This is a continuation of my previous post.
Three years into college, I had done everything in my power to grow into the man evangelical Christianity wanted me to be. But I could never do enough, and the pressure was making me physically sick and leaving me with a sense of worthlessness.
Oftentimes, the only thing that kept me going were the occasional compliments and pats on the back from church friends. Some even said things like, “Man, I admire how you live for Jesus, but there’s no way I could do that.”
“You’re darn right,” I thought.
But though I was able to impress many of my friends with my legalistic gymnastics, my good buddy Shon never applauded my lifestyle and never compared himself to me. No, to my consternation, he was disturbingly comfortable with who he was as a Christian.
I wasn’t sure what to do with Shon, a quiet, tree trunk of a man who was seven years older than me. He yawned in the face of the legalistic code most of us rigidly followed – he watched TV, grew his hair long, listened to secular music, rented movies, and didn’t talk about Jesus enough – in fact, he hardly talked at all.
When church services lasted too long, he would take a pen and an offering envelope and draw a stick figure of a man killing himself. I was afraid this meant Shon was in spiritual rebellion, and I figured he was probably going to go to hell.
Though Shon wasn’t playing by the rules of our Christian sub-culture, he seemed closer to God than anyone I knew. His prayers were like conversations between Aslan and one of the children from the Narnia series. He was open about struggling with sin, but he wasn’t obsessed with it. And Shon not only loved God, he actually liked Him.
Even if Shon was going to hell, I trusted him and was grateful to have him around. He was the best friend I had – one of the people who liked me for who I was, rather than for what I did. That was a good thing, because as it would turn out, I wasn’t as squeaky clean as I imagined.
Though rigidly moral, my thoughts were bloated with sinful pride. I saw myself as being a cut above weak-kneed Christians, especially those who didn’t go to a church like mine. But I felt annoyed and resentful around Christians who were stronger, especially when they were more spiritually disciplined than me.
I had a near-total callousness to the needs of the poor, justifying myself by giving people rides to church and occasionally visiting a local nursing home. Yet I also felt superior to those who were rich and had chosen American comfort over foreign missionary work. Of course, I hadn’t gone into missionary work either, but I hadworked in a Venezuelan orphanage for a month – two points for me.
Pride inevitably comes before a fall, and I had plenty of it to go around. I was so prideful that I was shocked when I crossed a couple of sacred lines and fell into sin. These were lines I had promised God I would never, ever cross, and I was terrified, feeling that this meant that all my good deeds had been done in vain.
I tried to resuscitate my salvation by promising God I wouldn’t cross those lines again – until I did. And then I went ahead and crossed a new set of lines, heaping on more guilt, feeling more sick, figuring it was just a matter of time before God projectile vomited me out of His mouth and straight through the gates of hell. So I think it’s fair to say that another, major sin issue in my life was unbelief in God’s redeeming love.
Inebriated with guilt, I called Shon one Saturday morning, hoping to find some grace in confessing what a failure I was. Shortly into the conversation, I started a bumbling confession, unable to find words to describe how my life was disintegrating.
“Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” Shon asked.
“I – I was – I didn’t mean to – I was just trying to – well, last night -” I paused. “Shon, this is hard to talk about.”
I couldn’t say it, and I felt a lump growing in my throat, making it even harder to speak. I was terrified to tell the truth, to acknowledge my brokenness, to admit that it wasn’t working, that I couldn’t follow God’s law, that I wasn’t a real Christian. But finally, in fits and starts, I forced myself to speak, sharing the sordid details, my eyes filling with tears as the weight of the law came crashing down on me.
“Shon, listen – I’m a fake, a loser, a wannabe Jesus freak who has no self-control,” I said, my voice shaking. “I’ve been trying for years to be what God wants me to be and – whatever that is – I’m not that. I’ve failed, and I can’t do it. I just can’t.”
“You’re going to be okay,” he said quietly.
“No, I’m not Shon,” I said, tears running down my face.
“You know how hard I’ve been trying for four years now. I read my Bible, I drag everybody and their mother to church, I lead small groups, I sing in the praise band. I tell people about Jesus every chance I get. I pray all the time – I do everything Christians are supposed to do – but I can’t live by the rules anymore,” I said. “I’m serious, Shon. I can’t do it.”
I had said it. And I felt a surprising sense of relief. I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes with my sleeve, and listened to the silence on the other end of the phone.
Then Shon quietly said, “This is good thing.”
“What’s a good thing? That I can’t live by the rules anymore?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Do you think you figured that out by yourself?”
After my conversation with Shon, I began doubting whether spiritual legalism had a place in the life of a healthy Christian. And rather than look to my friends for new rules to follow, I began looking in the Bible for truth that would set me free.
There I found scriptures like Romans 3:20 which says, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). I knew that verse was true, because I was living proof of it.
For four years, I had rigidly followed the rules – some of them biblical, some of them cultural – but either way, I never felt cleansed or worthy. Instead, I was pathologically obsessed with my sin, and it eventually led me into more sin. But although I was beginning to see that legalistic Christianity wasn’t working, I didn’t know what the Christian life looked like without rules.
I found myself at a spiritual impasse, knowing grace was the answer, yet not really knowing what grace was. But for the first time since my childhood, I believed God had the patience to parent, that He was willing to work with a spiritual klutz like me.