Finding GraceI was an active member of a healthy church. I joined a home group, and I even became part of the praise team. I made friends. I was doing well. I was still dealing with some "culture shock:" things that were normal in my new church were, at times, shockingly liberal to me. On the flipside, things that I had once considered normal were now obviously out of line. I was still struggling with what I believed, but compared to where I had been, this was significant progress. I was asking questions. I was learning a lot about God. I wasn't where I wanted to be, but I wasn't where I used to be either.
When you're making a significant adjustment in your life, it's easy to swing from one extreme to another--and I was definitely guilty of that. I came from churches where emotional experiences were important indicators of whether or not you had a healthy relationship with God. I didn't want to chase an elusive spiritual "high" anymore, so for a while I was headed towards another extreme: trying to be un-emotional in my faith.
I thought that people who talked about having a close relationship with God were exaggerating or only speaking figuratively. I had convinced myself that it just was not possible. Even though I had some intense emotional / spiritual experiences in Pentecostal churches, I didn't know if any of those experiences had really been God. My typical day-to-day relationship with God had been pretty distant. Maybe that sense of distance was normal for everyone. Maybe anything beyond that was impossible.
But it wasn't. One of the associate pastors at my new church also had a Pentecostal background. He told me that he had been intimidated by God and it took him a long time to get to the place where he could see God as a friend... but he got there. That grabbed my attention. I wanted to know God that way!
So I did the only thing I knew how to do: I worked hard to get myself to that place. I read the Bible, I had a regular quiet time, I read books about getting closer to God, I prayed. This went on for months... but I wasn't making any progress. I was frustrated. I was sure that I must be doing something wrong.
But wait... didn't all this sound familiar? Didn't that sound an awful lot like my old churches? I thought I had walked away from all of that, but apparently I was still carrying more of it with me than I realized. I was still building on a foundation that was flawed. I was trying to go "back to basics," but I needed to go back to the beginning.
I asked that same associate pastor for some more book recommendations -- this time, books that he would recommend to a brand new Christian. He went one step further and recommended a book that was written for non-Christians as an evangelistic tool: How Good Is Good Enough by Andy Stanley. Statistically, most Americans believe that there is a heaven, and most of them believe that you get to heaven by being good enough here on earth. In the book, Andy Stanley addresses that argument and shows why that belief really doesn't make sense, logically or theologically. The first few chapters pull apart the "I'll get there if I'm good enough" belief system, and the closing chapters introduce the concept of grace and present the Gospel in clear language.
I may not have been the intended audience... but the book still had a powerful message for me. I was working hard, not to earn my salvation, but to keep it. I thought that I could lose my salvation at the drop of a hat, even for breaking a rule that I didn't know about. The "gotcha" moment for me came on the last page. Stanley writes: "What matters is that you are no longer trusting in what you have done, or will do, to get you to heaven." (emphasis mine) Then he includes a sample sinner's prayer and closes the book. No rules. No threats. No strings.
How could that be possible? It was just too easy. Grace without strings?
Was it possible that I had completely misunderstood God's grace? I thought that grace meant getting another chance to get it right -- like a second chance to take a test that I had failed. That second chance was greatly appreciated, but the pressure was still on me to perform. Stanley's view of grace was more like this: I failed the test -- so Jesus took it in my place and aced it. It had nothing to do with my ability to make the cut. That couldn't be true... could it?
I went back to the associate pastor who recommended the book to me, and we had a conversation that turned my faith upside-down. It happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (2007). I don't even know how to describe what happened that day. It was an epiphany (and I blogged about that). It was a "grace awakening." It was just as radical and definitive as a conversion (even though I was already saved). It was a paradigm shift. It was wonderful!!
That pastor shared some stories from his own life--things that helped him understand grace. He showed me Bible passages that I was had seen before but never really understood. I asked questions, and he patiently answered them. I went into that conversation believing that I could lose my salvation (and lose it very easily) if I messed up. I left that conversation with a new understanding of grace. If I couldn't earn my salvation -- if it was really a gift from God -- if it was really by grace and through faith -- then it was silly to think that God was just waiting for me to blow it so He could take it away from me. If I couldn't earn it by works, why did I believe that I could keep it by works?
I didn't have to live as if I was in constant danger of falling off the edge of a cliff. I didn't have to live in fear of losing my salvation. God wasn't measuring my life, my words, or my works against some unattainable standard on a daily basis to decide whether I was good enough to continue to be His kid.
As all of that began to sink in, other things that had been a constant struggle for me started to fall like dominoes in a matter of hours.
If God's grace really came without strings... if salvation was really a gift... then God's love must really be unconditional. There was nothing I could do to make myself any more deserving of His love! For the first time in a long time (or perhaps for the first time ever), I was able to accept that God really loved me... and wanted me to have a relationship with Him. I didn't have to keep a "safe distance" away. I didn't have to wait until I got everything right before I could really get to know God. I didn't have to settle for just knowing more about Him. I could really know Him!
And I've been getting to know Him ever since.
As I write this page it is still December of 2007, so I'm still learning more about grace. Yet even this early in the journey, I can say with confidence that I finally have a relationship with God that isn't based on fear. It's a new beginning for me!
If you're reading this and wondering how you can have that kind of relationship with God, I highly recommend the books How Good Is Good Enough by Andy Stanley and Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll. You can also get in touch with me through my contact page or by leaving a comment in the blog.
(To be continued!)