Saturday, March 21, 2015

The day before.

Tonight, a dear, dear friend of mine celebrated her 6 months of sobriety. God has done amazing things in her life in the time since she stopped using drugs and alcohol, and she is a walking testimony of his power, mercy, grace, and ability to redeem. Tonight, I and others who have walked similar paths as hers celebrated this milestone in her new life. It his truly something to celebrate- the prodigal son- the lost sheep- who is welcomed back into Jesus' arms with as much love and acceptance as the one who was never lost. A life restored, and given new hope. If ever there was a reason to celebrate, it was tonight. Six months without using drugs or alcohol may not seem like much to a non-addicted person, but for addicts, it is a lifetime. When you try for years to stop- when you have horrible consequences, lose everything important to you, and are facing death because of a substance, yet still can't go without it for a day despite doing everything you can to loosen its power over you - six months without it is an incomprehensible and seemingly impossible goal- until the day you wake up and realize that by the grace of God, you have gotten there.

As she was getting ready to say a few words about her six month anniversary to a room full of people, I asked her if she knew what she was going to say, and without really thinking about it, I told her to think about her life six months and one day ago- the day before she stopped using. As soon as I said it, I started thinking about where I was at in my life the day before I quit. For an addict, it usually takes something truly hellacious for them to get serious about quitting. At least, for addicts like me. The worst kind- the kind that have had 500 rock bottoms that seem like they can't get any worse, yet somehow do every time. The addict who is so afraid to stop using that they will go to prison, lose their children, sacrifice their health, betray those that they love (as much as an addict can "love"), live like a beggar, and be on the edge of death- and do it willingly- as long as it means that they can keep using. It takes a lot for an addict to truly stop- so much that a majority of us don't make it out alive before we reach our "enough."

I started to think about my "enough" moment 7 years ago. The moment that I was finally so broken, that I was desperate enough to surrender and give God control of my life. Not that I thought that he would want anything to do with me- or that I was redeemable- or even that I truly believed God existed. But I was so hurt, so lost, so tired, and so desperate to stop- that it was my last resort. I prayed for a death that never came- a death I would have gladly welcomed. When it didn't come, I was desperate enough to have just a tiny flicker of faith that MAYBE, just MAYBE God could help me. Because nothing else could, and it was my last hope- if he was really there. And that maybe was enough for him to work with. That tiny amount of faith- and surrendering to him- allowed him to transform my entire life, and the 1 day sober that seemed impossible has turned into seven years, and God has turned my life has been turned into something wonderful- something far beyond I ever dreamed was possible while in my addiction.

Thinking about all the things that have happened in my life since "the day before" I found God and sobriety, I am in awe, and very grateful. I remember where I came from, and I am reminded why I never want to go back there. Sometimes it is easy to forget how horrible things were when things are going well. But as addicts, for us to forget is dangerous. The minute we start to forget the pain, the desperation- where we were when God lifted us out of the slimy pit and the miry clay (Psalms 40:2)- is the minute our addiction can start playing tricks on us. It will convince us that it really wasn't that bad. That we can handle it now. That God would never let us end up in that situation again. It's how people relapse. They forget the pain, and going back to it- just once- can seem harmless, appealing, painless.

It is good to be reminded of the pain sometimes. I have a wonderful life now, but I never want to forget. Seeing the new people that come into CROSSroads- so full of pain and desperation- helps me remember. I hurt for them because I know exactly how painful, lonely, and hopeless that they feel at that moment. Emotional, spiritual, and physical pain beyond comprehension- where death looks like a welcomed break. I hurt for them, yet I also rejoice. I rejoice in the fact that maybe, just maybe, this time will be the time that it is painful enough for them to give it over to God. Painful enough to believe that God is real because it's the only option left. Painful enough to be their day before. Painful enough that they will look at their lives six months and a day later and be in awe at what God has done in their lives. Painful enough to remind them why they never want to go back, and painful enough to remind them that they are utterly hopeless without God. Painful enough that they can testify to others that the word of God is true. That there is freedom in the pain, if only we look to the one who has the answer.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Of course God can change anyone... except for them!

1 Timothy 1:12-16
 I am grateful to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant  man. But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief, and our Lord’s grace was abundant, bringing faith and love in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– and I am the worst of them!   But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that  in me as the worst,  Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life.

I can totally relate to Paul. I was the "worst of the worst." Ten years ago, if you would have asked anyone who knew me if they thought I would not only A) be sober B) be a Christian c) be running a ministry for drug addicts, they would have laughed in your face. "Sure," they would had said, "God changes people, but Deanna? That's a tough job- even for him." Back then, I would have whole heartedly agreed with them. I was an impossible case- a lost cause. I remember one of my relatives telling me a few years after I had gotten saved that my family reached a point where they had been praying for me for so long- and I just kept getting worse-that they totally gave up hope. It didn't look like God was going to intervene, and I'm not completely sure that they even believed that he could change me even if he decided he wanted to intervene. Transforming Paul was one thing. Transforming me was another.

But I was treated with mercy (vs 16). He could- and did- transform me. In doing so, he gained the glory, because people knew the change HAD TO BE FROM GOD. Nothing else could have changed me- it was no less than a miracle. People that I used to party with started wondering if maybe this Jesus thing had a ring of truth to it- if he changed my life (one of the worst of the worst), maybe there was hope for them. Miracles like these are recorded all throughout the bible. Jesus takes messed up people- sometimes horribly messed up- and transforms them for his glory and his purpose. In fact, a majority of people that God uses to do his will are the people who were majorly messed up, because not only is his transformative power displayed the most where there is the biggest change, but "messed up" people tend to rely on God heavily because they know that they can do nothing in their own power. Their years of failing at life serve to keep them humble- remembering where they came from- and reminding them that they are nothing without God.

God could have used the super religious people in the bible that kept all of the laws, had spotless pasts and exemplary lives, were model citizens and were bible scholars to work through, but instead he chose what I like to refer to as the misfits- those that were looked down on by the Pharisees because their lives were not "righteous" enough- to do his work. The people that no one expected anything from, that no one believed could ever amount to anything.- those were the ones he wanted But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).  He chooses the "misfits" to show the people who think that they have it all together exactly how much, in fact, they don't have it all together.

The truth of the matter is, that we are all messed up- some of us are just more visibly messed up than others , and to varying degrees. None of us are deserving of God's grace and mercy because we are all imperfect sinners. So why is it that some Christians look at the some people as "lost causes"- with  long running strongholds and bondages in their lives- and not believe that God can change them? Isn't the same sacrifice that God made for their sins sufficient for other people's? The bible is riddled with accounts of God changing the worst of the worst, and doing miraculous things through their lives. Jesus' death on the cross paid for ALL sin.  Why is it that we can so easily believe that God cant forgive us for our gossiping, our unforgiveness, our pride, or our lust- but the thought of him being able to forgive the drug addict, the deadbeat dad, the compulsive liar, the adulterer, the wife beater, the pedophile, and the serial killer is incomprehensible to some people? I hear people say things like "once a liar, always a liar," "once a cheater, always a cheater," "once a criminal, always a criminal." Why do self professing Christians limit the power of the cross by saying things like this? Is there any sin too great for God to forgive?  You might as well be saying "Jesus' death covered these sins over here... but wasn't powerful enough to cover these ones."

People have a tendency to see their own sin as less appalling and offensive to God than other's. It is easy to hold the promise of Isaiah 1:18 (... though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow...) true for ourselves but not for people that we see as "worse" than us- especially when it is someone who has hurt us in some way that we need to forgive. We want justice- or in a lot of cases, vengeance. We see the sin that they committed against us as so hurtful, that they need to be punished. How could God possibly forgive THEM? Surely they could NEVER change after all of the horrible things they have done! Where is the justice? Isn't God's forgiveness just letting them off of the hook?"

 Working in the ministry that I do, and coming from the background that I come from, I have seen this too many times to count. People who have turned their lives over to God and completely changed their  still have to live with the stigma of the whispers and judgments from people who know their past. "Isn't that the sex offender/ wife beater/ prostitute?" More often than not, though, it comes from people close to them. Drug addicts hurt a lot of people in their addiction. Hurt that is not easy for people to forget. The new Christian may be constantly barraged with statements like "remember when you did such and such when you were high? How can you possibly be a Christian? What kind of a Christian does that?"  Instead of accepting the new believer's identity in Christ,  people sometimes can't see past who they used to be. They condemn them over actions in the past- actions that are perceived as unforgiveable from a human standpoint- even though God forbids these thoughts and actions for a Christian.

Acts 10:2
... God has showed me that I should not call any man unclean that he has made clean...

People can justify this line of thinking because God is a just God. We feel as if the sinner should be punished to our human standards. I remember when the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer- who committed dozens of heinous murders, cannibalisms, and other unspeakable acts of violence against men in Milwaukee- went on national television in while he was in prison to announce that he had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord. He was baptized in prison, and was a confessed believer. He had repented for his sins, and turned his life over to the Lord. And people were outraged. The reactions were heard across the country- " How DARE this man who did horrible, unforgiveable things think that he can go to heaven? He needs to pay for what he has done! Surely God would not let him 'off the hook' just because he confesses that Jesus is his savior and claims to have repented! HOW could God forgive THAT?"

Surely God is a just God. There is no arguing with that. But he is also a God of grace and mercy. I cannot say whether Jeffrey Dahmer had truly repented, or truly accepted Jesus- nor is it my place to- but if he did, I do know that he is in heaven. What we see as horrible and unforgiveable things from a human perspective, God has the power to forgive. The "little" sins that we think God can surely forgive in us (unforgiveness, slander, covetousness, gossip), are the same to God as the "big sins" we see in others (murder). Bondages to certain sins that people have struggled with for a long time  (the drug addict who has been using for 30 years, the man who abandoned his kids for their entire childhood, the homosexual who has lived that lifestyle for years) can be forgiven just as easily as the one white lie that you told last week.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 

Heaven will be full of sinners who repented and trusted by Faith that Jesus paid their debt and took their punishment. Not perfect people, or even good people, but messed up people who gave their wills and lives over to God and trusted Jesus as their savior. None of us deserve his mercy. It is unmerited and a gift from him because of his goodness, not ours. We were all in darkness before we found Jesus. Some of us were just there awhile longer than others and had different sins. But as Christians, we are all his.      
1 Peter 2:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

I understand the need for justice. But God's justice is not like ours. If we aren't careful, we can very easily slip into the mindset of thinking that we deserve God's grace but other people don't. That we are somehow more worthy to be saved than someone that we see as a "worse sinner." I think about the parable of the workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6). The Vineyard owner (God) hired workers to work in his field for the day, and the workers agreed to do the work for the day's wage. Near the end of the day, the vineyard owner went out and hired even more workers to work his land. At the end of the day, he paid them all the same amount, and the workers who had been hired earlier in the morning became enraged. They felt as if they deserved more- or at least the others deserved less- because they had worked all day long in the heat, and the others coming in at the tail end earned the same thing for a fraction of the work. They felt that they were entitled to more because they had done more, and for longer. But the vineyard owner wanted to give them all the same (like God wants to give us all salvation), because he was generous. Just like the vineyard workers that had been hired early in the day, sometimes people who have led a good life their entire life, and always tried to do the right thing, feel slighted when the late in the day workers (say, a drug addict who didn't START doing the right thing until they were 50 years old) come in and are blessed by God in the same way that the person doing right their entire life is. From a human perspective, it would be frustrating. To work your entire life to do the right thing and lead a Christian life while the guy next to you did the wrong thing, hurt people in the process, and wanted nothing to do with God until recently -yet you both get the same "reward" -doesn't seem fair. But looking from a spiritual perspective, you see just how fair it truly is. The bible state that their is none righteous- not even the person doing the right thing their whole life. They need salvation and forgiveness in Jesus just as much as the more obvious sinner. But GOD WANTS TO SAVE BOTH OF THEM. He is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). God wants everyone to be saved- to be able to live with him in eternity- whether they come to accept him at the beginning of their lives or at their last breath. Imagine the heartbreak of God when one of the children that he loves refuses to accept him. The guy coming in at the end of the day and getting paid the same amount doesn't seem so crazy now, does it? No one can earn their salvation by doing the right thing, or being a good person, or by any other form of works. Salvation is a gift from God.

God does change hearts- he changes people- even them.  The person whose sins look much greater than yours, the person who treated you horribly, the person that abused you, the person that's slandering you, the person that you have given a million chances to yet never changed- God can change them. Think of the worst sinner you can imagine, times a million, and God can change them into wonderful people if they surrender to him.  He can take the most messed up people with hopeless futures and turn them into amazing miracles that bring glory to him.  But sometimes it is a process. So if you ever catch yourself thinking "he can't possibly change them...",  or "how could they possibly be forgiven", remember where you were at when God found you. Remember the mistakes, the lessons, the time, and the massive supply of grace, mercy, and forgiveness that Jesus gave you during the process- and try to offer that same mercy and grace to other people. Nobody's past is too broken for God to fix, and we should be cheering on all of our brothers and sisters in Christ as they turn their back on the world and walk into who they are in Jesus. Let's make an effort to see them as Jesus sees them- completely forgiven, with their sins washed away- instead of wondering how God could forgive them. Because, they are not the same person you may have known from the past. From the moment of salvation, they are a new creation. So let's offer them the encouragement to embrace their new identities.

2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. Behold, old things have passed away, all things have been made new.