I've been thinking recently that it is so easy to write about tangential issues and never get around to writing about the most important and central part of my life: faith in Jesus Christ. So today I want to take an opportunity to share my faith story with you.
I grew up in a Christian home where I was taught the Bible from a very early age. In fact, I'm pretty sure my Mom even read me the Bible when I was in the womb! Saturation in the Bible would describe my growing-up years. We had family devotions. We were required to have personal devotions (Mom used to say, "You need to nourish your soul just as much as your body" so we would have devotions even before breakfast). We listened to Christian radio, read Christian biographies, and even listened to tape recordings of Scripture as we went to sleep at night. As I became a teenager, we were paid 25 cents to memorize each Bible verse. This motivated me to memorize chapters of Scripture...even a few whole books (short ones!).
At the tender age of two years old, I was laying on the changing table when I said to my Mom, "Jesus...come in...heart." Mom marks that down as the beginning of my faith journey, the stake in the ground of faith, if you will. I have a lot of appreciation for her belief that a tiny child could have saving faith in Christ (or shall I say, "faith in the saving Christ"!). Clearly, for a little child to believe, it is the work of the Holy Spirit! I was baptized a year or two later, at my request. Although I now believe that conversion and baptism are best understood as a single act, I also agree with an article I recently read on Christianity Today's website: if we find ourselves in the posture of faith and trust in Christ, that is what is important. It is not so much the journey we took to get there or whether we said a perfect sinner's prayer or had baptism at the "right" time. It's not whether we use the term "decision for Christ" or the term "Christ's decision for me." The point is that we trust Jesus for our salvation. I would add to that that we should also realize that faith itself is the gift of God and from God much more than it is our gift to God.
At any rate, from the earliest of ages, I found myself in the posture of faith in Christ for my salvation. I had been taught and came to understand for myself that I was born with sin and brokenness in my heart. After all, who needs to teach a child to rebel? Rebellion is so common and normal among children that it points to the innate nature of sin. Children normally and naturally go through selfishness, disobedience and lying. I understood, though, that sin wasn't just something I did; it was something that was inherently part of me. I had a nature that made me turn away from God and from my parents. I came to understand that I needed a Savior to take away my sin, to carry it for me so that it would no longer weigh me down. I came to understand that I needed forgiveness and restoration. And I truly believed (and still believe) that Jesus' death on the cross and subsequent resurrection gave me such a salvation and redemption.
As I grew, I came to understand that that sin nature is always there as long as we are on this earth but that in salvation, God also gives us the "firstfruits" of our new life with Him in eternity. We have a new nature too and that is why despite the in-fighting and hypocrisy and sin and ugliness we see from Christians, we also see that Christians are some of the most generous, sacrificial people in the world. We see this in the Christians who venture into the leprosy colonies, who reach out to treat those who battle foot-deforming illnesses in Ethiopia, who serve and care for the most hungry and impoverished in the world. Even Nick Kristof, the New York Times columnist who tackles social issues and doesn't shy away from criticizing conservative Christians, has noted that, in all fairness, you will always find Christians at the heart of seeking to alleviate suffering, in the most dangerous and ugly places on earth. There is a glory that shines in the midst of the darkness and God uses Christians to bring some of that beauty and hope into the world. That is why Jesus told us we were the light of the world.
At any rate, as I went through junior high, I found myself less interested in growing in faith and more interested in my hormones. This passed shortly though and gave way to a period of two years of anxiety and depression that didn't exactly make me suicidal but didn't really make me want to live either. An increasingly unhealthy dynamic at home probably didn't help things (I was living through the second disintegrating marriage in my family). I believe that I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder during this time and found myself trying to purge myself of any sin (even a sinful thought) and doing illogical things like obsessively washing my hands. The outward compulsions were a sign of how much pain I was in inwardly. There were so many days I crawled through, only holding on to the hope that I would find the answers and be able to be whole in the future. My interest in matters of faith had returned, thankfully, but often the heavens seemed dark and answers were elusive. By the grace of God, I didn't give up, though.
It was the restoration to a healthy Christian community that led to my restoration. Although I had grown up in evangelical and Pentecostal churches, we began to attend a Lutheran church that had a lovely service by the lake. As we continued to attend and to hear God's Word faithfully preached, as we became a part of a small group and began to serve in the church, I found my hope and wholeness begin to be restored. In this church, I found pastors who showed me unconditional love and that was healing as well.
At the same time, I began to study Martin Luther's story. I came to see that he had suffered the same obsessive anxiety to be perfect and to receive God's favor that I was going through. Martin Luther did not grow up in a world where he had access to the Bible like we do today. The Mass was in Latin and the Scriptures were in another language and reserved for the elite. It was only in his work as a young monk that he began to actually read the Bible. When he did, he was completely overcome by the grace of God. He came to see that salvation is never dependent on what we do, but is totally dependent on what God has done and is doing for us. Jesus died for us so that we could be free from efforts to please God (efforts which are never enough to match God's perfect standard). He saw that while God is holy, He is also merciful. When we could not bring redemption and healing for ourselves, Jesus did it for us, at great personal cost.
It was not that I had never been taught this. I was steeped in Scripture and its teaching about salvation. But somehow I had gotten myself into a place where I believed that, as a Christian, I was responsible for holding on to God's favor. I saw myself as a worse sinner than other sinners and was desperately trying to claw my way up the ladder of holiness. Martin Luther reminded me that only Jesus can obtain God's favor and that it is given to us as a gift--not only at the moment of our conversion, but for the rest of our lives. Is obedience important? Yes! But not to obtain God's favor. It is the way we show our love and gratitude to God for what He has already given us. Little by little, I began to experience more and more freedom from the obsessive control I was trying to take over my life.
In the years that followed, I had many ups and downs. I had times when I followed God more closely than others. I had times when I clung to my own control instead of to Christ. I think of myself now as "in recovery" from this obsessive control. It's a life-long journey. And now as an adult, I often feel I have more questions than answers. But in the midst of the questions and struggles, there is one passage that I cling to. In John 6, Jesus has just finished a particularly difficult-to-understand teaching ("eat my flesh...drink my blood"). Many people are repulsed and turn away from following Him anymore. Jesus asks His disciples if they plan to do the same. Simon Peter's words are the ones I cling to, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (NIV). This is so often how I feel. So often, I don't understand God. I have so many questions. The heavens often seem dark. Scripture is so often hard to understand. But what I do know is that there is no other credible place to which I can turn. There is no other Person who was willing to die for me. There is no other assurance like that which I have in Christ. So I cling to Him in the midst of the questions and confusion of this life. I remain in the posture of faith.
There's a lot more I could write about. My growth in faith in college and at Bible camp. My years in Christian ministry. Seminary. But this will suffice for now.
Jesus has saved me, redeemed me and given me the gift of faith. He holds me in the palm of His hand and promises that no one can snatch me away from Him (John 10) and nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8). To whom shall I go? I go to Jesus.