This is a continuation of my previous post.
I began my journey into rabid, spiritual legalism during my freshman year of undergrad. I didn’t start out aiming to be a stress ulcer in the Body of Christ. I just wanted to get my life right with God, so I began praying that God would send along some friends who would help me live for Him.
I found those good friends and my inspiration for change at a home Bible study hosted by Steve Blair, the college pastor at a charismatic church where I began attending services my freshman year.*
*Note that the church sponsoring the Bible studies embarrassingly called the innocent meetings “touch groups” (as my sister Lawrie would say, “Somebody help me! I’m gettin’ a visual!”). They later changed the name to “cell groups” (one of the pastors joked, “If you want a captive audience, lead a cell!”). Then they tried out the name “focus groups” and, after that, finally settled on the name “small groups.” Much better.
At the group meetings were a motley crew of sincere, recently-converted college students who eagerly shared their stories of sin and redemption. Many of them had left lives of hardcore drug use (if not distribution), sexual promiscuity, and rebellion. They regularly met to listen to Christian teaching, share meals, enjoy life together, and pray. I was in awe.
This was the real deal.
Over time, I eased into the group, where I felt a sense of purpose, inspired by everyone’s stories and their devotion to Christ. Yet I also felt inadequate. Like them, I wanted follow Jesus, but my story was nothing compared to theirs. At 18-years-old, I had never drunk a beer – much less done drugs, had sex, or got arrested for anything. Booor-ing.*
*I remember one woman in the group who said she envied Mike, a former drug addict who had come to Jesus after hitting rock bottom. I look back now and think, “Yeah, you never came to that point because – unlike Mike – you never smoked crack rock. And that is a good thing.” But I can’t judge – I felt the same testimony envy she did.
I wanted a story. I wanted to talk to non-Christians and say, “See, I was so dirty, so rotten, so broken – but then I gave my life to Jesus, and now I’m free from all the bondage of my past.”
But I couldn’t lie about my past, so I did the next best thing: I changed the way I saw my past, starting at puberty – bad. My favorite pop songs – bad. My favorite TV shows – bad. My Baptist youth group – bad. My dreams of being a TV anchorman – bad. Everything prior to my new conversion was bad, bad, bad, and I had been saved from all that badness. I was a real Christian now.
After telling people how God changed my life and set me free from depravity, they would often look at me and say, “That seems hard to believe. What did you used to be like?”
I would shake my head and say, “Oh, you wouldn’t have wanted to know me. I was into all kinds of bad stuff.”
“But what were you doing?” they would ask incredulously, staring into my teenage baby face.
“You know, I was into lots of messed up sexual stuff.”*
*Translation: I watched oversexed rated-R movies.
“And I was indulging myself in all kinds of other bad habits – seriously, you don’t even want to know.”*
*Translation: I religiously watched reruns of Dallas.
“Trust me, though,” I would say, going in for the home run, “I’m a totally different person now, thanks to Jesus.”
“Oh,” they would say, not pressing for any more details of my embarrassing past.
I was embarrassed alright, but I was more embarrassed that my story was so whitebread, so dull, so void of criminal activity, STDs, and racy tattoos. I wanted a story that would be bad enough to make my conversion look incredibly good; so I kept it vague and left it to the listener’s imagination to fill in the details. It was so effective that I even began believing it.
There’s no doubt I had major sin issues in my life at the time, and I wasn’t even aware of the biggest ones (unforgiveness was eating me alive at the time, but that’s another story). I needed help and redirection – which I got – but more than that, I wanted attention and affirmation. And I got that too, but I did it by rewriting history, by claiming a story that wasn’t mine. That is, I failed to see what Jesus had actually done in my life – that He (not I) had dramatically saved me 2,000 years before, that the story couldn’t get any more impressive than that.
I should have been telling a story about Jesus’ goodness, about how miraculous the cross is; that it can take away all the stains of the past, present, and future – whether the sins of a rebellious, bratty teen like me or those of a cocaine dealer. Instead, the more I focused on inflating my sinfulness, the more distracted I got from the simplicity of the Gospel. I didn’t realize that there was no need for a jaw-dropping story – I already had it, but Joshua Rogers wasn’t at the center of it, Jesus was – which is probably why that story seemed dull to me.
As a result of my self-aggrandizing faith, I couldn’t experience the joy of leaning back and appreciating the fact that Jesus had done all the work. I was too busy trying to prove how bad I was before and how much better I was after. And proving myself became like an addictive, obsessive-compulsive, hand-washing habit. Consequently, it soon became clear that it wasn’t enough to just be saved, I needed to act saved.
Acting saved requires behavioral changes, behavioral change requires a set of rules, and rules are very easy to come by. I began my journey simply wanting to have a genuine Christian experience, like my new friends. But by ignoring the big picture – Jesus’ story – I put myself on a path that would lead to living the life of a modern-day Pharisee.