Sin: playing with fire

by Phil Cunningham

I love comeback stories. A story of someone who was discouraged, depressed, and had given up hope, until God brought him back. In Acts 3, we read about a hopeless man in a hopeless situation. The man was crippled since birth and could not help himself. Yesterday he begged, tomorrow he would beg. There was little hope for his future.

Have you been there? You might not be physically crippled, but maybe a failed business or a fractured relationship or an abusive situation left you feeling worthless. Has a poor decision put you in bondage to the point where life seems hopeless? Have you done something or had something done to you that left you in such despair you couldn’t lift your head? Have you ever ruined or damaged every relationship you held dear? What if, like the crippled man, your only hope for the future lies in a miraculous intervention?

If any of the above describes you, then I have a comeback story to tell you. Through God’s grace, it is my story. A story of how God took a mess I created and kept His promise of Romans 8:28. I’m not proud of what I’m about to share, but I am so thankful God rescued me. I praise Him that He specializes in redeeming, restoring, and recommissioning wounded, broken people such as myself to fulfill His purposes.

I grew up in a pastor’s home. By the time I was six, I’d committed hundreds of verses to memory — and it would be those very verses that sustained me during my darkest hours. I was saved at age 12 and surrendered to ministry at age 17. I have always loved going to church and meeting with God and His people. After high school, I enrolled at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College where I attended for three and a half years. I transferred to Baptist Bible College for my senior year. During that year, I met my lifelong friends, but more importantly, my future wife, Josie Lewis Cunningham. To this day, Josie is the most Christlike person I know.

Josie and I were married in 1979 and moved back to California to serve in the church my parents planted. It was in Yorba Linda, and we served there the next 27 years. I was student pastor, worship leader, school principal and administrator, and then senior pastor. We truly loved the people of that town and our church.

Then, at age 42, I made a seemingly small decision. In my mind, my compromise was justifiable — I deserved more money. I certainly never imagined it would turn into an eight-year journey of deceit and embezzlement. But the bondage of my secret sin took its grip. I lost the joy of my salvation and was no longer a dynamic soul-winner. I cried a lot because of guilt, and even experienced health problems because of the tremendous burden of sin. I gradually learned one decision, one bad choice, one small compromise can begin the downward spiral that ends in destruction.

In January 2006, I could take the guilt no longer and told Josie about my sin. Satan loves secrets, and he had convinced me I could never be free, truly free, from this sin. I need to interject here that my sin caused major marriage mistrust. It was only God who touched Josie’s heart years later to see I truly was a changed man.

After telling Josie, I went to the church board and confessed my sin. I was soon asked to resign from responsibilities which I had been a part of for 36 years. I made immediate, voluntary restitution and truly desired to honor God in my response to the pain I had inflicted on others because of my sin. Financially, it took almost everything Josie and I had to pay for what I had done.

I’m thankful for a great biblical counselor, Ken Nichols, who helped me get to the root of my sin. I can still remember him saying after our third meeting, “Phil, you’ve done a horrible thing, but you’re not a horrible person.” Oh, how I needed those words of compassion and grace!

Because of my sin, I faced two primary questions: How long would God’s hand of chastisement last? Would He ever use me again? At age 50, following my confession and resignation, God unwrapped His sovereign plan that included severe consequences for my sin. The Orange County District Attorney’s office pressed charges, and the three-year court process began. My criminal lawyer explained that because I had made voluntary restitution, and because 250 favorable letters from community leaders had been written, I would not likely go to prison. In the end, I found myself plea-bargaining for two years in California state prison. In June 2009, at age 54, I began serving my prison sentence.

In Romans 8:28 Paul states; “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This is one of the many verses God used to lift my head during this time. If we don’t believe God is at work in all things for our good and to bring Him glory, we’ll never be overcomers. By the time I went to prison, I knew God’s hand of chastisement was off me, yet my fears were more than I could fathom. My lawyer had assured me, “You’re going to a country club prison.” His words could not have been more untrue.

I was loaded on a bus and driven to the back lot of the prison grounds. I was stripped naked, along with the other prisoners, in front of women guards. This was my introduction to prison life, and the difficult days that followed were life changing. One of the sayings in prison is, “I came in on my own and I’m leaving on my own, so don’t bother me.” Prison becomes a very lonely place. It was there I experienced the hardest days of my life. I love people and am not one who would do well living in the middle of nowhere by myself. Yet, four different times in prison, God allowed times of isolation, each lasting over 15 days. It was in these times God assured me He alone was enough. His ways certainly are not my ways.

Shortly before I started serving my sentence, I was diagnosed with a physical condition known as sleep apnea. About six months into my sentence, I was experiencing great difficulty sleeping, even breathing. This particular prison had the reputation of having no good doctors because it was so far from any major cities (Ironwood is in the middle of the Mojave Desert). Yet I am so grateful for the prison doctor who discovered a huge mass on my throat and determined my artery wall had blown out and was blocking my airflow. The surgery that followed kept me in the hospital 13 days.

While I was shackled to that hospital bed, Satan attacked my mind. He whispered, “You’ve visited hundreds of hurting people, and yet no one cares about you.” Satan always attacks our area of neediness. I wish I had time to tell you what God did for me in that hospital. It was just one of the many times God miraculously reminded me, “Phil, I haven’t forgotten about you.”

After surgery, the doctor told me the procedure had gone well, but I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. For the next several months I endured surgery, radiation, and trips back and forth to the hospital while in shackles, in a cage, in the back of a van. Oh, how I give thanks that today, seven years later, I am cancer free! In the good times and the difficult times, God showed His faithfulness.

Let me share briefly some of the lives who were forever changed because God allowed me to go to prison. As I prayer-walked at each place God sent me, I saw His mighty power to save, forgive, reconcile, and give new purpose to many men. I offered family and marriage counseling, understanding most of the men I encountered in prison had ruined every relationship in their lives. God encouraged me with continual ministry opportunities and reminded me He sent me to that prison as the answer to a wife’s or a mother’s prayer.

God allowed me to personally lead 73 men to place their faith in Christ. He brought peace where there was war, and, although many were still behind bars, their chains had been released. It quickly became apparent there were two kinds of men in prison. There were those who were evil and controlled by Satan and those who were trapped by Satan but desperately wanted hope, a new life, and a future. It was also evident that when you live for Jesus in a dark place, you will suffer consequences. I faced fears and situations I’d never experienced before. I could tell you stories where I cried aloud and quoted God’s Word. I could share my Acts 16 story where I was beaten, and new believers bandaged my wounds and deeply cared for me. I know for certain if God is for us, it doesn’t matter who or what is against us!

It’s been almost seven years since I got out of prison, and people often ask why I smile so much. “I have so much to smile about!” is my reply. I am like the woman in Luke 7 who was forgiven so much. How can I not love my Lord with all my heart? He showed me that no matter what I faced — whether loneliness, persecution, health issues, or rejections — He is faithful. He reminded me of all the messed-up, broken people in the Bible He used to accomplish His plan, and He desired to use me. He assured me His ways (although unexpected at times) are best, and,if I would pay attention, I could trust Him and have joy.

God has given Josie and me a wonderful place to serve and opportunities we never imagined. God heard our cries and brought us out of a horrible place. He put a new song in our hearts. We have found the words of William Carey to be true, “The future is bright because of the promises of God!”

God is the author of my comeback story and He is more than enough!