How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be without the sweetness of trifles! And it was now a joy to put away what I formerly feared to lose. For thou didst cast them away from me, O true and highest Sweetness. Thou didst cast them away, and in their place thou didst enter in thyself–sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood; brighter than all light, but more veiled than all mystery; more exalted than all honor, though not to them that are exalted in their own eyes.
– The Confessions of Saint Augustine
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound), That sav’d a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
– John Newton
From the earliest of my days, I recall pondering the meaning of my life and the world I lived in. My mental and emotional faculties had not yet fully developed, but there was a sense in me that there was something more, something bigger than my immediate environs. Perhaps it was my mom, a woman who was exploring her nascent and ambivalent Christian faith, who instilled in me this sense. In contrast, my dad was an agnostic who viewed the Christian faith and people with suspicion and pity. Consequently, I was not raised in the church, though my mom would occasionally take us to either a Protestant service or a Catholic mass. I was, however, taught the morals of my traditional parents, including integrity, loyalty, and the value of family. In all this, I somehow became acquainted with the notion of a god who ruled the universe and would determine my immediate and eternal future, though the notion was largely formless. One developing idea was that God would judge me according to how my “good” deeds compared with my “bad” deeds. I also had a sense that sacrifice was involved in knowing God. I would ask myself, “if God asked me to throw myself into a fiery lake, would I?” My surprising answer had been “yes”. Despite my ideas of judgment and sacrifice, I felt that this God I did not know so well somehow cared for me. I also pondered my own and my loved ones’ mortality. It didn’t make sense that I would cease to exist at some point, and the thought of my own death and the death of my loved ones filled me with terror. I found comfort in an ill-defined sense that there was a higher power who would rescue us from death.
In middle school, I began to attend a Presbyterian church. I was starting to become my own person, and I desired to explore the meaning of life. It was in some sense an act of rebellion against my dad who was as adamantly against Christianity as ever. I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ for the very first time in my life, and it clicked with me and my long-held existential questions. Jesus had willingly assented to the sacrifice I imagined as a child, and he had paid for all of my “bad” deeds. My faith grew as I became more involved in my church community while in high school, and I began to sense the presence of the living God. I felt God’s love for me in my heart, and I began to fall in love with Him in turn. I was taught to reject the ways of the “world” and view my own sins severely. Jesus saved me from from the penalties of my sin. My faith journey hit a wall in around Easter of my junior year. The presence of God had left me and I began to doubt everything I had learned and believed about God. The crisis in a faith that meant so much to me left me with what I now recognize as a major depressive episode, which I tried best to hide from everyone around me. I continued to attend church, but the vitality in my spiritual life had left me and I didn’t know how to get it back.
I went off to college still in a state of spiritual malaise. The freedom afforded by college dorm life is legendary, and I took some advantage of it. Casting aside my prior life of a “good” son, I promptly got myself a fake ID and socialized with friends in settings where alcohol flowed freely. I also took my studies seriously, as my work ethic is one area that has never left me. Church, however, was not on the agenda, as I was still hurting from a God who seemed to have deserted me. Nonetheless, I continued to hunger for a connection with the eternal. As I began the second semester of my freshman year, I met some people from a campus Christian fellowship group. They encouraged me to join their meeting, which I initially found annoying but later succumbed to. My college Christian fellowship reintroduced me to the God that I thought had left me. God’s presence was back in my heart, so that He and His love for me were as real as anything else in my life. One day, I had an insatiable longing for God. It was not until much later in the day that I had the time to be alone and pray. When I read scripture and prayed, God’s presence came upon me and filled the room I was in. My senses were heightened, the room appeared to brighten, and I was filled with an inexpressible sense of love, peace, and clarity. While I did not receive an audible message, in my heart, I had an undeniable sense that God loves me as His adopted son in Jesus and that I was forever His. Jesus saved me from my doubts about His reality and love for me. This experience started for me a year of spiritual vitality in which God’s love captured my heart, and I felt there was nothing I would not do for God.
However, we are not meant to dwell on the mountaintop forever. In my twenties, I had another crisis of faith. By this time, I had been seeking to follow God’s ways as taught in the bible and in the church. But it became inescapably clear that I was failing miserably in living up to the holy standards I found to be so demanding. From greed to pride to envy to faithlessness to hate to sloth, I felt the weight of my continuing sin. Not the least of my failings was my struggle with my same sex sexual attractions in the midst of a church culture that was condemning homosexuality as a particularly damnable sin. How could I who had been the recipient of so much love from God and was so sure about the truth of my faith fail so miserably in following the moral teachings of my faith? The cognitive dissonance was overwhelming, and my emotions toward God began to fade and my intellectual confidence in the faith was again shaken. Thankfully, I was at this point attending a church that is gospel-centered. The preacher would talk about all the Christian doctrines that I thought I had learned a long time ago… about our sin, about God’s grace, about justification and sanctification, and about faith and works. All of it seemed true, yet I could not get past the internal accusation of how I as a supposed child of God had persistent sin in my life. Then one day it all clicked for me. I was listening to a sermon about the prodigal son, and the pastor spoke passionately about how the younger supposedly lost son ended up in his father’s house while the older supposedly good son refused to enter his father’s house. It was his “goodness” that prevented fellowship with his father. I then realized that it was my self-righteousness that was keeping me so despondent about my failure to lead a “good” life. I repented of my delusion that I was a good person apart from Christ, and I have since not doubted God’s love and acceptance of me in Jesus. Jesus saved me from my own righteousness.
As I look back on my life, Jesus has truly been my savior. From my licentiousness to my insecurity to my righteousness, Jesus has saved me from all that keeps me from being the child of God He wants me to be, and His work continues to this day. And in the process, I have been born again. Born within me is a new person that loves God and His ways even as my old self still rebels against God, a person who is acutely aware of my brokenness but sure of His perfection in me, a person who is hopeful in the midst of life’s many struggles, a person who is grateful for all that He is and does and wants to bear witness to His goodness. In my next post, I will discuss the what I believe and the reasons for my faith in greater detail.