This weekend Rachel and I attended a funeral service for a Pastor friend named Jim who had unexpectedly died. Pastor Jim has an interesting background. He was raised in a very dysfunctional upbringing, and in his own words loved sinning, and had no conscience about the bad things he did. He never studied until his junior year in a small community college, finding cheating easier. But some years later, after marrying, he graduated from Yale University, still very much with no relationship or need for God. The story of his journey to God that many of us that know could take up several blog posts. We enjoyed hearing the highlights at the funeral, but also the fruits of a man who has been transformed by the love of God to share that love with many others during his life. He was radically transformed by the power of the Gospel through events in his life, which amounted to the good news of God's love for each of us.
The funeral was a reminder to me of a time in my life where I wondered why it seemed that every person that the church youth group I went to and spoke to us in meetings had lived a pretty "sinful" life before finding God. Their "testimonies" were intriguing to me, but it had the effect of making me think that maybe I should be out "sinning" so that when I come back to God I've got an "awesome testimony" for the Lord. Pastor Jim settled this gnawing question in me some years ago, not because of his previous life "testimony" but because of his understanding of what it means to follow Christ.
Pastor Jim developed the idea of seven potential chairs we sit in during our journey on earth. The first chair is the chair of the sinner. The one who cares not about God, that is propelled and ruled by our own thoughts, desires and feelings. It is a chair that many people never leave throughout their life. The next chair in order was the chair of the hypocrite, the one who attempts to harness the evil within them by their own efforts. This is the chair that struck me deeply when I first heard of it. The basic idea I had deep in my heart is that if I could "control" my public and private actions, what is wrong with other people that can't or don't? That thinking manifested in an unintended, but unavoidable condescending relationship with other people that lived in the "sinner" chair, even though I had accepted that God should have rule in my life. There were areas, like this one that I thought I could manage well by myself.
Since my experience was accepting Christ at an early age, and going through various seasons of professing my faith in him, I was blind to the fact that my righteousness was garbage before God, something Pastor Jim made clear to those who were pastored by him. It was only the fact that Jesus became righteousness in me before God that enabled me to taste and see that the Lord is good. His presence in my life was the reason I could have a deep assurance that God loved me and was working out His will and purposes in me. For many years I had allowed this reality to be eclipsed by my efforts to be "righteous".
I realized through contemplating what Pastor Jim said that my desire to have an "awesome testimony" was not something that was motivated by God, but by my sinful nature that needed affirmation from people rather than God. I realize better now that I need to accept that we were all born sinners, pursuing lives outside of the blessings and wisdom of God who created us, even though we may think they are well intentioned. An "awesome testimony" is not the goal, but a relationship with our Creator, Lord and Savior is to be valued above any desire we might have. As this truth has worked its way into my life and thinking, I find that things of earth do grow "strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace", and that my love for people that God has created on earth grows as my desires and goals are transformed into the purposes that they were created for in me.
When Jesus said to pick up our cross and follow him, the question becomes what is this cross? I think I know better now that these are the desires for pleasure and comfort outside of Christ, the things that cause me to be complacent in acknowledging His lordship over His creation. As I have heard in other testimonies, He created us with the desires we have, but until they are submitted to God for His purposes and His guidance, they entrap us in a life without the peace, joy and love God wants each of us to experience here on earth, and even more so in heaven with Him for eternity. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, "onward and upward"!