I still remember the first time I caught a glimpse of myself in the white uniform Texas prisoners wear. That was when my incarceration really sank in: I had become just another face in a sea of hundreds of people reduced to the worst thing they’d ever done.
Dressed in those drab garments, I looked no different from the next prisoner in line. No one who saw me in that moment would ever guess that I was an Eagle Scout, an All-State musician, and the valedictorian of my high school class. Or that before coming to prison, I graduated college with honors and was working on a master’s degree with a full-tuition fellowship.
In the free world, I had been an overachiever. By all outward appearances, I was going to do big things with this life. But behind bars, staring at myself in that uniform, I felt like the biggest failure in the world.
SUCCESS IS A DANGEROUS BEAST
The kind of success most people pursue—measured by the money in your bank account or the power you wield—is a shifty, dangerous beast. The more you feed it, the hungrier it gets. And the longer you chase it, the more likely it is to turn on you.
I know, because prior to my arrest, I fed and chased that beast for the better part of my adult life. And when it turned on me, I spent two long years of incarceration reflecting on the high cost of my ambition.
Before prison, I had seriously invested myself in a career path. Now, that path was closed to me because of my incarceration, probably forever. With a criminal record, my college degree wouldn’t help me much when it was time to apply for a job after prison. And I didn’t exactly have a Plan B for my life. I felt like my chances for “success,” at least how I had always defined that term, were gone. That terrified me.
Sitting there in my prison whites, I realized there was still a part of me that was desperately sick. If I looked deep inside, I could sense a void. Even with a good job, a great education, and friends in high places, that void would never be satisfied. What good is success if it only leaves you unfulfilled? There behind bars, I finally realized it was time to stop chasing the beast. Time to reevaluate my idea of success.
In the Bible, Jesus warns His followers not to strive for fame, riches, and other worldly markers of success. He says that it’s possible for someone to “gain the whole world” (Matthew 16:26)—to have everything the world says we should ever want or need—yet feel utterly unfulfilled. Like there’s still something missing that only God can supply.
Jesus also tells His followers a story about a rich man in Luke 12:16-21. At the end of that story, Jesus says, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”
God doesn’t measure His people by impressive job titles, fancy college degrees, and high salaries—things society often equates with success. In fact, seeking those things can often lead to pride and greed.
The Bible talks about success as a recipe of love, compassion, generosity, and humility. Matthew 5:5 says that “God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.”
THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS TITLE
As sinners, it’s in our nature to reject God. We are determined to pursue our own vision of the “good life.” Yet no matter how hard we try, we always come up short.
God sent His Son Jesus to earth to show us how to truly live the “good life.” Because we could never fix our sick hearts on our own, Jesus took all our sins and selfishness to the cross, where He died a criminal’s death on our behalf. Anyone willing to turn to Jesus can become a child of God—and know real success.
I still have a picture of me in that white prison uniform. It’s a snapshot with my wife in the unit visitation room. Each time I stumble across it, I’m struck by how strangely happy I seem. The uniform is as drab as ever, but neither of us seems to mind. Perhaps that’s because by the time that photo was taken, I had decided to trust God for my future instead of trying to blaze my own path.
I no longer chase after the “success beast” of big salaries and impressive job titles. The only title that matters to me now is “child of God.” That’s the most prestigious title I could ever have.
ABOUT JOHNATHAN KANA
Johnathan Kana is a former prisoner who now serves as a freelance writer and musician. He lives with his family in Texas.
The following article was originally published in the Spring 2019 edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.