I had just spent the day in a jail cell and now I’m in front of a judge in a courtroom. I read the title of the legal document pushed in front of me: The United States vs. Greg Willson. How did I get here?
My father was the ringleader of a mortgage fraud operation and the FBI had been investigating him and other members of my family for some time. In a ploy to get less time in prison, my father lied and told the FBI that I was in on the fraud with him. So there I was, a pastor in Orlando, Florida, arrested and sitting in a jail cell, betrayed by my father, and accused of a federal crime.
If found guilty, I was expecting four years in prison. And not only that, but being a pastor judged guilty of fraud—well, I didn’t imagine that would help my future ministry aspirations. Finally, after two grueling years of waiting, there was an even more grueling week of a federal trial.
After the prosecution presented their case, the judge spent some time deliberating, and eventually threw the case out due to a lack of evidence. I vividly remember how he looked me in the eyes and said, “Son, you are free to go.” My record was restored as clean as if I’d never been charged at all.
Jesus, My Advocate
Although innocent of mortgage fraud, I’m guilty of many other crimes against God. But Jesus is my advocate—and I understand now how important it is to have a competent and compassionate advocate! Jesus, knowing my guilt, has taken the punishment himself, and my Father now declares, “Son, you are free to go.” So there I was, a pastor in Orlando, Florida, arrested and sitting in a jail cell, betrayed by my father, and accused of a federal crime. Click To Tweet
My heavenly Father calls me his son. I get to be adopted into his family and experience all the benefits of being in close community with him and my many brothers and sisters. He says I am free. Freedom by itself isn’t worth much. But freedom to follow Jesus gives me the meaning I crave. My gift of freedom is best used when following him.
Provision And Community
Through this horrendous ordeal, God empowered his church to provide for us. We were very needy over those two years and his people showed up. There were dark, sleepless nights and times when we couldn’t pray for ourselves. But we could text people in our church and they would pray for us.
During the trial, one of my friends took his lunch break each day to sit in the back of the courtroom and pray. Others came and stayed at the same hotel for the week to pray, to help, but mostly just to be there with us.
In what would normally have been a very lonely experience (and there were definitely times of intense loneliness), God’s community told us repeatedly that we were not alone. Through their words and actions, we heard God telling us that he was with us. God broadened our definition of suffering, and in doing so, he broadened our definition of his provision.
Freedom and Mission
Though these were easily the worst two years of my life, I’m also strangely thankful. My wife and I felt backed into a corner. We were desperately clinging to him, unable to rely on anything else for rescue. We relied on God—mostly because we didn’t have much of a choice!
After the trial was behind us, though, there was the bigger question: what would it look like to rely on Jesus in the same way, without having to be backed into a corner? God’s grace was at work in our lives. Through it, our capacity to rely on him was strengthened, our trust in him was elevated, and this freed us to risk in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise. We asked God what was next in our lives and he answered quite plainly: church planting. Click To Tweet
We asked God what was next in our lives and he answered quite plainly: church planting. Going through this path of ministry meant less security, less comfort, more loneliness, and more work. It took going through suffering like this for God to shape our spiritual imagination.
Going through the trial also enabled us to move to a new country. We are Americans who have moved to England to plant Redeemer, a church in Manchester. Planting a new church in a new culture is difficult for many reasons, but we know that God has called us to go. Jesus has freed us from the fear of going. Knowing that in our darkest days the Lord came through for us empowers us to risk more for his kingdom. Knowing that in our darkest days the Lord came through for us empowers us to risk more for his kingdom. Click To Tweet
We would not have considered church planting if we didn’t go through this trial. We would not have considered moving to a new country if we didn’t go through this trial. The freedom given to us in Jesus, built up through suffering, has enabled us to live a life of mission. And when things go wrong (as they will), we can hear the words of our good Father through it all, “Son, you are free to go.”