Prodigal Son: Billy Bell


Prodigal Son: Billy Bell

Picture of Billy

I love the hymn “Were You There?” You see, I was there at the cross on Calvary. I was one of those lost sinners who Christ gave his life to save. I truly am a “prodigal son.” I grew up in Florence, Alabama, a few miles down the road from where I live now in Huntsville. My father was a retired navy chief, very strict, and hard to please. My family went to the Southern Baptist Church. My parents were really active in church, so it seemed like we were there every time the doors opened. It was in that church, in Sunday school and in youth activities, that I first met Jesus Christ.

I made good grades, didn’t give my parents any problems; but, my life changed when I went away to college at Auburn, and I joined a fraternity. Not just any fraternity, but the wildest one on campus. My fraternity house was just like the one in the movie “animal house,“ and I was introduced to a whole new world of no parental supervision, beautiful college girls and longneck buds. I had a double major- partying and girls, and I finished first in my class in both subjects. I was as far away from God and the Cross as I possibly could have been.

The problem just got worse when I finished law school, because my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer, and needed to have surgery. In his hospital room, on the night before his surgery, was the first time that he had ever told me and my little brother that he loved us. I was 25 years old. You see, my dad was an alcoholic, and he had been raised by an alcoholic father who never told him he loved him either; so he thought that was normal. He told me that night that the biggest mistake he had made in his life was not telling us that he loved us, and for me never to be afraid to tell someone that I loved them. We told each other that we loved each other that night for the first time; and, unfortunately, as it turned out, for the last time.

He never woke up from surgery, and was in a coma in ICU. When I visited him in ICU, the only way he could communicate when I told him I loved him was to squeeze my hand. I’ll never forget receiving that dreaded call at 2 am the next morning after surgery that “he’d taken a turn for the worst,” and running through the halls of Huntsville Hospital to the ICU like I was in a bad dream, going in slow motion. As I took his hand, I leaned over his bed and told him I loved him; but, there was no response, no squeeze. He was gone. Oh, I was really lost then, and it seemed that I was just kind of drifting through life- partying, broken relationships, affairs, three failed marriages. In spite of all that, I was a successful lawyer, made a lot of money, had everything materially I wanted; but something was missing in my life and that very important something was a close, loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

My life changed once again 23 years ago in the pediatric ICU at Huntsville hospital. I was standing in a dimly lit room next to the bed in which my then only grandchild was lying. His body was almost lifeless, and his little four month old head was badly swollen. He was suffering from hydro encephalitis, and he had been scheduled for emergency surgery to place a shunt in his brain to relieve the pressure. All the money I made, all the influence I arrogantly thought I had in the community made no difference whatsoever. I felt so helpless. As I stood next to Tucker’s bed, I bowed my head and went to my Lord and Savior in prayer. I prayed a prayer I think any grandparent in my situation would have prayed-“please, lord, save his life; take mine instead.” Tucker is now in college, working, and is perfectly normal; and, I’ve tried my best ever since to keep the promise I made to God that day- to give Him my life.

My life truly changed, because I turned my life over to God, and I started trusting Him with everything in my life. I was 45 years old, but just like the “last servant” hired in Jesus’ wonderful parable of hope, I received the same wages, the same reward, as those who came to Christ before me; and I came to know a Heavenly Father who tells me every day -”I love you, my son.”

Prior to my retirement in January, 2015, I served as a circuit court judge in madison county for 12 years, with the first 8 of those years dedicated to the family court. I had to try cases where children had been sexually and physically abused; a boy whose own father pushed him into a fire; a man who put his wife’s dog into a microwave; and a newborn baby whose father cracked his fragile, little skull while hitting the mother with his fists, as she tried to shield the child from his blows. I had 4 women for whom I had entered protection orders who were killed by their abusers after they left the courthouse. I’ve seen unbelievable pain and agony as families go through divorces, and I hurt for every one of them, especially the children. There were a lot of days that I didn’t think I could do it any more; but, on those days, God always seemed to send me a message telling me, “it‘s ok, Billy, trust me, I’m here”:

-By sending me notes and emails from special friends who told me that they and their prayer groups were praying for me, by name, and for those unfortunate families who were going through a divorce. And, by sending me a young father, who was on jury duty, who told me that his wife had recently left him and their 18 month old son, and moved in with her boyfriend out of state. As he left, I told him that I was going to pray for him and his son. I’ll never forget him turning as he walked away and saying “please, judge, pray for her, too.”

To remind me to trust him, I had a sign next to the door going into my courtroom that I would read every time I went in to try a case:

“Good morning, this is God. I will be handling all of your problems today. I will not need your help, so relax, and have a great day.”

That sign in my office reminds me of the first of my favorite verses in the Bible, Philippians 4:6:

“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell god what you need, and thank him for all he has done.“ (NLT)

This verse says that when we worry, we’re telling God that we don’t trust Him enough to go to Him with our problems, and to turn our lives over to Him. I’m a “type A” person who likes to be in control of things, so it was hard for me to just relax and let God handle everything for me. I have to admit that I struggled with it, until I experienced the reward that comes with being able to trust God enough to turn everything over to him. The next verse in Philippians, chapter 4, verse 7, tells us what that reward is:

“Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (NLT)

I wanted that peace in my life so badly; and I discovered that it’s offered to all of us, just for the claiming, because the price has already been paid, on the cross at Calvary. Some of the things I do to stay in a close, loving relationship with God, and in that peace that comes with it, are:

-I talk to him, by praying at times all throughout the day. No one could have been busier than Jesus, but he was never too busy for prayer. I make prayer a priority in my daily life.

I listen for his answers, because I know that he will answer my prayers. Now, it may not be the answer I want, or as quickly as I want an answer; but the important thing to remember is that it’s His will to be done, not mine.

-I ask God every day to fill me with his Holy Spirit.

-I look for the doors he opens for me- it may be in the form of a person I meet, or an opportunity to share my faith.

-I go on our church’s Appalachian Service Project mission trip (called ASP) with other adults (including my younger daughter, Amanda) and high school students (which this year will include my sweet granddaughter, Sarah Jordan) and college students from our church. Those who know me will tell you that I can’t drive a nail straight, but when I offered to give up my spot on the team to someone who could, our former youth leader, Matt Bell, told me- “we build more than houses on ASP. You’re going.”

-Another thing I do is I read my Bible daily. I read the Bible cover to cover. If you read just 3 chapters every day, it’ll only take you about 12 months. I’m reading my 7th translation of the Bible now; and I learn something new every time.

-I also read a daily devotional, which can be a simple message, but can also be so powerful that it changes your life. For example, I carried around a whole lot of guilt and shame for a long time about being divorced 3 times, the lifestyle I had led, and the pain and hurt I had caused to others. Then one day in 2007, I read a daily devotional on my Billy Graham calendar that I kept on my desk at work, that included this message: “Marriage is a symbol of the unity between Christ and his church-a unity that should never be torn…. If divorce has happened to you, God can forgive the past, heal the present, and give hope for the future; but, if you are married, treasure your spouse as a gift from God, and yield your marriage to God.”

I finally understood then that God had forgiven me, and I left that guilt and shame with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at the foot of the Cross. Now I read “Jesus Calling,” which seems to speak directly to me every single day; so much so that I have even accused my wife of calling the author and telling her the way I am.

I am truly blessed. My beautiful, loving and extremely patient (more is required now that I am retired) 4th wife, Monica, and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary this July; and I have 3 great children, and 6 beautiful grandchildren. I think that these words to one of my favorite praise and worship songs sums it all up – “just one touch from the King changes everything.” I hope that the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, has touched your life, like he has mine. I promise you- it will change everything. May God bless your life, as he has truly blessed mine.



  1. Karen Stark July 17, 2015 at 8:20 am


  2. Lucy Tucker July 17, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you for your authenticity, your humble spirit and for having the courage to share your story! What a blessing!

  3. Debbie Beasley July 17, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Thank you for opening your heart and sharing your journey.

  4. Brigitte Sexton July 17, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    I never knew you personally, only as a client of yours many years ago. Reading this article reaffirms that there was something special and unique about you that I couldn’t understand. I have admirably spoken to my children and family of you . Thank you for this insight, God works in mysterious ways! May God continue to bless you!

  5. Shirley Nix July 17, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    We love you Billy Bell!! We’re thankful for your love and friendship all these years. God bless you, Shirley and Ray

  6. Cindi Ludwig July 17, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Your honesty and humility are an inspiration.

  7. Kay Siniard July 17, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    What a beautiful testimony from someone for whom I have immense respect! It makes me think of some words from a current MercyMe song: “No matter the bumps, no matter the bruises, no matter the scars, still the truth is, the cross has made me flawless.” I love that you walk the walk and speak so openly of your love for Christ and your salvation. You are an inspiration to me, Judge Bell.

  8. Dabsey Maxwell July 17, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    He is a remarkable man and my gratitude will be forever for how he has touched one of my daughters lives. He has made a tremendous impact. My husband and I both are so blessed to have met such an incredible man.

  9. Betty Donahoo July 17, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    What a blessing to read your words. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Tricia Daly July 17, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your words are a such a great source of encouragement! I have always respected you for the genuine and humble person you are. We are all flawed, but only in our eyes. So thankful for the cleansing blood of our sweet Jesus.

  11. Rebekah Cothren July 17, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    I was blessed to be taught by Judge Bell…but he taught me more as we always spoke outside the paralegal classroom. This reminded me of the many things he gave me before he left his courtroom…a copy of the sign he spoke of, a small metal cross full of prayers, and a lot of care and knowledge…besides that the kindness he showed me. I never was treated different by him…he taught me how your life can fall apart and you can keep going. Thank you God for putting this leader in my life and letting him share his story!

  12. Debbie Hensley McGregor July 17, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    Beautiful , just beautiful !!!!

  13. Jon Fleming July 17, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Thank you, Judge Bell, for your testimony. Your are an inspiration to us all.

    We met under unfortunate circumstances years ago. My ex wife was brutally beaten and strangled by her new husband. Subsequently, I had to pursue custody of our children, because she remained married to him. There were no winners and the children suffered the most.

    I can’t imagine what you had to deal with on a daily basis, and I see now that it was your faith in Jesus Christ that got you through the day.

    Thank you for your service and faith. God bless!

  14. Jon Fleming July 17, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    Thank you, Judge Bell, for your testimony. Your are an inspiration to us all.

    We met under unfortunate circumstances years ago. My ex wife was brutally beaten and strangled by her new husband. Subsequently, I had to pursue custody of our children, because she remained married to him. There were no winners and the children suffered the most.

    I can’t imagine what you had to deal with on a daily basis, and I see now that it was your faith in Jesus Christ that got you through the day. Thank you for your service and faith. God bless!

  15. Kelli karnes July 17, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    I really want you to know that during the worst time of my life you were there for me! I will never be able to repay you for the support you gave me! I was blessed by your daughter and by you! God was with me and sent you!!

  16. Jean July 18, 2015 at 2:04 am

    Wonderful testimony. May God perfect all things that concern you.

  17. Bonnita Coulter July 18, 2015 at 6:00 am

    Thank you Billy. I really enjoyed reading this.

  18. Camil McConnell July 18, 2015 at 6:26 am

    I’ll nvr forget my first time of meeting Jdg….there was a sense about him that told me. ..”this man has had some life experiences. ..this man has walked a sometimes difficult path of his own. …this man welkom fund a way to be fair. ” It appears I had Jdg pegged correctly. This is a wonderful, beautiful. …vulnerable life story, and I respect him even more now, to have told it. May God continue to Bless you, as you now focus your works on Him. I’d hardly call this retirement.

  19. Pam Mathis Onuszkanycz July 18, 2015 at 6:47 am

    Billy, I’ve known you since my days working at USF&G. I’ve always thought so highly of you and knew you are a good man. So thankful you and I both now know a personal relationship with our Lord. God bless and I hope to see you sometime.

  20. Roy Braswell July 18, 2015 at 7:18 am

    I enjoyed reading your inspirational testimony. I also enjoyed practicing law before you while on the bench. I always new you would follow the law and let the lawyers try their case fairly. It is great that you are enjoying your deserved retirement and also that you still have many purposes to fill.

  21. Melissa Brinkley July 18, 2015 at 7:29 am

    I am so touched by this, Billy. Each of us has a story to tell. This was beautifully written and brought tears to my eyes.

  22. Rosemary Rogers July 18, 2015 at 8:08 am

    A beautiful testimony. Thank you – this has touched my heart.

  23. Paula Alderman July 18, 2015 at 8:31 am

    Judge Bell,
    You oversaw my divorce and later helped me force my ex-husband out of the house so it could be sold.
    By the time everything was solved I had re-married and my last name had changed. I think you may have rolled your eyes a little bit when you saw that.

    I wanted to let you know that that marriage is going strong. We found Jesus Christ together and are active in our church. Some stories do have a happy ending. God bless you and your family.

  24. Audra Kennedy July 18, 2015 at 9:09 am

    I was lucky enough to get Judge Bell in my divorce case and restraining order. He shows a great love for God. I never will forget anything he told me while I was in his court room. Seeing the sign outside of his court room brought ease to me at a time of need. So thank you Judge Bell you have made a positive impack on so many lifes that were needing it.

  25. Katie Wilson July 18, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your authentic heart, your kindness, and your life. I am among many who have been eternally impacted by “That Jesus ” in and through you! Several years ago, I was blessed to hear you speak for the first time and upon sharing “the sign” I have one that hangs in my kitchen at home. It is a beautiful reminder of Who I need to depend on! From someone who may not have parents this side of Heaven, I am so grateful that My Heavenly Father gives us daddies like you that are still here on earth. GoGod

  26. Yvonne July 18, 2015 at 9:29 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your testimony. Just what I needed to hear today. Thank you for sharing.

  27. Peggy Clardy July 18, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Very inspirational coming from someone that has been on both sides of life. By reading this there will always be hope for everyone to change but you got to do some work and get your self right with the Lord.

  28. Tandy Shumate July 18, 2015 at 9:54 am

    I knew part of the story, not the whole story. I still have the upmost respect for you today as I did in 1996. You were there when I needed that Godly Attorney.

  29. Tracey Horner July 18, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Judge Bell,
    What a beautiful testimony of your life. You were the judge for my divorce and will forever be in my heart. You stood up for me and my four children every time, and you saw us more than once.
    Thank you!

  30. Daphne McFarlen Lewis July 18, 2015 at 10:10 am

    I enjoyed reading this so much. You will forever be “Sweet William”. You were a special young man when we were all younger and less focused on the important things in life. You deserve all the best of life

  31. Ava Warren Cambron July 18, 2015 at 10:11 am

    A true blessing to read your story!
    Thank you for your open heart. God bless!

  32. Lane Mickle July 18, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Oh Billy, what a beautiful testimony. Thank you for sharing.

  33. Lane Mickle July 18, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Oh Billy, what a beautiful testimony. Thank you for sharing.

  34. Julie Minter July 18, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    You were my attorney through my child custody case and kept my precious daughter from being sent to her abusive dad…I am forever grateful how God used you in our lives. So thankful and blessed by your testimony, I’m sure it is being used to turn another towards their Savior. God bless

  35. Stephanie Yarbrough July 18, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    What a beautiful uplifting story.. Thank you for sharing!..

  36. Martha Stanley July 18, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Billy, I have heard you give your testimony before, but reading it again is such a blessing. Warms my heart!! And is so refreshing! Thank you for listening to Him and using your testimony to lead others to Christ!!

  37. MaryBeth Pendley July 18, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    WOW! Thanks for sharing your story.So sorry you’ve experienced those tough situations but you’re proof that God carries us through those time.Thanks for your service on the bench.Love you & Monica♡♡!

  38. Liss July 19, 2015 at 12:58 am

    Thank you for sharing the story of your faith, Billy. I know I’ve been blessed so many times hearing you officiate the weddings of our couples. Big hugs and wishes for a wonderful retirement!

  39. Lou Jean Morris July 19, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you for you letter today Billy. You were an awesome lawyer and a really good Judge. Enjoyed reading your testimony.

  40. Wanda Carlberg July 19, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Anyone can feel Jesus’ love when around you. Your faith is so eloquently stated here that I will share this with an unbelieving friend who may “hear” it. From someone they don’t know rather than from me. Thank you.

  41. Vicki July 19, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Thank you. You were there for me as my lawyer when I need you most and then again as my current husbands judge when again you were needed. I always knew you were a good person but like most of us you had struggles to overcome. Thank you for sharing with us and for being the life line we once desperately needed.

  42. Pat King Fanning July 19, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    Billy, my husband Roy and I have read your powerful testimony. What a tribute to God and what HE can do with a yielded life. My dad Rev. J. Otis King is shouting ” hallelu.. Amen” in heaven for a sinner who came home . His
    sermon on “The Prodigal Son” always touched and CHANGED lives for the Kingdom. We pray God will continue to use your life and witness so others will see The Light and be changed. Such a life brings the peace that only Christ can offer. May this be the beginning of a great turn around in our city and country as well. Blessings to you and your family. Romans 8:28 Jeremiah 29:11

  43. Gail July 19, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    That was beautiful, your Honor. I voted for you because of your stand on child support and lack of sympathy for deadbeat fathers; I supported you after because it was obvious what a good man you are. Now I see why you are the man you are: Jesus in your heart. Thank you for sharing this.

  44. James Wessel July 20, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Thank you, Judge Bell, for sharing this.

  45. Billy Bell July 20, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for the beautiful comments. My dad died at 50 and my grandfather died at 51 years of age. I am now 67, and I have always been convinced that God kept me here for a reason. This may just be that reason. Give God all the glory.

  46. Jerry Fishback July 26, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    What a wonderful testimony to the grace of God! It is an honor and blessing to know you and Monica. You have both impacted my life more than you know, just by walking with Christ and being an open conduit for His will. Bless you!

  47. Belinda (German) Talley August 9, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Billy…What can I say? I had no idea about your life. God is faithful. You and I have worked on Emmaus Walks together but I know you more through Escoe and Bill (They think the world of you) Like Melissa had said…we all have a story, yes we do. Thank you for opening your life to the rest of us.

  48. Joseph Noble September 26, 2015 at 6:27 am

    Well thanks, Judge Bell! I guess there is hope for me yet! Amazing story from a brilliant yet humble man!

  49. Charlotte Brodowski January 13, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Billy, I read this months ago and found it so inspirational. I searched for it today to re-read. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story of God’s love for His child, and thank you for your friendship to me and Mike. Love to you and Monica,

  50. Al and Jana Killen February 4, 2016 at 8:47 am

    My sweet brother,… with joyous tears in our eyes, we read your story. You have no idea what a blessing you are to SO MANY! Thank you for sharing and allowing God to use your life to change the lives of others. We Love You, Billy & Monica!
    ~ Al & Jana

  51. Kathleen Gardner July 18, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Loved reading your testimony again…I needed this today. God definitely chose a wonderful messenger. Thank you so much.

  52. Mary S Wolde February 22, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    What a wonderful testimony. I was saved at age 6 under the teaching of Rev.J. Otis King! I truly knew that Jesus came in to my heart. After becoming a teenager. The devil started on me. I would stray from God . Then I would repent for several years. Until one day I got a dreaded phone call.My oldest which had been saved . Had been in a car wrench. Brain Dead. I just knew God was going to heal her. That never happened and I had to make the division to take her off life support. But I gave my life back to Jesus . I’ve had hard times since Sept 4 1997.almost 20 year’s now since she past coming this September. But God has been with me and I with him. Through it all !!! God bless you and your family. I request anyone who reads this to please keep me in your prayers. Sincerely Mary

  53. Bill Posey July 18, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Judge Bell,
    As a retired private investigator, I always hoped that my clients got you for their judge. I am proud to call you my friend.


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