Growing up, I was a Christian. I was the good kid; the one with all the answers in Sunday school. I was always early to church and sought after leadership positions to kindle the fire of self-indulgence I was burning. Hell, I would’ve even told you that I got saved when I walked down the aisle one Sunday morning in big church bawling my eyes out. I just knew how to play the game. See, I understood the gospel, but I did not believe it.
I didn’t get that in order to be a follower of Jesus and not just a Christian, I had to utterly and completely die to myself.
I didn’t get that my Dad wanted me holistically, not just the parts I was initially willing to give up. He wanted my whole heart but I repeatedly looked Him in the face and told Him that my way was better than His. I just couldn’t get over myself.
This made ages 8-16 rather difficult. I found myself constantly trying to earn the love of my eternally affectionate Heavenly Father. This foolishness was best explained to me by a friend of mine who quoted a church in New York:
What a terrible father I would be if as soon as I walked in the door from work in the evening, my kids started doing push ups because they thought I would love them more if they worked harder? I would much rather my kids run to me at the door, jump into my arms, and embrace me and let me get the workout from carrying them around.
Now, tell me which one God prefers? Do you think He gives any kind of care as to what kinds of tricks and pretty things you have to offer? He wants to lavish His unconditional, unstoppable love on you. This just refused to sink in for me until the summer of 2011.
Sophomore year of high school is when things really just took a turn for the worst. Simply put, I thought that because I apparently worked harder than everyone else for God’s love, that I was just better than everyone else. Some people might call this the “holier than thou” mentality that many Christians are guilty of having. I would look people in the eyes and think to myself, “They just don’t get it. They need to be more like me.” I mean good gosh, really? Where did I get off? I mean obviously I would never say to people that I thought I was better, but I didn’t have to because I treated them so poorly.
I had decided that the Gospel of Jesus wasn’t enough to get me into Heaven; I had to work for it. My heart was so incredibly far from the Lord. In terms of another story, I was the older son. The son that stayed at home and worked for my Father’s love instead of basking in that love like a son should.
At the end of my sophomore year, having five real friends at most (because I was a jerk to everyone), the girl I was dating broke up with me. She told me I was “too good to her” and I was. It was so fake it’s sickening. I knew that if I treated her like a queen then she’d make out with me, and I exploited that because my soul was rotten. I was devastated and angry at the world and myself and wondered what was going to happen next in my life. No girlfriend. No friends. What else could possibly go wrong for a sophomore in high school?
About a month later, in the middle of May, my small group leader (who was like a second dad to me and put up with so much of my B.S.) was tragically killed in a single vehicular motorcycle accident. Broken. I was completely shattered. I remember sitting across the street from their house that night and thinking that I had two options, 1) do the high school thing. Party. Have fun. Be a kid. Do what I want to do or 2) figure out what it meant to know and follow Jesus. This character that was nothing more than a picture on a felt board (shoutout to Sunday School) to me. By the grace of God, I chose option #2. It was time to die to myself and give up the white-knuckled fight I had being giving for eight years.
From May to July, I read the same story at least once a day, every day. The story was from Daniel 3 in the Bible. Three teenagers face the death penalty for disobeying the king and choosing to trust the Lord. They refused to bow down to the 90-foot tall golden statue of himself that the king decreed must be worshipped. When he called them in to sentence them, he was furious. (You would be too if three teenagers publicly humiliated you in front of your entire nation). When the king asked the boys why they didn’t bow, one of them replied very simply.
O king, we have no need to answer you in this matter…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.
It goes on to say that he got so angry after they said this, that the king heated the furnace to seven times hotter than it normally was, and the guards throwing the boys in burned alive. “Go ahead, throw us in the fire! Burn us up! Because king, we know our God will protect us. But even if He doesn’t, we still won’t bow!”
But even if He doesn’t…
That is the Hebrew that I got tattooed on my right bicep. For my first tattoo ever, these are the words I chose. Why? Because that phrase to this day, 5 years after first reading that story, still sends chills down my spine anytime I think about it. For 16 years of my life I trusted myself and not the Lord. I need the daily physical reminder that I don’t have to be afraid. I know my Dad will take care of me, but even if for some wild reason He chooses not to and decides to take me Home, I am not going to put my trust and hope into the fleeting desires of this world; for to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.