My childhood was full of Scripture. My parents made sure I read the Bible every morning before beginning the day. I was homeschooled and before tackling our academic lessons, Mom would sit us all together and read through a chapter of Proverbs, one for each day of the month. Family devotion each evening was a priority to Dad and we rarely missed it. Each Sunday morning and Wednesday evening found us in the sanctuary of church, where we learned how to sit quietly and listen respectfully. So my testimony is not a story of how I went from pagan to a respectable church-going young man. It is the story of how a hypocritical, rebel soul was conquered by Christ.
I “asked Jesus into my heart” when I was six years old. All my friends had done it and I felt left out. I wanted everyone to think well of me—to give me the same approval all my other friends received. I had just enough Bible knowledge to answer my parents’ and pastor’s questions correctly, and was ceremoniously dipped into the water soon after. I stepped out of the baptistery soaking wet, as full of pride and sin as a six-year-old could be. I did it. I was a good boy. Everyone was smiling, proud of me, and I felt good. I was going to Heaven, not Hell. I asked Jesus into my heart, so God owed me Heaven.
In my preteen to teenage years, that childish pride became self-righteousness. I was a good kid, at least in my own mind. Mom still read Proverbs every day, Dad still gathered my siblings and I for evening worship every night, and I nodded in agreement with everything our pastor said on Sundays and Wednesdays. I was comfortable under the approval of everyone around me. Even when seriously sinful patterns crept into my life, I wasn’t bothered. I could have God and sin because Jesus was in my heart and He forgave it all. But this comfort wasn’t to last for long.
When I was about fourteen, mom and dad gave me a book called “Stuart’s Run to Faith,” a short story about a boy who is puzzled about Christ and salvation. One of the characters talked about being baptized, but not saved. Her life did not affirm her claim to be Christ’s. The idea that it was possible to be baptized and not saved shocked and scared me so badly I put the book away. I couldn’t even look at it on the bookshelf. God used that book to crack the foundation on which I had built my righteousness. I told myself all was well, that Jesus was still “in my heart,” but every night that fear would revisit me, and I would ask Him into my heart again and again.
I could not find any peace there. I began trying to ignore God’s voice by indulging in my sins. If my conscience would protest, I would answer it, “I didn’t ask Him to die for me. Why should I give up my sins?” While I believed in God and wanted to escape Hell, I convinced myself that I could always repent later and that Christ’s death did not make me owe Him anything. In my arrogance I thought I had God all figured out, and I wasn’t impressed.
I believe the turning point came when I was around fifteen. My family began visiting a new church that was very different than the one I was accustomed to. From the first visit, I hated almost everything about it. They sang old hymns with unfamiliar tunes. The pastor preached sermons that, I thought, were way too long. But what I couldn’t stand most was the way certain people acted during worship. All the prayers and conversation about Christ after the service confused me. I thought, “Surely this can’t be real, because I know what Jesus is like, and He’s not that wonderful.” It was just another wall I built to hide behind.
As we continued to attend, the Lord began to bother my heart. Through sermons and overheard conversations, I was exposed to a Christ spoken of in ways that deeply disturbed me, as if He Himself was the great attraction, and not Heaven. I saw that people really did love this Jesus, not because He could save them from Hell, but for His own sake. I heard things like “He is all lovely,” and it frightened me. It meant that I never really knew Him.
I tried to shrug this off and held on to the prayer I had prayed when I was six, hoping it counted for something. I paid more attention to the sermons and prayers, but they were still empty to me. I knew something was wrong but was too scared to think about it.
Being an introvert, I had a habit of walking alone in the woods behind my parents’ house just daydreaming. The Lord began to use these walks to direct my heart and mind towards the things I wanted left alone. Every time He came near, I would quickly throw up a wall of whatever I thought made me righteous, and He would strip it away, and soon it seemed that everything I thought was secure was melting away.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but God showed me the love of Christ across the course of several of these walks. This affected me greatly and made me curious, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I was glad Jesus loved me, but that was really nothing new. It was something I heard all the time as a little kid. Even though I felt a little guilty about my behavior, I still didn’t see why I owed Him anything just because He loved me.
I remember one evening, either after church or hearing a sermon, I was walking in the woods feeling extra-spiritual and singing “It is Well With My Soul.” When I reached the stanza “My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more,” I couldn’t go on.
The weight of that verse suddenly fell on me, and God showed me clearer than ever my filth and sin smeared all over the perfect, sinless, loving, and willing Christ. I experienced for the first, but not last, time the shock that Wesley expressed in his hymn: “Died He for me who caused His pain, for me who Him to death pursued?” It was so shocking and powerful that all I could do was cry and protest in horror “Not for me, God! He’s too good to die for me!” I felt the filth of sin covering me inside and out, but worse than that, I felt the eyes of Christ upon me in all my foulness. All I could do was hate myself and tremble.
But God did not leave me there. Having brought me to the end of myself, He turned my eyes towards the cross, graciously filling me with the realization and peace of His love in spite of my filth. I saw that He still called me to come to Him, and found I could not refuse.
Since then it is difficult to describe what I have found in Christ. It is like a man blind from birth trying to describe a sky full of stars, but he doesn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to do it. But with what limited means I have, I can say He has never been anything but good to me.
He is enough even when I try to earn favor, or look for satisfaction in other things.
He still covers me even when I feel exposed before God.
He is my surety even when I feel I have no assurance.
He is the victor even when I feel undone by my sins.
He pursues me even when I run the other way.
He is mightier than my sins, even when they seem to be so strong.
He stands before the Father, pleading His merits even in the midst of my sins, and
He never abandons me to myself.
I have known what it is to be dead and made alive, to be brought from an enslaving self-worship to a glorious annihilation of self, my identity lost in His identity. In Him I have found more delights and treasures than I could ever count or enjoy in an eternity, and He has given Himself to me freely.