I grew up thinking Jesus was a pretty selfless guy. The pastor said I wouldn't have to go to hell because he died for me. I thought that was awfully nice of him.
God had done so much for me, the least I could do was show my appreciation by being obedient. So I tried to be a good person.
Mostly, I fell short. Mostly, I was selfish. Mostly, I was lustful. Mostly, I was jealous. Mostly, I was prideful. Mostly, I was everything he said I wasn't supposed to be.
If I prayed at all, I said sorry, sorry, sorry, thank you, thank you, thank you, hoping if I confessed enough sins and showed enough gratitude, he would eventually, in some way, find me acceptable.
I didn't pray much in those days.
God was good. I wasn't. He was mad. I was guilty. That was my understanding of Christianity for 18 years.
The pastor said if I got baptized, I could go to heaven. And if I got dunked, the old me would die and a new me would be born again.
Hell sounded unpleasant, so I eventually acquiesced to the big white tub.
When I was pulled out of the water, I waited for something mystical to happen.
After all, now that I was saved, I was supposed to have the supernatural power to stop sinning. Become a new person or something like that.
But no change came. I was the same angsty teenager, just with newly wet clothes. Disappointed but unsurprised, I went about my life thinking, at least if I die tomorrow, I'll get into heaven. To me, this was salvation.
When I was in college, one of my friends asked if I was a Christian.
After a pause, "yeah."
My parents took me to church every Sunday growing up. I had been baptized. I said the right prayer.
Of course I'm a Christian.
Looking back, I see the irony of my certainty. At the time, I wasn't even sure if God existed. He was a distant deity I prayed to just in case hell was a real place but not much more.
When I would hear other Christians talk about how God had transformed their life, I would think that's nice, but you could just be suggestible or crazy or a little bit of both.
They would talk about how when Jesus saved them, they became a new person.
Sounded like a nice story, one I felt no relation to.
College was the first place in my life where I didn't fit in (I know, lucky).
The upside of not having many friends is that you have a lot of downtime.
As nice as that sounds, my mind mainly dwelled on how hopelessly meaningless life felt. Without a constant stream of social interaction to distract me, I, for the first time had to face questions I didn't know I had been running from.
Is God real? What if he is? What if he isn't? I didn't know which answer was scarier.
Sitting quietly with my thoughts became more anxiety-inducing than relaxing, so I spent much of my time reading. I had always been an avid reader, but the one genre I never touched was Christianity.
I thought all Christian books were boring and said variations on the same theme: you need to obey God.
But life felt emptier than ever, and I was desperate to know if there was any truth to the God I'd been told to "put my faith in" all my life.
In the first Christian book I bought, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, the author told a story about two 5th grade boys who were best friends. The first boy passed every grade with ease. The second struggled to get by. At the end of the year, they took a big math exam which the straggler needed a C on to pass. After the test was over, the first boy asked his friend how he thought it went. Not good. During recess, the A student snuck into the classroom and switched the names on their tests. The first boy was willing to trade his perfect grade for his friend's failing one.
The moral of the story isn't that this kid was such a good person for saving his friend from failure. The punchline is that the second boy would have been held back had he failed, and his friend wouldn't get to be with him anymore. And that thought was unbearable.
The author said God feels that way about us. That made me cry. He'd bend the rules just to be with us. He'd bend the whole universe if it meant he could draw close to you or me.
Maybe the face he makes when he looks at me isn't one of disappointment after all.
I was warming up to the idea that God might not be who I thought he was when I stumbled upon a book that opened Pandora's Box, leading me into a world of new, radical ideas about who God is, who he's not, and what that means for all of us.
The book that changed my life is called Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell.
Every page was filled with new revelations about who God is and how I might be seeing him wrong. I don't know if this was the main point Bell was trying to get across, but the central truth of this book that shattered my worldview was this:
Jesus wants to save me now.
And by save, I don't mean he wants to transfer my name from the naughty list to the nice list that angels have on their clipboards guarding the pearly gates of heaven.
By save, I don't mean he wants to convince me to believe the "right" thing and say the "right" prayer so I don't go to hell when I die.
By save, I don't mean he wants me to cower at his feet because I've finally acknowledged myself as a sinful subject of the king.
I mean he wants to save me from death right now. Death of self-respect. Death of trust. Death of dignity. Death of relationship. Death of peace.
I mean he wants to rescue me from my own cycles of self-destruction, not by demanding my obedience, but through his own mercy, compassion, and sacrificial love.
I mean he wants to heal me, complete me, and free me from my brokenness in this lifetime. The loneliness, shame, guilt, anger, and loss I feel--he wants to lift those burdens off my shoulders not someday when I die, but now.
He wants me to know his love here. He wants me to know him now.
His offer is not a burdensome set of rules to be weighed down by. It is an invitation to be made whole through relationship with him.
The point I had been missing my whole childhood is profoundly simple: Jesus wants to restore the condition of my soul on this side of eternity.
I did not "surrender my life to Jesus" the day I read those words. Even then, I was still doubtful of his existence.
But they would be the start of a journey of discovering a greater love than I could have ever imagined.
"This is what Jesus was all about—healing people, saving them, at a soul-deep level. How? Through apprenticeship to him." - John Mark Comer