Changed Lives

Several years ago while I was attending church services, a representative of Gideons International got up to speak. It was a woman in her late thirties who described her severe drug addiction spanning many years. She talked about her downward spiral and the extreme financial, emotional and health toll accompanying it. She finally reached the point where, in a prison infirmary, she was told she would live only a matter of days. While somewhat distraught, she said she was ready to call it quits and die. Later that same day, she discovered a copy of the Gideons Bible in her bedside table. She opened it up and landed in chapter 1 of the book of Isaiah. In it, she read the following words of the Lord:

“Come now, let us argue this out…  No matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can remove it.  I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow.  Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you as white as wool.  If you will only obey me and let me help you.”1

She said she was startled by the passage.  Here was the God of the universe inviting her to argue things out with Him, and offering to forgive her no matter what state she was in or what horrible things she had done.  That day, she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and she has never looked back.  She got her addiction under control and her life back in order.  She also began working with other drug addicts in an addiction crisis center and spends many of her weekends going around to churches to thank their members for their financial support – the same sort of support that resulted in that Bible being placed in her prison, available to anyone who needs it.   At last check, she had been drug free for many years and helped numerous people with the same problem.

I can’t begin to convey the conviction and power with which this woman spoke.  She left a strong impression on me.  More important, though, is the fact that stories like these are unfolding every day – stories about people who have lost all hope but then find the one true source of hope.  I’ve heard many such stories, and they strengthen my faith greatly.

Now there are those who mock such stories and say that the people affected were basket-cases and therefore more apt (even gullible) to accept the notion of Jesus Christ.  You might say a belief, even if untrue, is fine if it benefits people like this.  It’s interesting to note that Jesus himself spoke about this sort of thing.  While forgiving a sinful woman he said, “I tell you, her sins – and they are many – have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love.  But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”2  Jesus was confirming the fact that people in desperate situations are much more willing to accept his message than those who are not.

Earlier we noted that Jesus said “blessed” are the meek, mournful and merciful, and that such people would inherit the Kingdom of God and be comforted and shown mercy?3  The word “blessed” is far more sedate than Jesus intended.  What he really was saying was, “Oh, you lucky person!”  In other words, the weak, addicted and sick are more apt to listen to and accept his message than a “normal” person, and they’re incredibly fortunate because of it.

So think about yourself. Is your life in good shape overall?  Are you a fairly intelligent and successful person with a good job, home and health?  Do you not suffer from the more serious ails (like starvation, joblessness or a lack of freedom) that threaten so many others on our planet?  Are you pretty impressed with what you’ve accomplished in life and attribute much (if not all) of it to your smarts and hard work?  If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, you are, indeed, less open to the gospel than people who answer no.  Give it some thought.  Maybe some of life’s basket-cases know something incredibly important that you don’t recognize.

Change Process

Not all people experience dramatic moments of conversion like the one described above. Many (most) arrive at their decision to follow Christ over a period of time in a process that seems a little bland by comparison. That was my experience. Furthermore, once a person makes that decision they don’t instantly become perfect (and they never will be in this lifetime). Instead, they embark on a process of ongoing change typically marked by periods of stronger and weaker faith, and usually including a handful of spiritual turning points.

I personally experienced two such turning points and their associated change process over 20 years into my Christian life. It began when I went to my first church men’s retreat back in September of 2007. Up to that point, I couldn’t be bothered with such things. I didn’t want to take the time or share a room with someone or spend the money. Even worse, I later came to realize that I was a self-righteous biscuit head who thought he didn’t need to go. My reward for going was a huge wakeup call. The organizers showed a Rob Bell video entitled Flame. In it, Rob describes the different Hebrew words translated into the English word love in the Song of Solomon in the Bible – one meaning friend/soulmate; another meaning deep affection for, desire to be with, and commitment to someone; and another meaning sexual intimacy. He talked about how these three things (i.e., flames) were meant to exist (burn) together, and the satisfaction (heat) that results when they do. I remember thinking “I don’t have that anymore” for each of the words he described. I actually got up, left the auditorium, and went to a private place to weep. In that moment I realized how bad my 20+ year marriage had gotten, and my significant role in its demise. This was the first of the two turning points.

I left the retreat determined to change, and to deliberately and tenaciously pursue God’s help in doing so. I went home and hugged my wife – something we almost never did in those days – and created a list of focused requests that I began praying about every day. Among other things, I asked God to profoundly change everything about me (i.e., the way I think, see, feel, behave, hear, speak, and react); to give me uncommon faith, godly love in my heart, and the wisdom of Christ; and to give me five things in my marriage, none of which I had at the time. What was my reward for doing this? Well, about seven months later my wife informed me that she wanted a divorce. An even bigger wakeup call.

Despite the devastation of this news, a couple of days later I felt moved to tell my wife that I did not want to get into the downward tit-for-tat spiral that characterizes so many divorces, and that I was committed to treating her with grace from that point on no matter what she did. I don’t think she believed me. I know her lawyer didn’t. To her, my comments were simply what a desperate spouse says when trying to avert a breakup?

What happened a few weeks later over a three-day period was the second of the two turning points. It started in court on a Friday where a judge temporarily ruled that I owed thousands of dollars of monthly alimony and child support to my wife despite the facts that I had no job/income, all of our bank accounts were frozen except one, and the unfrozen account was nearly drained by my lawyer’s retainer fees. I spent that night sleepless on my parent’s condo floor while my wife and a number of her friends packed up half of our house. When I returned home the next morning, I told my wife I didn’t think what happened the day before was fair. But I also wanted to honor my grace commitment, so I told her I was going to help her move. And that’s what I did, for 10 hours.

When the move was done, I tipped the movers and said goodbye to my 13-year-old daughter, which was gut wrenching. Then I went to my wife and told her that I loved her and was proud of her, and I gave her a hug and kiss on her forehead. Then I left. To this day, I’m still shocked by what I said and how I behaved. It was highly unusual given the events of the previous two days. I’m utterly convinced that God spoke through me as a reward for my persistent prayers, moving me to say things I hadn’t said in years, things my wife dearly wanted and needed to hear.

At 4 p.m. the next day – Mother’s Day, I might add – my wife called me. She began to describe how difficult things had been for her through the separation process while juggling her job, school, and our daughter. She noted that they didn’t have any food and asked if I would bring them a pizza. Now I’ve told this story to a lot of people, and many of them get mad at this point – some viscerally so. But, of course, that’s what un-grace looks like, and it’s the very behavior that had led me to a separation. So I agreed to help and brought them a pizza and a house warming gift. That night, we ate dinner as a family, the day after my wife moved out with my daughter, two days after the court massacre, and in the new apartment where they had just spent their first night. It was surreal.

Now comes the most important part of those three days. After dinner, as I went to leave the apartment, my wife came to me, thanked me, and hugged me. As I mentioned earlier, there wasn’t much hugging going on between us in those days. We were basically enemies in our own home. As I stood there I thought, I’ve been pounding on this dear woman for years trying to change her into something I want, and it brought me to the brink of divorce. Now, after two days of extending genuine grace, she’s hugging me. It was a revelation bigger than any I have had in my life, and it’s changed everything for me. It also gave me a far deeper understanding of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for each of us. A sacrifice that doesn’t require us to be worthy, to earn it, or to respond within time constraints. I walked out of that apartment, looked up towards heaven, and told God “I’m in! I’m going with grace and only grace from now on.”

From that moment on, I determined to seize any and all opportunities to serve my wife, regardless of what was happening in the divorce proceedings. And that’s what I’ve done – or rather, what Christ has done through me – for over 7 years. At first, I was met with a chorus of criticism and mean-spirited advice. Many people told me I was stupid and letting her abuse me, that I needed to get mean, and that I should cut off all communications between her and my family. I told them that type of behavior was what led to my separation, and that I was going to try grace. I strived to be kind and loving whenever I saw my wife, went out of my way to help her, and even spent every major holiday with her, my daughter, and my parents, all in parallel with the ugliness and emotional extremes of dealing with the lawyers, courts, and settlement negotiations. I have so many amazing stories about what came from this expression of grace that it’s difficult to pick one or two to highlight. So instead, I’ll include the following “grace tidbits.”

  • Extending grace in the midst of so much difficulty and pain softened our hearts and led to unexpected love, service, and humility. And the more we expressed those traits, the more automatic their expression became. I’ve become fond of saying that over time I turned into, in essence, a grace machine.
  • My ex-wife eventually began to truly enjoy time with me again. On more than one occasion, our daughter remarked about how happy her mom was while we were all sharing a meal together.
  • Grace enabled me to re-earn the right to have my ex-wife listen to and value my opinion, and she periodically calls to discuss important issues.
  • My attorney, who practiced divorce law for 40 years prior to my case, called me his star client. He said that in all his years of practicing law he had never seen someone handle a case with grace the way I did. A pretty mind blowing observation.
  • Remember that list of five things I said I prayed for in my marriage prior to our separation? Well, I pulled it out several months ago and it turns out I have four of them now – and I’m not even married. This also blew my mind.
  • The more I experienced the realness, practicality, power, and beauty of grace, the more I wanted to share it. As a result, it eventually extended to my family, workplace, neighborhood, and even to people across the country that heard about my unusual divorce and sought encouragement/advice from me.
  • What I went through was indescribably difficult, yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything. God took me to places I would never have chosen to go in order to bring about change that could only happen in those places.

I learned some profound lessons from this experience. Several of them are detailed at the end of the Grace chapter above. And here’s one more. Despite being a “Christian” for over twenty years, I had allowed bad behavior to slowly, insidiously creep into my marriage until I reached a point where I was continually expressing displeasure with my wife. This is a terrible and shameful thing to realize and admit. I was basically in one of those periods of weaker faith I mentioned at the start of this subsection. The Good News of the Gospel is that I’m forgiven these sins. And the experience drove home the fact that Christians are, and always will be in this lifetime, sinners like everyone else. The ongoing battle with our sinful natures is a core aspect of the gospel.4 God calls sinners, not those who “think” they are righteous.5 Christians are going to make mistakes, and sometimes they are big mistakes spread out over long periods of time. But this doesn’t invalidate the truth and beauty of the gospel. It actually supports it. And it’s part of a lifelong process that God has promised to complete in each of us.6

A Word About Christians

As noted in the previous section, Christians are sinners like everyone else and they will make mistakes.  These mistakes, unfortunately, are a reason many non-Christians give for not believing.  They expect perfection from Christians, and the minute they see one stumble they dismiss the Christian faith.  What a shame.  They’re missing the whole point.  Again, God calls sinners, not those who think they’re righteous.

Now I’ll admit that there are Christians out there who make me shake my head.  There are good and bad in every group, and so it is with Christians.  Jesus himself said there would be surprise on judgment day regarding who receives salvation and who doesn’t.7  So don’t be so quick to judge.  Leave it in God’s hands to sort things out.

Instead of focusing on the people who are busy condemning others, focus on those who are busy serving and caring for those around them.  For every unyielding Christian you see there are numerous ones who have dedicated their lives to serving others and spreading the good news of Christ.  Jesus said the world would recognize his followers by their love for others.8  Look for these people and learn from their example.

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  1. Isaiah 1:18-20 – New Living Translation, 1996.
  2. Luke 7:47 – New Living Translation.
  3. See Matthew 5:3-10.
  4. See Galatians 5:17.
  5. See Matthew 9:13.
  6. See Philippians 1:6.
  7. See Matthew 7:22-23.
  8. See John 13:35.