The power at my house went out around 8:00 in the evening, and so we all went to bed early. I’ve been tossing and turning for the 4 ½ hours since then, and I think I know why.
I need to tell you a story.
This story begins with an early memory, such an early memory, in fact, that I can’t place it for certain. It might be from when I was four or three or even two. It’s just a glimpse—it’s like watching a fifteen-second clip, and I can only reconstruct what must have been its context. For those who care, my sister says these kinds of memories are called “snapshot” memories. Or maybe it’s “flashbulb” memories, I’m not sure.
Anyway, one of these memories is just of me and my mom, where she draws me this simple diagram and explains it, clearly and simply.
If we were talking in real life, I’d ask if you had a pen and paper so I could draw it out for you, it’s that clear in my mind.
First, she draws a large circle, with two stick figures inside—one big and one little. I’m not even sure they’re full stick figures; they’re more just like smaller circles. The figures in the circle, she tells me, are like God and you, Jo. When you’re in the circle with God, that’s when you’re happiest because that’s when you’re obeying him. But sometimes, Jo—here she draws a line from my figure to a place outside the circle—sometimes you decide not to obey God; you might lie, or do something naughty, and that keeps you away from God. It’s not happy, being outside God’s family circle, she says. But do you know what God does, when that happens? He comes—she draws a line from the God-figure towards mine—and brings you back to where He is—she completes the route from the two figures back into the circle—because He loves you and He knows that’s where you’ll be happy.
Is it a perfect analogy? No, probably not. Is there such a thing as a perfect analogy that three-year-olds can understand? If you know of one, please oh please let me know about it.
I’m sure at some point there was discussion of four-year-old repentance, and this particular conversation, I feel sure, was more in response to little me having done something requiring disciplinary measures than specifically sharing the gospel. The memory’s just slightly hazy.
However, there’s the beginning of my story, as I see it. God saw fit to put me in a family where the parents talked to their children about Him when they were young, and it’s something I haven’t forgotten. Now, that very fact used to make me feel insecure about my testimony, as if, somehow, it wasn’t a very powerful testimony at all; that maybe I should live a little more dangerously/stupidly so I’d have a “real” story to tell. I’m pretty sure there’s a verse about that; pretty sure Paul says that’s a terrible idea. Which it is.
If I can just interject something here—in between the beginning of this story and the end (which isn’t really the end, just the chapter I’m on at the moment)—it’s to say that often I’m tempted to be humble about the wrong sort of thing. I look back and reflect on choices I’ve made and things I’ve done, and I think, man, Jo, what an idiot. You haven’t learned anything. You thought you were all smart at such-and-such an age, and you really had so much growing to do.
Well, okay, that’s fine, up to a point. Humility about my own efforts? Yes please—I need more humility than I have. The danger is that, in focusing those negative thoughts on what my past has looked like, I forget God’s great work in my life. In trying to negate my own worthiness, I risk negating God’s power in having changed and continuing to change me into the person He designed me to be.
Do I continue to grow and become more mature? Yes, I hope so and I pray that’s the case. Will I probably look back at this very blog post and think, ugh, you sound as if you had it all together, which you didn’t. That doesn’t change God’s role in all this. I forget so many times that we can boast in who Jesus Christ is, and in what He’s done for us. The trouble is remembering that during the times when I have messed up, and all I really feel like doing is crawling in a hole until the elephants forget me. So here’s me, remembering.
Once there was a little girl named Jo who, as we’ve seen, often had to have a disciplinary talk given her, involving a circle and two stick figures and God. I lied a lot back then. And I stole candy one time from this store called David’s, and when I tried to share the loot, my mom marched me back into the store to apologize through my tears. That did the trick.
I know my parents had several talks with me about Jesus and how I could be saved, but I always point to one day in the backyard when my seven-year-old brother told me all he knew about God, and I prayed and was saved. Now I know there’s all kinds of opinions of just how “saved” a five-year-old can be, and that’s fine. Debate it all you want. Here’s what I knew: I’d been taught that God was great, and that He was good. I believed it. I’d been taught that I fell short of who He wanted me to be; that I’d disobeyed and “gone away from the family circle.” I believed that. And I’d been taught that He loved me so much He sent his son, Jesus, to die on the cross for me, thereby bringing me back into fellowship with Him. I believed that.
Was that the end of the story of salvation? No, of course not. But it was a good beginning, and I think there are many things children can know and understand, even if they no knowledge of the intricacies of theology and Scripture and, yeah, all those gloriously confusing grown-up things.
As Jo grew, her outsides looked pretty dang good, spiritually. She knew all the Sunday School answers, and she was pretty much the top of her AWANA class at memorizing scripture. Looking back, it’s so tempting to negate all that, knowing how much of my success at AWANA was driven by competition and pride at being the best. But God was working.
Inside was kind of a different story. From the age of eight to when I was twelve or so, I remember really struggling with the assurance of my salvation. I was terrified of hell; I had a recurring nightmare involving judgment and the end of the world and a whole lot of darkness. I still remember bits of it, and it still frightens me just a little. I’d wake up in the night crying; asking God to save me from hell. I wasn’t convinced, I guess of a couple things: 1. That I’d truly done all I needed to be saved and 2. That He would keep His word and keep me.
Fast forward a few years: a move to a different town, a different church, and one lady—about my mother’s age—who shared with me something that changed my life. I don’t know how we’d gotten started talking, but I respected her for her kindness and her gentleness towards me and my family. When we’d joined the church, I had publicly rededicated my life to Christ. I wanted to have a certain date in my mind; a date on which I knew that I believed in God. So I did, and it was one of the scariest things I’ve done—still—because I actually took the microphone the preacher was offering me and said something mumbly about why I was making the decision.
This sweet lady came up after the service and told me something I never would have imagined. She said that she had struggled with the same sort of doubts when she was my age. She encouraged me in my desire to have a certain date that I could defend against the enemy’s lies that I somehow had not done enough, or that I’d imagined the whole thing, or that God wasn’t faithful to save. With her words I realized I wasn’t alone—that people of all ages struggled with doubt, and that I was important enough to her for her to share her story with me.
It was also around that time that I started writing prayers in all my journals instead of normal entries. My sister and I joke that, once I hit eleven or twelve, my old journals cease to be as interesting/embarrassing/fun to read back over. You can still find mentions of events and phases, but there’s a lot of “Dear God’s,” and “Heavenly Father’s” to wade through. I’ve become increasingly thankful for those prayers, silly as some of them were. Remember how I said it’s a temptation for me to think that I’m always starting from scratch spiritually—that nothing that’s come before has really been anything of worth? Well, yeah, none of my goody-two-shoes effort has been of worth, but those journals are a testimony to God’s working in one preteen girl’s life, and some of that teenager’s concerns are going to seem pretty silly, in hindsight.
Did I mention that I still had a problem with pride? Well, I did—pride, and what others thought of me, timidity (another thing altogether from humility!)—these marked my inward life. I had an ungracious, hostile mindset toward one of my sisters, which I halfheartedly would attempt to fix every now and then, when the guilt got too uncomfortable. Over the years I let the broken relationship stay broken, until I’d pretty much hardened myself against listening to her or trying to understand her. It might be helpful at this point to be reminded of the parable of the prodigal son—especially the ending. See Luke 15:)
It’s such a lovely, lovely story, what with the father running indecorously down the road to meet his wayward boy. But there’s a sour note that comes when the elder son refuses to celebrate his own brother’s return. It’s not fair, are his words (sort of). I do everything right, and no one notices. He does everything wrong, and you celebrate.
Oh, God. That was me. That older brother who didn’t have enough understanding to see that his father’s love for both of them was made evident in his grace for the one “who did everything wrong.” As if the older son had done “everything right.” NO! He hadn’t. He lacked any sort of love and compassion toward his brother, who had been running to darkness and was brought back to the light of his father’s love. His brother, whom God had brought back into the family circle.
It’s funny, what ways God chooses to make Himself known in our lives. His grace takes many forms: more than once in history, God’s mercy has been displayed through a baby. At this point, my story intersects with the stories of others. I can’t tell their stories, because I am not them and they aren’t my story. This is what I know, however: God brought me and my family into a situation where there couldn’t be all this faked unity in public and lack of grace in private. He began to soften my grace-less heart, and gave me love for someone I hadn’t yet met. Slowly, He mended my relationship with my sister, and I praise Him for it.
That was the previous chapter in my life-story, and its effects are still being seen in the current chapter. There have been other things that have happened; other things I’ve learned and am continuing to learn. I have seen Him restore good, old friendships that I had let die, and, despite how lukewarm I can be, I have seen how He draws me back—even if that means taking me through times of despondency and emptiness. I have realized more and more that faith is a gift, that the very desire to know God is given by God Himself.
I have seen that God is very great, and that He is very good.
If you ask me, I will tell you all this in person. If you have a question, either about my story or about the God I’m talking about, leave a comment and I’ll figure out a way for you to contact me.
Thank you, so much, for reading.