I grew up on a small farm in the country. I considered myself poor. My father was a teacher, repairman and farmer. My mother was a homemaker. Though we really did have everything we needed, I saw that we were different from other families who had more and nicer things than we did. It was never the attitude of my parents, but somewhere I picked up a victim mentality…that others seemed to have a better shot at life than I did because they had more money. I felt it was unfair.
So I stole.
I stole a number of different things, but probably the most significant was during one of my first jobs when I figured out a way to steal money from a restaurant I worked at. Though I had anxiety that I could be caught and punished, it was not enough to stop me. I felt that in order to get what I wanted, I had to take it because life had dealt me a bad hand being born in such lack and unfulfillment. Over a couple years, I probably stole thousands of dollars. I justified myself by saying that I wasn’t paid/tipped enough and that the owners didn’t need it as much as I did.
I didn’t get caught.
I moved on in life and eventually I stopped stealing. It seemed like it was all in the past. I never had gotten caught…and though I did feel ashamed of myself, it was relatively easy to push it to the back of my mind and not think about it.
So, did I really get away with it?
Years later, the self-destructive path I was on brought me to the end of myself. At 25, I was locked in a psychiatric ward and told that I would be in and out of institutions for the rest of my life. I was sick, I was suicidal, I used drugs and alcohol to escape my life. I did not like who I was. And though the people around me assured me I was beautiful and talented and worthwhile, I could not find it in myself to believe them.
By a fluke, I got out of that hospital and felt compelled to find help, some way to fix me and allow me to be “normal.” Though I had been raised in a religious home, I felt sure that I had tried the “Jesus-thing,” but it did not work for me, neither did it inspire me to do better. Empty rituals and trying harder was all I could make of it and it didn’t seem to give me the power I needed in order to actually change.
So, with the help of some friends, I began to write out an inventory of my life, taking note of all the unhealthy choices I had made that had built up inside of me and more or less made me who I was. I was filled with shame, not only from things others had done to me, but from choices and decisions I had made for myself. I was lost and helpless and came to the conclusion that only Something or Someone greater than me could get me out of my headlong leap into the oblivion of self-destruction and insanity.
The inventory clearly brought to light, out of the darker recesses of self-justification, that I had stolen, probably thousands of dollars, from my former employer. I realized that I had caused literal harm to the business owner. It was true that he had more money than me, but that did not entitle me to his inventory and profits. I had hurt him and his family by taking what rightfully belonged to him. I also realized that this decision (and other decisions) had impacted me on the inside, really poisoned me and contributed to feelings of self-disgust, pain and turmoil. Though to some, I may have appeared relatively normal on the outside, I knew that I had to try something different if I wanted different results for my life.
The restaurant was still in business so I decided to travel to see the owner. I was shaking as I sat at a table in the dimly lit room and asked to speak to him. I reminded him who I was and that I had worked for him about a decade earlier. I told him what I had done and estimated about how much I had stolen. I told him I wanted to set up a payment plan to pay it all back. Or I was willing to go to jail if that was his preference. I honestly did not want to get away with anything anymore. The cost I was paying in my sanity, my poor self-worth, my inability to accomplish my dreams was too high. I was stuck.
I don’t ever remember the owner being a particularly religious or spiritual man at all, but I will never forget this moment for as long as I live. It was perhaps one of the most spiritual moments of my life. As the owner sat there, with a Rolling Rock beer in his hand, he did the unthinkable.
He extended me grace.
He asked me how I had done it so he could look out for it in the future and then he told me that he appreciated me coming and that he felt I had paid enough with my own torment. Afterwards, I sat in my car for a long time and wept uncontrollably. I knew what I deserved. I knew that I should be required to pay for what I had done. Yet he saw something more in me and let me go free.
In that moment, I knew God was real, forgiveness was real, grace was real. All the dogmatic information I had accumulated about it was just that – untested information. This was an experience, an empowering experience, that forever changed the course of my life. An experience that I could not deny. Ultimately, it led me to being open to a relationship with Jesus that was much more than dogma, ritual or theory.
I sometimes hear people complaining about the misinterpretation of the gospel of Grace…that it enables people to “get away with sin.” Nobody gets away with sin. They may not appear to be hurting or remorseful or even aware, but they have undoubtedly caused harm to themselves (and others)…and there are always consequences. Sin never brings life or freedom. Sin brings bondage and imprisonment.
You see, the restaurant owner let me go free. I was free to steal again. Technically, I had no outward consequence. Every sinner Jesus came into contact with and set free had the option to go back to their life of sin. But why didn’t they (I)? It wasn’t out of fear or because I was shamed. It was because, at my ugliest, I recognized that I was loved.
The reason God doesn’t want you to engage in sin is not because he wants to control you or take your fun away or make you fearful, hateful, or intolerant. He doesn’t want you to sin because it will always end up hurting you or someone else. It causes pain. It causes repercussions that you may not feel or recognize for years. But every choice you make in life will either lead you towards God’s best destiny for you which leads to abundant life or to a life of death and destruction.
God will never force Himself on you. He has created you with a wonderful gift called freedom. You will always get to choose. And no matter what you choose, He will always love you. But He wants you to choose life, to choose for the greatest destiny He has available for you, your family and your friends. He wants you to trust Him. He really does love you. He really is concerned for you. He really wants your best. That is why He sent Jesus, to make a way for you to come out of poor choices, self-destructive prisons, and unmet dreams. He created you for good, not harm. And He has made a way for you to access that goodness.
And what about those who are harmed by other’s choices? In a free world, there will always be the opportunity to be harmed, to take a wound from another hurting soul, to be wronged, to be misunderstood. That is part of living in this world. I recently was listening to a sportscast with Rick about a team that had had several bad calls by a referee in a particular game. The team had lost and many were pointing to the several bad calls as the reason. But when the coach got up to speak, he did not agree. He said there will always be bad calls, and it is up to the team to expect and adjust to those bad calls. He took responsibility for his team and I found myself really impressed by him and his attitude.
The good news of Jesus is that He has provided a way for us to exist here and now in the Kingdom of God. It is a level of existence that allows us to love enemies, to bear the evil and wrongdoings of others, to initiate healing, to extend love and grace to those who wrong us, who misunderstand us, who hurt us. This unconditional love is the most powerful force in the universe and it is available to you and to me. For me, it is the best way to navigate the world I have found myself in. It is far from being passive or without strength. In fact, it is the strongest position you can operate from.
(If you are wondering how you can access this Kingdom of God and unconditional love, just ask Him and He will show you in a way that resonates and makes sense to you personally.)
I once saw myself as poor. I wasn’t actually poor, but I believed in my mind that I was. I believed that I was a victim. I wasn’t, but I believed it, so I acted on that belief. If you are born again, you are a new creation, having the indwelling presence of God living in you. You are not poor. You need not be enslaved to sin. If the Spirit of the living God is in you, you have access to everything you need for life and fulfillment. It’s knowing that (not just intellectually, not superficially, but in the deepest part of who you are) which brings heaven into your earthly existence.