As a child, I struggled to understand why my grandmother would cry when the hymn “Amazing Grace” would be played in church. I have actually struggled to understand the nature or definition of grace for many years. The following true story, illustrates God’s grace better than anything I have ever read, seen, or heard of.
Pekin Federal Correctional Institute, Illinois – 1999
A young man sits in the darkness as he considers the mistakes that placed him there.
A couple of years earlier, he and a friend robbed five banks in his home state of Nebraska. They would not stop until the FBI arrested him in Omaha. A year later, the broken young man stood before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf, who sentenced him to more than 12 years in federal prison. He was 23 years old.
His life was over. The man who was raised in a Christian home, was a high school basketball standout, and while in the Navy, guarded U.S. warships with shoulder-mounted Stinger missiles was now an inmate in a federal prison.
Most people, including myself, may have given up. I don’t know how close he came to doing so, but it is clear that God did not give up on him.
While he wasn’t ready for God, he also couldn’t rationalize the transformation he had seen in the lives of his fellow prisoners. A small light was illuminating the darkness.
In a 2014 column published in Christianity Today, he described his journey through prison and afterwards. The following consists of information gathered in that column along with other sources. While in prison, he would often visit a man in the cell next to him. The man was consumed with hate about missing out on the lives of his children, not being there for his wife, and most of all by the betrayal of his former friend.
One day, he walked over to the man’s cell and watched as he smiled. When he asked why he seemed so different, he was unprepared for his response. “I’m with Jesus now.” The man had forgiven the friend who had betrayed him. Today, that man is back on his farm with his family and once a week he returns to prison to lead a men’s Bible study.
He saw how grace can transform everyone, even prisoners, perhaps especially prisoners. He found it harder to rationalize himself away from God. God’s grace was now piercing the darkness.
Little did he know, he also had a gift that very few people possess; natural raw legal talent. He began working in the prison library. He always knew that he enjoyed the process of solving legal puzzles for his friends. But, he never realized the strength of this gift.
Over the years, he started assisting some of his fellow prisoners by writing petitions they would then file in federal courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
(Note: the odds of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing a case brought by a prisoner is less than 1 percent of 1 percent. And yet, the Court granted two petitions he had prepared for his friends.)
In April of 2009, he was finally released. He was 35 years old.
In the 2014 column, he also described life after prison. He soon married his secret crush in high school, became a husband, and then a father.
But, before his pastor would conduct a marriage ceremony, he insisted on premarital counseling. According to the young man, at the first meeting, instead of discussing marriage, his pastor asked what they believed about Jesus. When the pastor talked about grace, that free gift of salvation, he listened, especially when he said that he could be forgiven. “Yeah, even you, Shon,” he said.
The next day, Shon Hopwood could not escape the feeling that God had been pursuing him for a long time and that if he would just abandon his stubbornness and selfishness, and hand everything over to Him, he would find the light of redemption.
Shon has quoted Ephesians 1:7–8 when discussing redemption. He says that because of our sins, none of us, and surely not a former prisoner like him, can be redeemed on our own. Grace provides that we are not defined by our failures and our faults, but by a love without merit or condition.
The light of God’s grace redeemed him by piercing and vanquishing the darkness.
Shon went on to use the gift he found in prison. He was accepted to the University of Washington Law School and became a licensed lawyer in 2015.
In 2015, Hopwood accepted a position as a graduate teaching fellow at Georgetown University’s Appellate Litigation Clinic. In 2017, he became a professor of law at Georgetown.
After learning about Shon Hopwood, I have a new understanding of God’s grace. Grace is not given based on a tally of our good deeds minus our bad deeds. There is no scoring system. It is a free gift from our Heavenly Father that we cannot earn. Simply put, it is unconditional love.