I grew up in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. My family attended a local church on a periodic basis. I thought about God the way I thought about school. Perform well and you'll be accepted. Give to God a record of righteousness, and He’ll give you His favor. 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, and compulsive lying. 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. I come a family system which appears successful professionally and publicly, but is broken privately and interpersonally. 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.
I lived under this shadow for years until someone finally explained the meaning of the Gospel (i.e. the good news about Jesus Christ.) The Gospel 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 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 seen in scriptures 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.
It’s hard for me to overstate how astonishing this message was to me. The Gospel was completely the opposite to religion as I understood it.
This truth changed everything. Whereas before I obeyed God out of what I stood to gain or lose, I now had gained everything through Christ and could lose none of it. 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 fearing God’s displeasure; Jesus had borne the penalty my sin deserved on the cross. Speaking the truth was now about loving God in response to His love for me. Similar to this, 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.
Through all these years it’s been a steady journey of growth in humility, love, service, and a concern for others, especially the poor and oppressed. If you share in the sense of foreboding that I experienced, then please feel free to contact me and I’ll try to point you in the right direction to find relief.