I used to believe that I had to give something to God before He would give me anything. It was this concept of penance that made me think that God was holding His love over my head, just waiting for me to obey Him first. It only made sense, especially given all that I had done in my youth.
Naturally I was bitter towards God, or what I thought was God. For a long time I thought of God as very impersonal and untouchable. I believed He was far away, never close, except when He came down to punish people. I used to think that it was only a matter of time before God was going to just rub me out and then I would spend eternity shoveling coal into a furnace for the devil.
As a kid, I was never privy to the word grace, except for at dinner time, where someone needed to say grace before we could eat. Grace meant nothing to me even though we grew up going to church every Sunday and I attended a private school through the 8th grade. I was left with a very clear understanding that for me to get on good terms with God, I was in for a life time of work…and even then there were no guarantees. To quote a recent sermon, I felt unlovable, worthless and lonely. I struggled with close friendships and as I entered my teen years I became bitter, resentful and arrogant. At the time, those feelings felt completely natural because of how alone I felt. I isolated my thoughts and shared them with no one.
During that time, I would still jump at opportunities to help others. There was always someone that needed help moving, or needed a ride someplace, or needed ten bucks until Friday. I would listen patiently to girls cry about their boyfriends and listen to guys whine about their girlfriends. In the process, every time I did something for someone or helped in any way, I found ways to angle and leverage my position so that I got something out of the deal. Sometimes it was food, other times it was money, sometimes it was a favor but in every case, I was building myself up as a sort of super hero. I was the guy who could solve all your problems, fix everything that was broken and move mountains when necessary. In the process, I became exceptionally prideful.
Interestingly, I was serving others in the process but I never saw it that way. It was always about what I wanted and what I could get out of the deal. I did nothing for free, or at least, rarely. My intentions were purely motivated by how I looked for doing any such act and I wanted everyone to know what I had done. What could have been an amazing 15 years of giving my life for others was severely tainted because it was so one-sided. Certainly, I lacked humility completely and had no interest in humbling myself to others. Not only was I prideful but I was also full of condescension and cynicism; most people were beneath me, or so I felt. Even when faced with individuals who were clearly bright people, I would simply resort to having to one up every story in order to tout my abilities and knowledge. That attitude cost me friend after friend, including family members. Sadly, for a while I was OK with that, because I believed it was easier anyway. If they were so less than I was, why in the world would I want them in my life?
By the time I moved to Oregon, I was down to a couple of friends. Slowly that changed as I met new people and began settling into my new home. But my personality hadn’t changed and before long I was manipulating my relationships for personal gain, just like before. Sadly, even after I met the woman of my dreams, fell in love with her and began our new life together, I continued to treat those around me in the same way as always. It seemed that I was happy to help anyone and even became known, for a while, as the guy that dropped everything to help. Sometimes I would do something just because but most of the time I expected something, even the notoriety and accolades.
The slow change started when we moved to Oregon City and my family life became a little more insulated. I began to take notice of how my help affected others and I became aware that I was capable of more. I had also started spending a little time reading a Bible; something that was somewhat foreign to me at the time. I certainly knew what the book was about and even owned one, somewhere, but I had never truly investigated it. What I found, especially from the New Testament writer Paul, was something I had never really heard about before, and that was grace. More importantly, I learned that grace was something to be given out, especially in acts of service.
The more I read, the more I responded with helping others out with no expectation of a return. It certainly didn’t happen all at once but over the next few years I was able to grasp a reality that I had been ignorant of up until then. That reality was that this life wasn’t about me and never would be. When I faced that reality down for the first time, it hit me hard. I held onto a piece of control for a while afterwards, just to see if I could. The more I fought it, the more obvious it became that I was fighting a losing battle. In time, I stopped trying so hard to please myself and instead spent hours trying to serve others.
That shift in mindset took many years but today I am thankful for the road that God carried me down. And while I certainly do not have it all figured out, I love that He was patient with a wretched sinner like me, that He taught me grace and in the end He showed me what it meant to truly serve another.
I learned that I didn’t have to give anything to God to get something from Him. In fact, I discovered that He gave me His grace and His love while I was still a mere sinner and now all He wants back is my devotion and praise. And as I praise Him for all He has done for me, I am led to pour out that love, grace and joy on others.