Transforming Grace

I started attending a local Bible study in December. The study itself has been great, but the social experience has been more than a little mixed. My discomfort has several roots, including the fact that every other woman in my group has children. Also, most of them live in West County, and they find it odd that I can name several tasty restaurants or worthy attractions within the city limits.

But the most significant factor is an experience I've had countless times during the past six years. This isn't the first time I've found myself in a small group of women who converted to Christianity at age 5, and have grown up in a bubble of legalistic faith.

A couple years ago in a similar group of women, a young southern wife was telling her story. "I wasn't a bad girl or anything like that! I wasn't partying, or running around with boys having sex, or drowning in that extreme kind of sin."

It's been years, and it still makes my skin crawl to recall her words. It was that exact moment when I determined I would never tell my story in front of that group. Honestly, I felt perfectly, 100% justified in keeping my testimony to myself. And I continued to feel that way in similar situations, for years.

Even early on, when I was a new believer and felt compelled to share God's work in my life, my closest Christian friends discouraged it. My story wasn't "clean" enough for public consumption, and it was best to save it for appropriate audiences, they said. Mainly, that meant reserving my story for isolated groups of Christian women. Otherwise, sharing my story would be unsuitable. 

But the truth is, my story isn't mine. Every moment of my life, every twist in the road, every mercy I've received, and every horrible decision I've made fall under the goodness and sovereignty of God. My life is His story, and I have an obligation to obediently praise His name for bringing me out of darkness, into the light. It doesn't matter if the story is uncomfortable to share, or if someone takes offense that I've walked my unique path. God is glorified when we proclaim His divine work in our lives, and that is what I feel compelled to do today. I pray that God's work in my life is a blessing to you, and that you are awed by the goodness and magnitude of God's great love for us as you read. 

***

I grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis with a wonderful family. My mom stayed at home with my older brother and me until we were in our teens. Though my dad traveled often for his job, my parents made family time a priority. We ate dinner together almost every evening. Most of our extended family lived in the area as well, so large family gatherings were common occurrences. I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandparents, and I have since come to see them as the Christian foundation of our family. 

My parents took us to church from infancy on, albeit to a church which was less than thrilling as a child. It was a small Disciples of Christ church with an older, traditional congregation, and my memories of it are not particularly fond. I remember wearing a lacy dress, sitting in an uncomfortable pew, and doodling on my program in an effort to stay awake. Nonetheless, I attended Sunday school, ate a lot of gummy worms, and was privy to many felt-board Bible stories. It wasn't a bad spiritual foundation by any means. 

When I was eleven, a leadership change at our church resulted in a major split, and our family found ourselves at a completely different church home. The new church was a massive contemporary nondenominational warehouse, and to a pre-teen girl, it was heaven on earth. With a congregation in the thousands, there were hundreds of kids at church each week, and a stellar youth ministry program. In addition to all of that, I was allowed to wear jeans on a Sunday morning. It was paradise. 

Unfortunately, the aspects of church that excited me the most had nothing to do with God. Sundays and Wednesdays were social events, places to see and be seen. I was active in small groups, the worship band, and youth retreats, but my heart was not focused on God. Though I knew all of the answers on paper and considered myself to be quite spiritual, I had no grasp of the gospel, or my need for salvation. I performed well in school and in all of my extracurricular activities, and was hopelessly full of myself. I was simply going through the motions of faith without any understanding of my own brokenness. 

When I was 13, I went on my first date alone with a boy. The experience of being pursued by a cute guy was a thrilling discovery for me, and I dove into the world of dating. Around that same time, I was severely burned by friends in my church, and the damage was bad enough that I never went back. My parents, having since become disillusioned by failings of the church, did not push me to attend on my own. I was grateful for that. With no history of a personal relationship with God in my life, any interest in Christianity faded quickly, and I ran full-speed into the arms of young, foolish, unbelieving men.

I've already written extensively about my history of sexual and emotional abuse, so I won't rehash that here. Suffice it to say that I had poor taste in men, and I had no sense of what it meant to be cared for and cherished in a romantic relationship. I don't hold anyone at fault for that period of my life, and I don't think it's necessary to assign blame. In fact, I think it was a mercy that God orchestrated those circumstances, and I believe He let me walk through that decade-long period in my life out of love. Just as He always does, He knew what I needed. He allowed me to make my choices, and to fully understand that there was no hope or salvation for me in the affection of mortal men. If I had the choice, I would not change any of it, because I would not risk any of the good that followed. 

And so I dated, dated, and dated. When I got bored or disinterested in a boyfriend, I moved on to another that was more promising. Yes, some of those young men were abusive, but some of them weren't. I broke a lot of hearts, and I'm not proud of that. 

In college, I hit my low point. Hundreds of miles from home, I acknowledged and owned my atheism, and walked through life with no divine guidance or hope. I was studying a major I didn't want to pursue as a career, wrestling with perfectionism and anxiety, and I was deeply depressed. I partied some to escape my emptiness, but mostly I just ached. I had no idea how to fix the hole that I felt in my soul, but I knew something was meant to be there. I assumed that hole was a place for Mr. Right, and so I kept searching for him. 

During my junior and senior year of college, I started dating someone seriously. My new boyfriend seemed nice enough; he was always saying things like, "We never have to do anything you're not comfortable with," or "You don't have to do XYZ until you're ready." I told him about my history of abuse, and he seemed to take an interest and be somewhat sympathetic. My bar was low, so that was good enough for me. 

Everything would've been great, except for the fact that he was simultaneously expressing dissatisfaction in our physical relationship, and suggesting that he might break up with me because of it. Talk about mixed messages.

By then it was 2011. I was depressed, my self-worth was deep into the negatives, and I had no idea who I was. I had graduated college earlier that year, and had no idea what I wanted to do with myself professionally. My boyfriend was communicating more and more often that he was dissatisfied with our physical relationship, and I was afraid to lose him. I was afraid to be alone.

During that time, I lived with 3 Christian women. I was the token house atheist, and we made jokes about it. I asked them to consolidate their belongings because I felt like I was living in a Christian book store, but for the most part, faith wasn't a huge source of conflict. As an observer, I watched them live together as believers, and love one another through difficult conversations. I heard them speak grace into each other's lives, and watched them depend on Jesus. It was appealing, but also intimidating and isolating. They lived together in a way that seemed exposing, vulnerable, and yet profoundly fulfilling. But I was not part of their circle, and that fed my loneliness. 

Late in 2011, I was at the end of my rope. My boyfriend was depressed as well, though he would never admit it, and I fell back into the lesson that I learned years ago: it was my job to make him happy. So I gave myself over to him completely, an act I'd somehow managed to avoid in all of my years of dating and sexual abuse. 

I wept in a pit of emptiness and guilt. In that moment, I realized that I did in fact believe in God, because I knew He would be furious with me for what I'd done. I knowingly committed one of the most 'severe' sins according to the church, and I was ashamed. I was bound for condemnation and the fires of hell, and there was no hope for me at all.

In the midst of my assumptions and shame, Jesus spoke grace into my heart. 

I remember it vividly. I sensed that Jesus was present in the room with me, and He was weeping. I hadn't expected Him to weep--I'd expected Him to shake His finger at me, and condemn me for eternity. Maybe yell a little. But my sense of His compassion and grief was overwhelming. I felt Jesus speak directly into my heart: "I would never ask this of you, child. This is not what love is." And my heart broke.

For awhile, I thought I was a little crazy. It wasn't an overnight, immediate fall-on-my-knees experience. But Jesus's words of grace and compassion had left a permanent imprint on my heart, and I did not forget them. I broke up with my boyfriend weeks later, for no better reason than that I knew I needed to let him go.

Soon after that, I woke up on a Sunday morning with a deep sense of confidence and urgency to go about my day in a certain way. I called in sick to my second part-time job, though I was perfectly healthy, and I was absolutely confident it was okay. I spent the day visiting with my roommates, and asked to go to church with them that evening. They were delighted, and we carpooled to church together.

The sermon was nothing profound, to tell you the truth. It was a December sermon on materialism, appropriate for the holiday season. But I heard the gospel clearly, and that night, I finally fell to my knees. I understood that I had no hope apart from God, that I was irreversibly broken apart from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. I gave my heart over to Him, and admitted that I needed Him desperately. I acknowledged that in His wisdom and mysterious love, He was more qualified to lead my life than I was. 

I haven't been the same since. The change in me was astonishing, and though some patterns and habits lingered, my old self died away to be replaced by someone entirely new. My roommates gave me books to read, and I started attending church regularly. I started to get glimpses of God's great love for me, and I hungered to learn more. I felt a softening in my heart toward others, and a joy that could not be dampened by any obstacle or injury.

It wasn't a smooth road, by any means. It was difficult for some of my closest friends to believe and accept the change in me, even the Christian ones. Many relationships were lost, and to this day those relationships remain damaged. I grieve that, but also understand why it happened. Evidently, it's common for people to have trouble maintaining existing relationships when they convert, because it is truly a complete personal transformation. Why should I expect to live the life I led before, when I have no desire--or ability-- to return to that life?

***

My first Christian dating relationship was an absolute train wreck. I was smitten, because we both loved Jesus and therefore must be soulmates. Oh, how naive I was! He told me he wanted to marry me three months in, and I foolishly believed him. Soon after, he broke up with me, and I descended into full-blown despair.

God always knows what I need, and He definitely knew that I needed to have my heart broken by a believer. It wasn't really about the guy himself. We were horribly mismatched, and he later grew a mustache which left me with absolutely no regrets. In truth, it was about my own obsession with finding Mr. Right, and the weight I assigned to a dating relationship. God used that breakup to expose the deep idolatry of romance in my heart, and to break the patterns of my old life.

It was a painful, long process, but it worked. God healed a part of me that I didn't even know was broken. He told me that I was enough, and that I didn't need a man to justify or define myself. He showed me that I belonged to Him, and that in Him, I had everything I would ever need. Is marriage a tremendous blessing? Absolutely. But it is not essential. Grace is the true foundation of my identity, and the well from which I drink daily. Jesus is my sustenance and hope, the only hope that cannot be taken away from me. 

I've learned a lot over the past 6 years. God has turned over rocks in my heart and exposed festering sin that I never knew I possessed. He has lovingly allowed me to go through trials, that I might grow nearer to Him and walk the path He has laid out for my life. 

The blessings and fruit of His work are innumerable, but nonetheless, the highlights are worth naming:

  • God brought me the (earthly) love of my life, and a loving marriage that I'd almost given up hope of finding. He uses Andrew's presence to heal, challenge, and nurture my soul. He brought me a steady, loyal man to ground me in my roller coaster craziness. He gave us a friendship that awes me, and that continually surprises me in its depth and delightfulness. Apart from grace, Andrew is the best gift I've ever been given, and I am often surprised and completely shocked by the fact that we get to enjoy one another for the rest of our lives. 
  • God allowed me to go through a long season of suffering and spiritual abuse, exposing my idolatry of the local church, and also leading me directly to my current profession. I never would have found this work on my own, and never would have had the courage to choose it for myself. But I am more professionally content than I have ever been, and I rejoice daily that I'm able to do work that I love. 
  • God used that same season of suffering and complex-PTSD to restore my image of Him, and give me a greater understanding of the depth and mystery of His love for me. He healed wounds that I never thought would close, and continues to restore relationships that were broken. The fruit of that suffering hasn't stopped revealing itself, and I stand in awe of God's ability to use sin and suffering for His good. 

These are only the highlights, but God moves daily. He lovingly rebukes me in my selfishness, and draws me back to Him. He sustains me in challenging moments, difficult conversations, and dark days. And He daily feeds me with the knowledge of heaven, that anything I endure in this life will pale in comparison to the glory of His kingdom. 

***

I remember reading a book soon after I became a believer. I don't remember the title or author, which is probably for the best, because I would publicly shame the heck out of those authors right now if I did. But I do know that it was a book written for young women who desired to dive into their faith.

I was sitting in the lunch room at Opera Theatre, reading a chapter on sexual morality. I'll never forget reading the words on the page that stunned and outraged me:

"You should not have sex before marriage, because in doing so, you reduce the value and impact of your testimony. By breaking this command, you make yourself less believable as you share your faith, and more of a hypocrite."

I threw the book across the room, and eventually threw it in the trash. I considered burning it, but didn't want to put forth the effort. Sure, sex before marriage isn't part of God's plan. But that didn't make the book's claims any less false. Mercifully, God revealed that false teaching in real time, preventing me from drowning in shame because of a lie.

But what is the truth, then?

Sin--no matter how ugly or shameful--is not a barrier to sharing the gospel. It is an invitation to fall at God's feet, and to praise His name for His mysterious grace and forgiveness. 

For the unbelievers: If you have something in your life that you are ashamed of, something that lives in the dark shadows of your soul, I want you to hear me. I want you to know that God doesn't find you dirty or broken, but that He loves you in the midst of that sin. He has already covered every mistake you've made--and every mistake you will make--with the atoning death of Jesus. You do not have to be a slave to shame or guilt, but can walk freely in the light of Christ, knowing that God sees Jesus's perfect record when He looks at you. I invite you to give your life over to the God of love and grace, who sent His Son to die that He might bring us back to relationship with Him. 

For the believers: Remember that we are all the chief of sinners. Do not slip into the habit of ranking sin, or disqualifying someone because their version of brokenness is different than your own. Watch your words, and love everyone as the brothers and sisters we have come to be in the kingdom of God. Preach grace, not condemnation or judgment. Leave the burden of condemnation to our good and perfect God. Instead, outdo one another in love, especially with people you have difficulty understanding. 

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 2:9-10