jesus in a prison cell changed everything.
My parents were both rescued as orphans by the Salvation Army when they were about 10 years old…and living in different parts of Canada. They became Salvation Army officers. I was raised in their home with the Salvation Army as my ‘grandparent’.
Growing up, I was confused about God. I thought Christianity was boring and about rules. My mother used to say that I was really good at many things, but best at being bad. From a young age I didn’t understand that God meant abundant life, and I believed a lie: that rebellion was freedom.
I followed that road and rebellion, of course, only leads to death, so I found myself living a smaller and smaller life until I was confined to a jail cell. I experienced addiction and left home when I was 12. From then on, I was in and out of jails and courts.
MEETING JESUS IN JAIL
When I was 17, I got into some really big trouble and was remanded in a city jail for a while until I could be transferred to a prison. While I was waiting for my case to go before the judge, a friend of the family, a Salvation Army officer, came to see me. It was weird on a couple of levels, because she shouldn’t have been able to get in there, but she did. I remember seeing her coming and thinking, ‘Oh no, here comes the lecture. I should know better…’
But she just came in, wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘I love you’. She gave me a lawyer’s card and left. I thought, actually I even said: ‘You didn’t even bring me a smoke?’ I was not in the mood to receive anything from the Salvation Army.
When she left, I was alone in my cell and Jesus showed up just like she had done. He wrapped his arms around me and instantly it was as though somebody had turned on the light. I came to, as if awakening from a bad dream, and I said aloud, ‘Wow. I’m in jail’.
It was the first time I really understood that Jesus wasn’t mad at me, and that he loved me no matter what I did. That revelation was the beginning of my following him, my falling in love with him, my understanding. All of a sudden I had such clarity. What I thought was bringing me freedom was bringing me slavery. It set me free.
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A MOMENT OF SURRENDER
God intervened miraculously in the court process that followed, and I was able to go to a treatment centre instead of prison. Then I began dealing with my addiction to drugs. Eventually, I came to a place where I started to clean up my own life, but of course that change and transformation doesn’t happen from the outside in. It doesn’t happen just because we will it to.
I came to another conclusion – probably a couple of months after that first encounter with Jesus – that I couldn’t change myself, but what I needed to do was to surrender and let God change me from the inside out. So I had a moment of surrender. That moment was key in another way, too. My father had an encounter with God the same day and we were reconciled with each other. It was the beautiful beginning of a healing relationship with God and with my father on earth.
From then on I started reading the Bible and trying to surrender my life every day. I went back to school; I had dropped out of high school years before. I went on to get special permission from my probation officer to go to Africa on a mission trip with an interdenominational group, and that was when everything connected for me. I had a revelation that God was bigger than I was. We can make Christianity about ourselves, but on that trip I ‘got’ it. Something was unlocked in me where I wanted to live the rest of my life for the world and for its salvation, not just for me.
NO ONE IS UNREDEEMABLE
I must have been a very hard teenager for my parents to raise. I’d stolen from them and used them. I think they were both pretty sure that I had decided which way to live. But then I was given back.
The ethos in our house, of course, was not just that the Salvation Army was family, but that anybody could be rescued; like there was no unredeemable person on earth. Those things were there in me, even when I didn’t realise. They were inbred in me; they were the values of our home.
My mum says that after I found Christ I never really changed speeds – I just changed direction. So, as fast as I was headed to hell, that’s as fast as I started heading towards mission. I was just like, ok, I’ll just get a job, work and save enough money to go on the next mission. I did a few short-term trips and then longer-term trips, and then I was just like, ‘Ok, sign me up for life’.
Now I have a genuine understanding that God can do what seems impossible. I don’t just mean in my own life, but I’ve seen over and over again that God can use and will use the most unlikely of people if they’ll only surrender themselves to his love and follow him.
Today I have a strong conviction that it’s never too late, and it’s never too hard for God.
Danielle Strickland is a Salvation Army major based in Canada. Her latest book, A Beautiful Mess (Lion Hudson), is out now.