Besides things like rolling my brother down a hill in a cardboard barrel and convincing my sister to ride our pet goat like a horse, a lot of my childhood memories are framed around stories. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad reading to me My Bible Friends and Green Eggs and Ham. When I got to be a bit older, I started getting into mystery stories. There was something delicious about putting clues together, solving the problem, and saving the day all from the safety of my grandma’s recliner.
I discovered though that real-life mysteries weren’t as fun. Some real-life mysteries for me were things like algebra, boys, and salvation. All three made me cry at some point, but I want to focus on that last one for a bit (sorry, not gonna talk about boys here).
I was raised in a Christian home and I knew the key to salvation was recognizing my need for a Savior. Jeremiah 17:9 said that my “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Intellectually, I knew this was true, but on an emotional level, the idea was enigmatic. When I thought about it, I got the same feeling I had in math class in high school.
Salvation has often felt like a higher mental process question to me.
Math was not my strong point. If my classmates and I had been a herd of pigs, I felt like the runt. During my sophomore year, we had to take a standardized math test called a “Provincial Exam.” To prepare us for the massive two-hour test, our teacher would incorporate practice questions into our homework. The questions were categorized by the level of difficulty: knowledge questions (easy), understanding questions (a little harder), and higher mental process questions (super duper hard ones that are not good for your self-esteem). I could never get the questions in that last category correct, which really frustrated me, especially when it looked like some of my friends were coasting through the material like it was simple addition.
One day, after getting yet another wrong answer, I finally announced to my teacher, “Mr. Corrigan, I don’t have a higher mental process.” He thought this was terribly funny and told the story at graduation, after I had successfully survived my high school math career with A’s. Now I’m an adult and I’ve regressed to counting on my fingers most of the time.
Salvation has often felt like a higher mental process question to me.
In some ways I was raised on other people’s conversion experiences. At church and at home I heard stories of how sinners came to Jesus. So I was very familiar with the process of being “saved.” In fact, after you hear enough stories, you kinda feel like you’re on par with Ellen White and the prophets or something, ‘cause when someone gets up to share, you can pretty much predict what they’re going to say. OK, maybe not really, but as I got older, I did start to notice similarities.
Usually all the juicy stuff comes first, the guy’s “BC life.” He talks about doing drugs, sleeping around, going to jail, and other wicked stuff. Then, when he hits rock bottom, God speaks to him (and He sounds eerily like Charlton Heston). Then everything is different from that day forward. The rebel starts reading the Bible consistently. He realizes that listening to music with drums is basically asking Satan to sing you a lullaby. He also starts eating tofu. Then he becomes a pastor, marries a nurse, and writes a book. End of story.
I don’t know if I would have admitted it back then, but I always thought the pre-conversion part of the story was the most interesting. Hearing about all the forbidden things people did was like getting to eat the middle of a sandwich first. Post-conversion was like getting to the crust. I never had a “BC life,” so I wasn’t sure how to feel utterly wicked, and conversion felt kind of anticlimactic.
I wondered if I needed to go drop acid a few times and drink a bottle of Jack Daniels. Then, maybe, I’d get to hear God speak to me and we’d be tight like He and the ex-rebels were. Granted, I’d have to research what ‘dropping acid’ meant, but I could incorporate that into my next homeschool project and figure it out. I’d probably get extra credit too.
Hearing about all the forbidden things people did was like getting to eat the middle of a sandwich first. Post-conversion was like getting to the crust.
I was told, though, that going backward wasn’t the way to move forward. My testimony, since I’d never left the church, was supposed to be the best. It got the gold star (even though no one ever shared testimonies like mine). I attended church every Sabbath, read my Bible. The closest I’d been to using drugs was when I took a puff on a rolled up (and empty) piece of paper that my brother lit. I’d also popped four Advil at a time, but that might have been for medical purposes. That’s as “exciting” as it got for me.
Despite the affirmation my good behavior brought me, I still felt like I had the wrong answer. I knew I was supposed to end up in the same place as all the prodigals, but for some reason, I just couldn’t work my way to God’s arms like they had, even though I’d never left the fold. It felt like there was this chasm between me and Jesus that I could never quite bridge. How did salvation really work? How come people who left the church and came back seemed to be closer to Jesus than I was? If I were really in a better spot than they were, how come I struggled to want Him in my life and feel like I needed Him? If people were wicked when they drank, smoked, and slept around and I hadn’t done any of those things, how was I supposed to feel wicked and in need of a Savior?
The struggle to know that God and I were on good terms took an obsessive turn when I was about 14 and my mom asked my dad to move out. Though I didn’t even realize it at the time, I saw God as a nazi-like athletic coach who wanted my best performance or would cut me from the team. And as I felt the foundation of my family start to crumble, I began to compulsively obey the orders the Coach barked. I’d kneel for 45 minutes to an hour each night (and sometimes multiple times throughout the day), sifting through my thoughts with a fine tooth comb just to make sure I didn’t have any unconfessed sins that might threaten my salvation. Anxiety would tighten around me like a noose if I realized I’d forgotten to sweep the floor immaculately or if I hadn’t washed my hands properly when I was helping in the kitchen or hadn’t thanked God for forgiving me of my sins. I spent most of my time in 9th grade trying to stay on top of algebra and get on God’s good side. I wasn’t really successful at either.
Eventually, though, with time, effort, and support, I became less compulsive. I stopped apologizing for silly things, like the time I rolled my eyes at my grandma when I was 12. I listened to sermons and counseled with people who told me that I could never earn my own salvation. That was legalism. I came to the conclusion that I had to behold Christ and then He would change my behavior and finally be satisfied with me.
I came to the conclusion that I had to behold Christ and then He would change my behavior and finally be satisfied with me.
So I tried to behold Him, whatever that meant. I spent a lot of time talking at God, telling Him the things I thought He wanted to hear, but it felt like eating flax seed or something healthy. Most of the time I just did it because I knew it was good for me. I kept working at my behavior too (‘cause the beholding part didn’t totally make sense). I cut out Facebook, movies, certain types of music. Hopefully in the end God would get what He wanted, I would get what I wanted, and everyone would be happy.
The problem was I wasn’t. After a while I think I just got used to living in that headspace. I just kept doing what I knew how to do and half figuring, half hoping it would be enough for God.
I’ve figured out, though, that you can’t be enough for God. Over the years, as I’ve tried hard to stay on the straight and narrow, I’ve begun to see how crooked I am. I’ve heard all my life that no one is good but God, but—as embarrassing as this is to say—I feel like it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand what that really means.
I watched a YouTube video once where this poet I like quoted a guy named Jean Luc Godard. Ever heard of him? I don’t really know who he is either, but he said something that I resonate with: “Every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” I guess I like that because there’s not really a clear climax to my story. I can’t tell you about the time I left the church, joined a screamo band, and died my hair purple. But I can tell you about my own selfishness that’s been camouflaged by religion. I can tell you how, as I’ve plodded on in my own self-righteous way, Jesus came and found me. It was like waking up from a deep sleep. I kind of didn’t realize it was happening until it did.
It’s easy to wonder why you need Jesus when all the spiritual people in your life seem to be pretty satisfied with your behavior. In the past, when I would catch myself feeling this way, I would freak out because I knew that in order to be saved I needed to know that I needed Jesus. So I would try to make myself feel like the sass I gave my Sabbath School teacher that made me as utterly wretched as the guy who owned a brothel.
That was a lot of work. And it felt pretty illogical.
Over time, though, I’ve come to realize that my behavior isn’t so much the problem as it is the symptom. The difference between me and the pimp in the inner city isn’t so much, as one pastor put it, a difference of substance, but a difference of degree. We’re cut from the same cloth. If I’d had the same genetic makeup, upbringing, and opportunities as the pimp, I could have committed the same crimes or come up with something even worse. What we do is different, for sure, but why we do it is the same. Inside, we’re both selfish. And the inside is what God wants to change. The psalmist says that God desires “truth in the inward parts” (51:6, NKJV). God isn’t just looking for behavior modification. He’s wanting to change the self-centered bent of my psyche.
I realized I couldn’t honestly say I loved God. I had done a bunch of stuff for Him, but I didn’t really love Him.
After I graduated from high school, I spent about ten months in Southeast Asia working as a tutor. I think there’s something about humidity and mosquito netting that opens up your mind, ‘cause I learned a lot that year. One night, I was kneeling on my bed saying a prayer when I quit talking to Jesus and started thinking about all the things I had surrendered to Him, all the habits I had carefully edited out of my life. Then I started thinking about how I felt about Jesus in contrast to how I felt about my mom or one of my best friends. I realized I couldn’t honestly say I loved God. I had done a bunch of stuff for Him, but I didn’t really love Him.
When I look back over the years, I can see that my motives for following Jesus have all been tangled up in selfishness. God was a combination lock I had to pick so I could access the vault of security and happiness. God was a tool. God was a means to an end. But He wasn’t a person to love and be loved by. It’s kind of embarrassing how long this has taken me to figure out. I guess in church, selfishness is little harder to recognize because we dress it up with fancy clothes and make it carry a Bible. Or we disguise it as a passion for evangelism or a dedication to doing the right thing. But it’s still there all the same. The addict uses meth and heroin. The religious person uses God. But both are still users. In fact, I can’t even ask God for salvation without it being about me. One of my friends put it this way: “If I’m serving God out of fear or a desire to get good stuff, it’s not really God I’m interested in.”
I can’t do anything in life without making it about me, even coming to Jesus or beholding Him.
This realization has left me with an immense feeling of helplessness. I can’t escape myself. It’s not really an option for me to be anything other than selfish anymore than it’s an option for a zebra to be covered in plaid instead of stripes. Without divine intervention, I can’t do anything in life without making it about me, even coming to Jesus or beholding Him. So the logical conclusion is that I can’t change unless that change is caused by an outside Source.
Jesus called it being born again.
I’ve been to births and I know that babies aren’t born because they try really hard or modify their behavior. They don’t put in extra effort to squeeze through the cervix. They cooperate with a process that happens to them.
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller compares it to falling in love. I used to think that comparing the salvation experience to falling in love was emotional manipulation. Like the sugar that makes the medicine go down, it was the gimmick you needed to hook people in. I love sugar, but I don’t like it when it becomes a coverup for something gross I have to eat. However, I’ve come to realize the truth of the illustration. When you like somebody, it’s not because you tried really hard to like them or you followed a repeatable scientific process. Somehow, who they are awakens the liking in you. Miller distills the idea by saying, “Believing in God is as much like falling in love as it is like making a decision. Love is both something that happens to you and something you decide upon… I have come to think that belief is something that happens to us too. Sure, there is some data involved, but mostly it is this deep, deep conviction.”1
I’ve come to realize that God doesn’t want to use me like I’ve used Him. He wants to save me. Psalm 50:21 says, “You thought that I was altogether like you; but I will rebuke you, and set them in order before your eyes.” I’ve spent years feeling like God wanted only my moral behavior and for me to bring souls to His kingdom, like He was some sort of arrogant, power-hungry king. I felt like a pawn on some level, a tool in His hands. But I realize now that thinking like this makes God sound a lot more like me and a lot less like Him.
I’ve come to realize that God doesn’t want to use me like I’ve used Him.
Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NKJV). In the incarnation, God was demonstrating His own love, not ours. Our love, which really isn’t love at all, reaches to others only to come back and benefit us, like a shady foreign aid organization. How does God demonstrate His love? While we were still sinners, He died for us. When there was no behavior modification, salvation was already achieved—for both the needle-sticking junkie and the self-righteous Christian. His love reaches out regardless of what comes back, regardless of whether or not the hoped-for response will become a reality.
When I think about this, I get this liking for God I’ve never had before. I’m a jerk. I don’t love like He loves me. But He’s still offering to rescue me and I start to like Him because of that. I’m realizing this is what salvation is about. It’s not me deciding not to cuss or smoke pot anymore. It’s me realizing I am selfish to a fault, but Jesus is everything I’m not. And believing that He is who He is and that He’ll save me because He likes me gives birth to a transformation in me. When we realize even our own faith doesn’t earn us any merit and salvation is already secured, you stop doing things so that you can be saved and start doing them because He has already saved you. You’re “not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”2
I’ve begun to feel the faint gleams inside of me. I hope you can feel them too.
- Miller, Donald, Blue Like Jazz, Nashville, TN, 2003, pg. 104.
- Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, New York, NY, 1980, pg. 147-148.