I didn’t grow up in the Protestant tradition. I wouldn’t say that I had a high view of God. It was more like a distant view, and His grace was a foreign concept.
I experienced a leap in understanding of God’s grace way back when I became a believer, about 40 years ago. That leap was like going from zero mph to 60 mph in a matter of seconds.
I was selling books door-to-door over the summer between freshman and sophomore years in college for the Southwestern Book Company. After giving my spiel to an insurance salesman one day, he asked me if he could ask me a question. Not knowing what he was about to ask, or that it would change my life forever, but being curious, I said, Ok.”
So, he asked, “When you die, will you go to heaven?”
I had never thought about it before, but I lived with the guilt of all my failings, guilt mixed with a good measure of prideful disappointment in myself. I was raised Catholic, you see. Catholicism is good for keeping our failings front and center in our minds. Not only that, but knowing all the things I “needed” to do to make them right, and not doing them, only added to the load!
Not going to church anymore, not being appropriately devout, not saying all the “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” and all the things I didn’t pay particular attention to, or remember much about, while being told of their imminent importance, compounded the weight of the knowledge that my life wasn’t right.
But, I wouldn’t have associated what was “wrong” with me as anything having to do with God – if He really existed. I never really thought about whether God existed. I think I just accepted that He did, but I wasn’t much interested in Him at that point. The fact of my disinterest didn’t lighten my load in the moment when that pivotal question was proposed to me on that day in the insurance salesman’s home.
The question was followed by a brief, but uncomfortable moment of silence. I was taken aback. I wasn’t ready for that kind of a question. It summoned up the deepest angst that lurked in my being, and I didn’t know just how to respond, for surely there was a “right” response.
My friendly interrogator rephrased the question a moment later: “If you were standing before Jesus right now, what would you say to Him? Why should He let you in to His heaven?”
Of course, it is God’s heaven, isn’t it? The weight of the realization that heaven was God’s domain, and I was an outsider rested with full force upon me in the next moment. How would I convince Him to let me in? How could I convince Him?
Naturally, I let loose all the things I could think of that might matter to God. I recently begun a journey. I had been through years of reckless, angry and self-destructive living, hard drinking, indulgent drug taking, and I was angry at the world (for no good reason I can now admit) … I was going nowhere fast just a short while ago, but I had changed.
The truth is that I woke up, after a series of mishaps, to the fact that my life was likely to be very short if I didn’t change course. I totaled two cars and had some other close calls. I was run over by a car in which I had been a passenger driven by a “friend” who wasn’t even old enough to drive, and we were doing something stupid and illegal. Something about all of this and having to attend school in a wheelchair gave me pause about where I was heading.
So, I changed. I made a conscious decision to go the other way. I realized at the same time that I was desperately empty inside, out of touch with real meaning in my life and determined to find it. I became a good student in my last year in high school and became a truth seeker. Genuinely.
I rapidly recalled these things to the quietly earnest man in front of me. He let me go on for a while, before he gently stepped in with the next question, the question that changed my life. He asked: “What would you say if heaven was a free gift, and you couldn’t earn it?”
…. That question lit up my mind and heart and shocked me into paradigm shifting silence.
I was speechless. I had no retort. I was stunned.
He continued, unhindered by me as I stood like a prisoner blinded by the sunlight pouring in from a door suddenly opened to the outside world. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
I knew in that instant this was the antidote to all that was wrong with me.
I was a prideful, self-absorbed slave to my own demands and failings.
I once left a party because I drank too much and needed to throw up, and I was too prideful to throw up in the bathroom of someone else’s home. I drove down the street and stopped when I could hold it back no longer.
Just as I stepped out of my car, another car came around the corner. I got back in my car with just enough time to vomit all over the dashboard. This happened because I couldn’t bear to be seen as weak or vulnerable. Pride is not beautiful.
Pride was the root of what was wrong with me. It was the reason I was angry – because I couldn’t live up to my own expectations and demands on myself. It was the reason I was self-destructive, punishing myself for not living up to the standard I erected in my own mind for the way I should be. It was the ultimate cause and fuel for my self-absorption. And it was killing me.
I longed for a salvation I didn’t realize I needed from this thing that I couldn’t have identified up to that point.
In that moment, it all made sense!
Pride was the problem, and the ultimate antidote was grace – something I couldn’t earn or boast about. There was nothing for which I must strive, nothing I was able to obtain by my own doing, nothing that God wasn’t willing to give me. I was freed from myself.
I took God’s offer that day, and the question that led me to do it changed my life forever.
God sets a standard before us and gives us a conscience that is designed to bring us to the point of realization that we can’t measure up. That’s the whole point of it – to bring us to that place where we know we don’t measure up, and we can’t measure up. In that realization is the fertile soil for the working of God’s great gift – salvation that is by faith, something we simply receive, a gift from God that we don’t earn.
And we can’t have it, we can’t grasp it, if we are holding onto our own righteousness, our own efforts to measure up, our pride. And that pride is the very thing that traps us into a meaningless struggle to belong, to measure up, to feed our appetites, to chase things that will never satisfy us.
“The doctrine of the Fall (both of man and of some ‘gods,’ ‘eldils’ or ‘angels’) is the only satisfactory explanation. Evil begins, in a universe where all was good, from free will, which was permitted because it makes possible the greatest good of all. The corruption of the first sinner consists not in choosing some evil thing (there are no evil things for him to choose) but in preferring a lesser good (himself) before a greater (God). The Fall is, in fact, Pride. The possibility of this wrong preference is inherent in the very. fact of having, or being, a self at all. But though freedom is real it is not infinite. Every choice reduces a little one’s freedom to choose the next time. There therefore comes a time when the creature is fully built, irrevocably attached either to God or to itself. This irrevocableness is what we call Heaven or Hell. Every conscious agent is finally committed in the long run: i.e., it rises above freedom into willed, but henceforth unalterable, union with God, or else sinks below freedom into the black fire of self-imprisonment. That is why the universe (as even the physicists now admit) has a real history, a fifth act with a finale in which the good characters “live happily ever after” and the bad ones are cast out. At least that is how I see it.”