What God can do with a purity ring, a puppet show, and a death row inmate

I wore a purity ring until I was 23.

For those who don’t know what a purity ring is, it’s a wedding band sometimes worn by young, unmarried Christians. The ring is meant to remind yourself and everyone else that your heart belongs to Jesus and your virginity belongs to your future spouse.

photoMy purity ring was a source of pride for me. Whenever people asked me about it, I used the opportunity to share a heartfelt message about how Jesus (and my wife) were worth giving up everything, including sex. The listener was always taken aback, which left me unsurprised. A man who was willing to take on a vow of abstinence was the real deal.

There came a day, however, when I had to take the purity ring off of my finger; and it wasn’t because I had sex before marriage.

A Big Misunderstanding

During my second year of law school, I was interning at a law firm with this really cool guy who wore his own ring, but it was a wedding ring. I admired him for it. He had crossed the Rubicon and was legitimately having sex with his wife. I wanted to be like him when I grew up.

One day, we were at lunch and he was eyeing my ring until he finally popped the question: “Why do you wear that ring?”

I seized the opportunity to share my commitment to sexual purity but it didn’t provoke admiration. He furrowed his brow and said the words that melted my 14-carat gold ring with the blazing fires of white-hot shame: “Oh, I thought it was because you were gay or something.”

I took it off that night and, in the years to come, I joined the chorus of former ring-bearers who chuckled with derision at the jewelry for Jesus that we had once worn like a badge of honor. Thank God we had grown out of that phase.

Death Row Puppet Show

In 1984, a woman named Karla Faye Tucker was convicted of committing a horrific, drug-fueled murder with a pickaxe. Only three months after she was arrested and jailed, she became a Christian; and for the next 14 years, she lived on death row as a changed woman.

karla-tucker-prison

A month before she was executed, Tucker shared her conversion story in an interview with Larry King on CNN:

TUCKER: [A] ministry came to that jail to do a service, a puppet show, one night and everybody in my tank was going out to the puppet show and I didn’t want to stay alone in my tank, so I decided to go with them and socialize in church. Well, actually, when I walked through the door I never said a word, so I never did any socializing, but when I went back to my tank that night, something got down in there and I had grabbed a Bible. I stole this Bible not realizing Bibles were given out free in jail, ’cause I’d never been there. So…

KING: Never were a churchgoer or anything?

TUCKER: I was never — no. And had never been in jail. I didn’t know that they gave out Bibles out free in here to those who needed them. So I took this Bible into my cell, and I hid way back in the corner so nobody could see me, because I was like really proud. I didn’t want anybody to think I was being weak and reading this Bible. I realize now, you have to be stronger to walk with the Lord in here than you do to not walk with him.

It’s a whole lot harder, let me tell you. But anyway, that night I started reading the Bible. I didn’t know what I was reading and before I knew it, I was just — I was in the middle of my floor on my knees and I was just asking God to forgive me.

I remember the first time I learned about Tucker’s conversion. It was inspiring to me, but the thing I couldn’t get over was what God used to start the process: a puppet show, of all thingsIt made me wonder if I was more selective about how Christians should share the Gospel than Jesus was.

The Ring Resurfaces

Last summer, I was cleaning out my closet when I found a little box with some keepsakes inside. Lo and behold, there it was: the purity ring.

My wife was across the room and I held it up.

“Check this out — it’s my old purity ring.”

“Oh my gosh,” Raquel said, chuckling, “that’s crazy. I can’t believe you wore that.”

“I know. It’s so embarrassing.”

I put the ring back in the box, figuring that at least it was real gold and worth keeping for that reason alone. A week later, however, the purity ring came up again, and it was in a way I never expected.

Opening a Time Capsule

It had been 18 years since I had seen my old college roommate Emmanuel, a Venezuelan who was studying English when I was in my junior year. He and I got along well enough, but we lived two very different lives.

Emmanuel came from a wealthy, privileged Venezuelan family; I came from a lower-middle class family in Petal, Mississippi. He partied on Friday nights while I was in my dorm room reading the Bible. I went to church on Sundays; he slept in. Emmanuel definitely needed Jesus and I often prayed that the two would find one another. They eventually did.

In the years that followed college, Emmanuel and I kept in touch and he began talking about how he was increasingly committing more of his life to Jesus. He was a different man than the one I knew in college; and eventually, I got to experience the change in person when he and his family came to Washington last summer to spend a few days in my home.

Emmanuel walked through the door and gave me a bear hug, and as we looked at each other, we kept laughing. It was like opening a time capsule. He isn’t on social media so it was literally the first time in 18 years that I had seen him. After I helped bring in his luggage, I encouraged him to get unpacked, but he declined.

“I need to say something to Raquel first,” he said, and we all sat down in the living room.

Fellowship of the Ring

“Raquel,” Emmanuel said seriously, “I want to tell you something, and if it’s the only thing I do when I’m here, the trip will have been worth it.”

Emmanuel then began sharing about the impact I had on his life in college. He said that even though he wasn’t living for the Lord, he privately admired me. I had no clue. He described me as a fanatic, but all along, he was actually inching toward faith in Christ .

Emmanuel’s testimony of coming to Christ was inspiring, but it was punctuated by an unexpected twist: “Joshua,” he said, “do you remember when you wore that ring?”

“Of course,” I said, ready to get a good laugh about the old days.

“In college, I asked you why you wore it and you said it was a reminder of your commitment to Christ and that you were honoring your wife by waiting for marriage to have sex. It was amazing to me — such a powerful testimony of faith. I never forgot it.”

The more he described the impact of the ring, the more befuddled I became. I looked over at Raquel and shook my head in disbelief. Emmanuel’s comment reminded me of the scripture verse, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10, NLT). In my weakness (and there was plenty of it), His strength was being made perfect (2 Corinthians 12:9).

It’s All Feeble

First Corinthians 1:27 says, “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful” (NLT). What a comforting thought to someone like me who has so often gotten in my own way in my clumsy attempts to share God’s love with others.

Emmanuel’s purity ring testimony affirmed that God is more than willing to use whatever we offer Him in faith. Youth group skits. Street preaching. Megachurches. Tiny churches. Christian contemporary music. Senior citizens singing in choir robes. Charismatics. Presbyterians. Purity rings and puppet shows.

The Holy Spirit can use all of our feeble efforts because — get this — all of our efforts are feeble, even the ones that we think are superior to others. And God’s willingness to use any of our efforts is the only reason that any of our efforts make any difference anyway.

God could minister to the world on His own if He wanted to, but that’s not the path He has taken. From the time Jesus called the disciples and to this very day, when He calls you and me, He shows that He’s willing to use anybody. That means that He has to work with all of our clumsy attempts to be His ambassadors. And if God can be gracious to us, then we can certainly be gracious to our siblings in Christ who are just as clumsy as we are. 

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