I grew up in Richmond, Virginia and my family attended a local church on a periodic basis. My memories of the church were of fun games and pleasant friends. However, the Bible was an enigma and Jesus Christ a faint distant figure.
I thought about God the way I thought about school. Do your best and you'll be accepted. Give God your righteousness, and He'll give you His love. After any given Sunday worship service, I would commit myself (again) to being righteous. I would pay close attention to my words and actions and try to behave in a more disciplined manner.
Yet, the reality was that - try as I might - I wasn't very righteous. I had deep problems with self-centeredness, disrespect of authority, compulsive lying, distrust of others, laziness, and the need to control others. I was in constant conflict with my siblings, parents, and classmates. This stemmed from the pride and vanity of my heart, and also from my family system. My father has one sister and my mom has three sisters. Among my parents and four aunts, there have been thirteen marriages and ten divorces.
All this raw self-centeredness and relational conflict elicited a sense of foreboding: if God accepted me on the basis of my righteousness, then I wouldn't make the grade.
As a teen, I attended a summer camp which held weekly chapel services. Most of the messages were about moral self-improvement. However, one chapel speaker lucidly explained the Gospel from the Bible. The Gospel, as he explained, is that we're not able to fix ourselves or be righteous in our own strength. But God, in love for us, sent His Son Jesus Christ to live the life we should have lived, and die the death that we deserved. Righteousness isn't something we give to God; it is something He gives to us. Eternal life isn't something we achieve; it is something we receive as a free gift through faith in Christ. This is shown in Bible passages such as:
Romans 3:22-25 There is no distinction: everyone has sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This changed everything. Whereas before I obeyed God out of fear, I now had nothing to fear. Jesus had borne the wrath my sin deserved on the cross. I now found in myself a genuine love and gratitude toward God which became my new motivation for obedience. In a remarkable way, I began to actually change.
For example, I found that I had a new motive to tell the truth. It no longer was about what I stood to gain or lose, it was about loving God in response to His love for me. I had a new motive to love and obey my parents. It wasn’t about them, it was about honoring the One who gave Himself for me.
I met my wife Katy in 1998. Katy can attest to massive changes Jesus has made in me over the years. It’s been a steady journey of repentance and faith. The way I started with Christ is the way that I’ve deepened with Him.