Jesus transforms lives. And he does it through his Spirit and through other people. This story will be—of necessity—incomplete and inadequate. Nevertheless, I hope that I communicate the essence of what Jesus has done in and through me.
I grew up going to church. And it wasn’t just “going to church” either. I grew up praying. I grew up reading my Bible. I grew up being asked by my parents what God would want me to do in a variety of situations. I grew up watching my parents give help to those who need it. I watched them fight for their marriage. I watched them wrestle with their finances. I watched them pray together.
But I missed the Spirit. I just didn’t notice him.
Because I knew all the answers to all of the questions. Like, I KNEW my Bible. Ten Commandments? Easy. The seven seals, bowls, and trumpets in Revelation? A piece of cake. I was a champion at Bible Bowl. Bible Bowl was, and is, a competition among teams of four students each who answer multiple choice trivia questions about whichever book of the Bible is the current theme of Leadership Training for Christ (an Easter conference of sorts). I assume you can deduce the problems with treating the Bible like a series of facts to be memorized and regurgitated on a multiple choice test. In any case, I not only won 2 gold medals every year in Bible Bowl, but I also never missed a question! Think about that. I can answer just about any esoteric question you have about Second Kings, Genesis, Luke, or Revelation. Or, really, any surface level question about the Bible that assumes a modernist worldview which makes quantifiable facts and their subsequent proper application the primary goal.
You see, I assumed my parents were just playing Bible Bowl. What are the facts and how do they apply? Marriage? check. Finances? check. Raising children? check. I failed—really failed—to understand that my parents were living transformed lives. And so I missed it. I focused on sin, not joyful life.
Sin? Sin was violating the commands given in scripture. Sin was a legal infraction. I knew well enough that Jesus had to die for my sins to be forgiven, but I really didn’t know what that meant. I figured I should just choose obedience over sin. I knew one thing I was supposed to do was be baptized, so I did that when I was nine. I also knew I was supposed to go to church, obey my parents, not cuss, not do drugs, and not have sex. I was pretty good at those things.
But my heart—the sin condition whereby my very essence was in rebellion against God’s perfect order—was not transformed. It was very wicked. So when I met pornography in Middle School, it became my drug of choice. And I hated myself for it.
But no one knew.
No one had any idea.
And that made it bearable.
And then one day when I was a freshman in high school I formulated a timeless question: If God is all good and all powerful, how come people suffer? I decided God didn’t exist. I even told him that he didn’t exist (Don Miller has a similar story in Blue Like Jazz)
When I later tried out my reasons for rejecting God on a mentor in my life at the time, he told me I was an idiot. He then explained to me that I was not walking away from a proposition but from the only one who could offer me life. And he didn’t mean Heaven one day. He meant now. On this earth. Freedom from hate, apathy, rejection, exclusion, depression, etc. That I was walking away from love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, and self-control.
And I believed him. Because I already knew that about me. Because my real question was not the abstracted theodicy. My real question was: how come I don’t feel loved by God? The answer was because I viewed God as something to be learned and then applied to life. In that moment, with my mentor, I felt deep in my heart that God was a person. And I could know him.
But I ignored that feeling for close to two years. My prison was too great. The Enemy had me in chains; and I was drowning. I was drowning in porn. Every waking thought. Every breath. Every desire was about getting off. Again. Getting that pleasure. Again.
And I just KNEW that God was ashamed of me. And so I kept my mouth shut. And then one day a friend gave me Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller. I devoured them. Don taught me about the nature of story, the reality of a faith that has little to do with facts and everything to do with people, and the false assumption that we all live in a lifeboat in which we are constantly in danger of sinking and therefore need to toss other people out into the ocean: that it was OK to be open with others about our shame because we not in danger of being thrown to the sharks. My quantifiable facts had taught me that if I persisted in sin (Read Hebrews 10:26 sometime) and didn’t obey God, then I would burn in Hell forever. Admitting that disobedience to another person would have made the threat of Hell even more real. Right?
Then one day, a few months after being introduced to Don (I was sixteen years old), I was confronted by my sin on a whole new level. My sin was disrupting God’s story for me. It was getting in the way of something better. I turned to Drew, the dude who had introduced me to Don, and confessed my sins. All of my addictions. All Drew said was “the lifeboat doesn’t exist.” In that moment I encountered acceptance. And not just acceptance from Drew, but also acceptance by God. That night I met Jesus for the first time. It was like meeting someone you’ve heard bout from others, but never met yourself. I received his Spirit. I received his love. I knew, then, who I was: the beloved son.
I have, since then, had formal classes on biblical interpretation, literary theory, and rhetorical criticism. I treat the Bible far differently than I did back when Bible Bowl was important to me and a lot of that is due to the men and women who teach at Abilene Christian University and have opened my eyes to a whole new world. But, the most important things I have come across come from both my relationships with people and being part of a community that genuinely pursues God. The two most important things I have learned are the following:
- There is something better. Not sinning was never the point. Obeying was never the point. The point is that God has something better. God has a fullness of life waiting for those who will let Him write their stories. He wants to introduce us to new characters. He wants us to explore new places. He wants us to have a meaningful life. That meaningful life is found only in Him.
- There is acceptance. The Kingdom of God is about accepting others. The end. The lifeboat is a lie dreamed up to keep us at each others’ throats. As Richard Beck has pointed out often enough on his blog, othering opposes the Kingdom of God more than anything else. It is the root of all sin.
So, that’s where I am at in a nutshell. That is where I am coming from as I engage the world of ideas and people. “Love God and love others” is not merely the “Jesus creed” as Scot McKnight points out, but it is the way we were meant to live. The focus is on life, not death. It is on freedom, not slavery. It is on joy, not depression. God be praised!