Mike's Story | From Despair to LibertyMarch 29, 2017 Stories 1 Comment
I hope you will bear with me as I share one of the darkest times in my life. It’s the story of how God rescued a Christian who harbored a sin in secret and despaired of life itself. It’s the story of the Gospel, expressed in my real life.
Dead Ends and Darkness
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8
We sometimes think of the Gospel as being for “people who are not saved.” But the Gospel is essential every day for Christians as well. The devil’s lies are so cunning, and we are so frail, that we may fall back into our old ways. We may feel that we are on our heels, isolated in the worst way from God and other people by the deep hole we have dug for ourselves.
Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now. I want to assure you that there is hope, even for you. I want to invite you on a journey where we will look at the road from guilt & despair to repentance & liberty.
My story begins like this: “Another late night on a lonely road, and there was that voice again: ‘Kill yourself.’ ”
I hope you have never been there, and never will. But if you are, or someplace close, this story is for you.
This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” — and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate His extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life. 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Guilt That Leads to Despair
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away. Psalm 31:10
Another late night on a lonely road, and there was that voice again: “Kill yourself.”
The rumbling lullaby of a short block 350 motor kept coaxing my eyelids downward. That, and the monotonous rumble of the Michelins on the pavement. Focus, man. Shake your head hard. Keep those eyes open.
November 1976. My 1955 Chevy pickup and I had made this trip together countless times. So very familiar, this stretch of Interstate 35 between Austin (University of Texas) and Fort Worth (girlfriend and home). A familiar road, and that familiar suggestion to escape this life.
I cranked up the 8-track tape player and tried to drown out the voice. I looked for distractions, running my hands across the burnt-orange bench seat of the truck. No relief there. I hated that fresh padding and perfect stitching. I glanced up at the new headliner, another reminder of my unpardonable guilt. One by one, the miles passed.
“Just drive across the median. Hit a car.”
The voice kept nagging, more insistent than the doleful tunes of Willie Nelson. I stroked the finely finished wood handle of the fancy chrome floor shifter. It gave me chills. Oncoming headlights gleamed off the flawless orange paint of the hood. My gloom intensified.
“You’re in too deep. That’s what shame feels like.”
The voice was right. Its accusations heaped up day after day, night after night, until I could no longer see around them. How did I ever get into this mess? Hopeless. Endless. Numbing. It was true of this drive, true of my life. I hated that truck.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever come to the end of your rope? Maybe you are there right now. Hang on. There’s hope.
The Gospel. We cannot come to repentance unless God produces in us a grief for who and what we are as sinners. His redeeming work begins with the gift of eyes to see our desperate need. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10
Lies That Lead To a Prison
The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray. Proverbs 5:22-23
I didn’t always hate my truck. In fact, I started out loving her more than anything.
In high school we kids shared one of the family’s cars, then I bummed rides my first year of college. So I was a sophomore before I got wheels of my own. All I could afford was a 20-year-old rusty pickup that said “For Sale, $250” in the back window. Of course, it needed a little work – but it was mine, and I loved it more than anything.
One summer I worked for a soft drink company, where family friends owned and managed the operation. Every day I drove a fully-loaded truck out to the company’s parking lot and sold cases of soft drinks to church groups, convenience store owners, and anybody else authorized to buy wholesale.
A guy who sits on a parking lot all day has time to think. What he thinks about says a lot about what his heart treasures the most. This guy thought a lot about his truck, strategically parked where he could see it all day. This guy thought, “That truck could use some paint. That truck could use better suspension. That truck could use….”
You could say I idolized that truck. What I did that summer proves I did. It worked like this:
Sometimes people needed more soft drinks than I had with me in the parking lot, especially around holidays. So I retrieved more cases from the warehouse and added them to my beginning inventory. At day’s end I reconciled the truck like any truck route driver, matching up dollars received and inventory sold.
One day I failed to mark some added cases to my beginning inventory. When you do that, you come up with extra cash at day’s end. At first it hurts your conscience to stick that cash in your pocket, but it hurts less the next day, and the next. Soon it became no problem to pay for work done on my idol with thousands of dollars stolen from work. Bodywork, paint, interior, motor, transmission. It was looking good.
I went to church. I read my Bible. I prayed. But my heart was out in the truck. Pride. Self-sufficiency. Insatiable desires for more, no matter the cost.
Bad heart-habits are hard to break, even if you want to. In Austin, I landed a job as cashier at a retailer. I shared the register with others, but it was still possible to slip a few dollars out of the tray once in a while. Then I came back to Fort Worth and spent another summer selling soft drinks in the parking lot.
That’s when that destructive voice began – the one that kept nagging me on lonely, late-night drives. I came home every other weekend, so the voice was plenty familiar by Thanksgiving 1976. But on that particular holiday drive it was more insistent than ever.
“It’s hopeless. Kill yourself.”
Have you ever wondered how you got trapped in some mess? Do you wonder how you fell for Satan’s lie, which has become your prison? It’s a hard, scary place to be. The thing you loved now rules you. Maybe it’s your hidden dungeon of pornography? Jealousy? Seething anger? Something else?
The Gospel. Satan’s whispers always lead us to places that lead to destruction – on paths that lead away from our only true Source of Life, Jesus Christ. The Good News is that our Source of Life pursues us. Our hopelessness is visible only by the Light God shines, and our freedom is possible only through the blood Jesus shed.
Repentance That Leads to Liberty
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 14:17
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Psalm 32:5
By God’s grace and will, I drove on that night. The voice did not get me, and I made the journey to Fort Worth safely.
But the next night, while I was watching TV at my girlfriend’s house, a spiritual showdown occurred. God had enough of my divided heart. In His time and His way He finally crushed me with conviction, so much so I suddenly collapsed into heaps of uncontrollable sobbing. God’s sorrow became my sorrow. The story could no longer hide. It took a long time to choke out the truth to my bewildered girlfriend.
Confession. It was the only exit from my hardened heart, and God caused it to open. God drove me to confess to my shocked parents. I confessed to my dumbfounded pastor. I confessed to my astonished employers, who mercifully pressed no charges. But most of all I confessed to God – the Person whose holiness stood in stark contrast to my own stained soul.
By God’s grace, He moved my heart to repentance – not to escape the worldly consequences of my sin, but because it was God’s way of tearing down the bars that held me captive. He lanced a deep wound, and drained out the ugly. He shined light into my darkest recesses. As a result He did the impossible: He restored my fellowship with Him.
There were consequences, of course. They hurt. I left the Austin college scene and returned to Fort Worth. I left the apartment life to live at home. I sold the truck. I licked my wounded reputation. And most of what I earned during the next several years went to my former employers.
But the voice was gone. In its place was that “peace which passes understanding.” It felt so good to come home. I knew just how that prodigal son felt in Luke 15. My parents did, too.
Conviction, repentance, confession, and restoration. That cycle is God’s precious gift for believers, the only exit from the sinful places our hearts can take us. That cycle is possible only because Jesus exchanges His righteousness for each sinner who comes to beg Him for it.
You may find yourself thinking your heart is too deeply off course for this to apply. You may feel ashamed of some things. You may hear an accuser’s voice suggesting you are hopeless. Don’t let these things hold you captive. Christ came to set you free. Take the exit that only He provides. Thank Him he for revealing your heart to you. He didn’t have to, you know.
Have you ever felt the sudden release of sin’s unbearable accusations? Praise God! Only Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible. Only God’s mercy makes it applicable. Confession and forgiveness. It’s the best feeling in the world, because it is God’s voice saying, “Welcome home.”
The Gospel. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:1-2
Prayer that Leads Prodigals Home
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Romans 12:12
Thus far I have shared a true story about one of the darkest periods in my life. Faced with guilt for stealing thousands of dollars, I finally collapsed under the pressure. God compelled me to turn myself in – to my girlfriend, my parents, my pastor, and the companies I stole from. I lost my job, my reputation, and my independence. It took several years to repay the companies while I moved back home and finished college restored to peace with God. But that’s not the whole story.
Two weeks before my story reached its climax, a middle-aged couple slipped quietly into the pews at a Fort Worth church. The surroundings were familiar; for more than 25 years they had worshiped there. They had faithfully raised a family there, bringing two sons and a daughter through the Sunday School.
This particular night, a special service for healing was in progress. The couple was not infirm. Perhaps they came with his aging father in mind. Like others in the congregation, they were asked to write their healing need on a 3x5 card.
When it was their turn, the couple rose from their pew and made their way up the aisle to an area in front of the altar. They handed their card to the two pastors, who laid hands on their heads and prayed for the healing they desired.
As the pastors read the card, they noticed that the couple was not praying for a physical healing of any sort. The card simply said, “For our family.”
The words of their prayer for the healing of a family that night echoed off the marble floor, resonating past the richly carved wood of the church and into the highest reaches of the sanctuary and beyond. It mirrored their own ongoing, urgent prayers, casting their cares on the only source of redemption, hope and change.
Mom and Dad were there that night two weeks. My parents were the couple who prayed for a healed family, even as my soul was mired in a secret and dark prison they didn’t even know about. As they drove home, their prayer lay before God’s heart and worked its way into His sovereign plan.
Two weeks later I was healed and came home.
I was set free. I was restored to my family and God, cleansed of my guilt, and given a clean bill of spiritual health by God Himself. Once buried in despair, I was suddenly resurrected in hope. As painful as it was, I rejoiced then and today that God lifted my life out of quicksand and placed it again on a solid Rock.
A Prayer for You
As I close this story, I want to pray for you using the words of Colossians 1.
May you be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of Him, fully pleasing to Him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. May you constantly remember how He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
If you still see Jesus as only an example of good deeds and lover of whatever path you choose, and believe in God only to satisfy your own selfish longings, I pray He opens your eyes. That Jesus has no power to put your sins away when you are confronted with God’s holiness when your earthly days are spent.
If you have run to Jesus as Son of God – sacrificial offering for your sins, exchanging His life for yours on the cross so that His righteous life has become your life – and you have still fallen prey to Satan’s deceitful whispers – I pray that He brings you to that same crushing moment I experienced. May He bring you to repentance and the liberty you yearn for.
If you have simply “lost your first love” for Christ, as John reports of one church in Revelation 2, I pray God will rekindle your affections for Him. May your passion for Christ and His ways burst into flames, consuming every other passion that besets you.
Lord, our need for You is always more desperate than we know! You yourself are the end (and beginning) of the story.
May we never tire of crying out to you for ourselves, and for each other.
Someday we may discover that our prayer was an important part of somebody else’s story. I know it has been for mine.