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.