I have learned a lot over the last few years. I would have to say that most of what I learned was about myself and most of it was not good.
Especially over the last two months when everything truly began to fall apart in my life; things that were stable were no longer that way, everything that I knew as solid vanished. I found myself grasping at air as they sailed away, much like a kid trying desperately to reach the string on a balloon as it slips just out of reach of your too-short grasp.
One thing that I learned in a deeply permanent way is the thing that I want to share with whomever cares to read this. It was a hard won lesson that I probably could have explained previously as a self evident truth intellectually but I had never had the feeling of it seared so deeply or painfully into me as I do at this moment in time.
Apart from Christ, you will never be anything other than what you were before you met him.
I had walked with the Lord for over twenty years when I saw this as truth. I saw first-hand that as soon as I let go of the vine, I transformed into a man that I had believed to be long dead.
The progress and good things that the Lord had molded in me for all of those years simply vanished as if they had never been. The key revelations that had transformed my life and thinking no longer played a part in my thinking processes. The moral ground that I thought that I had gained for all of those years was simply not there any more. I was nothing more than an older version of the bully, drunk and thug that I had been all those years before.
Paul said that he knew that in him, that is, in his flesh, dwelt no good thing. And he was right, you can’t take the gains of Christ with you when you decide to walk away. They stay with the one who gave them to you- hopefully in safe keeping for your return but I don’t know if that’s promised or not.
There is a gaping chasm without Christ. It’s more than a hole that religion previously filled that you now stuff with sex or booze or money. You find yourself without a compass that you counted on, without a hope that kept you secure through the storms, without the peace that we so easily take for granted. You find yourself looking in the mirror and realizing that the person looking back at you is the REAL you. And you don’t know what to do with them. You don’t know how they feel or what they want or where they want to be. All you are sure of is your uncertainty and lack of balance. It’s not much to go with.
One thing that I am sure of is that the older me had far more that the enemy could destroy than the younger me did. Back then when I was first saved, I had a change of clothes and not much else. So the enemy tried to get me to give up the one thing that I did in fact possess- my life. When older me let go of the vine, there was much, much more to lose – such as the love of my best friend and partner for 18 years, the credibility that I had with my children, the honor that I once cherished. That’s not to mention the physical things that were up for grabs as well. I’m sure that the enemy knew that he couldn’t keep me away forever and so he moved quickly to tear up every single thing in my life that I held as precious.
By the time I looked up from feeling sorry for myself it was too late, the damage had been done. The destruction was far reaching, vast and utterly complete. Have you ever woken up from a dream to discover that you’re in a nightmare?
I was shocked when I finally came to my senses. I had mistook the gains that had been gained all those years as my own. Sure I could give lip service to God regarding his role in who I had become but the awful truth is that I really viewed them as my own. My talents, my calling, my anointing. I had become a much better person during the journey and I was quite proud of the juxtaposition between who I was and who I had become.
Believe me, when you take a skinhead, a punk that had begun leaving home at 12 and really never transitioned back- someone that was homeless and a gutterpunk, who some years spent more time in jail rather than out. A prolific seducer of girls that had no conscience about it. A drunk by 19 that was completely self absorbed and completely ruthless and totally selfish. If you can take that guy, who never had an active father to pattern himself after, if you can keep him from prison or suicide; that’s a feat. To transform him into anything resembling a loving husband or father is a miracle. To transform him into a minister? That’s just silly. But that’s precisely what God did with the raggedy life I presented to him all those years ago.
Until I let go of the vine.
It was only then, in the clear cold light of my moment of clarity that I saw the awful truth of it all. I am what I am only by the grace of God. Left to myself, I won’t help you, I will hurt you. I’m a brawler, a drunkard, violent, a liar, blasphemous, lustful, prideful, argumentative, selfish, a manipulator, a cheat and a fiend. I am not a good husband, a good provider, a good father. I’m not a friend unless I gain something from you. The list is almost literally endless. Here I thought that I was someone else, the reciprocal of all of those things. Yet here submitting itself to me was the unshakable conclusion that I tried to fight away with all of my being; Left to myself, I am the same garbage that I was before I knew Jesus.
I am filled with rage and hatred for the enemy, more so than at any point in my life, which is saying something. I am deeply ashamed of who I am without him and I stand in horror at what I am capable of when I let go. I hurt everything and everyone that God had given to me as a gift. I took something precious and handed it over to the enemy. I don’t know that I will ever recover, to be honest. At some points over the last year, I was deeply hurt by others and their actions. I still am if I meditate even briefly on what transpired. I realized something today though that altered my thinking regarding every wound that I received- all of the monsters that surround me are monsters that I created. How do you live with that?
I am finding that out now as I wander through the wreckage of my life with a stunned look on my face, the damage is complete and overwhelming. I feel like the victim of a tornado, drunk with emotion as I stumble around what used to be my home, occasionally stopping to pick up a fragment of a destroyed life that seems to have survived.
The difference that I clearly see between this moment that finds me attempting to salvage something from the most awful attack in my life and the hell that I’ve emerged from is simple and profound and unforgettable – I have come home. When I feel stress or guilt or anxiety, I no longer want a drink to dull it. Instead there is a quick search for a Holy Ghost that so quickly confirms his presence that it humbles me. This beautiful Spirit of God, this incredible being, he actually comforts ME. Me, The guy that defiled precious gifts that he blessed me with. The guy that drank himself into a stupor and cursed God for a liar. The one that hurt his beautiful wife over and over and over. Me. How could he continue to care?
At some point in our walk we must be in danger of conveying our testimony without remembering that feeling. The feeling that is best expressed by saying, “Jesus, how could you love me?”
I have found that place again. Broken, humbled, wounded beyond comprehension but I have found it. And waiting right there at the end of myself is this miracle called the Holy Spirit and this person named Jesus. My Jesus. The one who loved garbage at 19 and then did the unthinkable and still loved him over twenty years later.
You and I will never be anything other than what we were apart from Christ, my friends. So hold tightly to the vine, take no credit for any gain or any success or any power. None of it is you or I. We hold onto the hem of the Nazarene’s garment tightly and let him do what he does best- turn sow’s ears into silk purses.
Be blessed, my friends.