We moved away from Missouri to Oklahoma. My grandma taught me how to use a phone book to look up a phone number. I had an old corded dial phone. When I was nine years old, I dialed in a number I found in the phone book for the church bus. The church bus came and picked me up and took me to church. It was awesome. I had so much fun. I loved it.
My mom found me a different church. I rode their church bus nearly every Sunday. That church taught us every single week, “If you dance, you’re going to hell. If you do this, you’re going to hell. And if you do that, you’re going to hell.” I was really scared of hell because they talked a lot about it and how it was full of fire. I came to think, “Wow, God must be really mad. I’m scared. I want to do a good job and be a better person because I don’t want to end up in hell.” I worked really hard to be a good person so I wouldn’t go to hell. I obeyed the rules. In fact, I was kind of like a compliance officer.
One day, I just couldn’t keep it up anymore. I thought, “I’m never going to be good enough for God. I’m not going to come here and not be allowed to dance. I’m a pompom girl. I’m not going to give that up. I love it.” When I went to church every week, I felt so much condemnation heaped on me. I couldn’t take it anymore.
Even though I gave my life to Christ when I was ten so I wouldn’t burn to death, there I was in church at seventeen years old, thinking, “I can never do this. I don’t even like these people. They’re not even nice. They’re not even kind. No one here is kind.” I was sitting there, thinking, “God, I don’t really want anything to do with You because I’m never going to be good enough for You. I’m never going to be worthy of Your love. I’m not allowed to make a mistake.”
That church made me feel the burden of salvation was mine—that I had to clean up my life and do better and be a better person so I wouldn’t go to hell. One day, I just said, “Screw this. God, if I have to be all of these things, I know I’m never going to measure up. So forget it. If I’m going to hell anyway, I’m going to have a good time getting there.” That’s what I said, and I quit. I quit on God. I quit on church. I left the church, and I went nuts.
I wasn’t as wild as some, but that doesn’t matter because all sin is filthy. I made a lot of mistakes and hurt others along the way. I was determined to find joy and happiness and love and contentment. I was bent on being fulfilled. I was going to be happy, no matter what it took. I was going to do whatever I could to get it.
On that journey, I ended up hurting a lot of people, including myself. I woke up one day in the middle of a broken relationship. I’d gotten drunk the night before. I’d had way too much tequila; that was the drunkest I’ve ever been. Yet I was empty. I didn’t have anything. I had a career and made good money, but suddenly those accomplishments felt like nothing. I looked at my life and realized I wasn’t a faithful person. I wasn’t a faithful friend. I was so empty. I was hurting, and I didn’t know what to do.
It was in this moment that I remembered what my grandma had taught me when I was little about God and how He loves me. Then I decided, “Today I’m going to talk to that guy. I’m going to ask Him what I should do.”
What I felt, what I heard in my head, was that I had left my first love: God. The first thing I had learned about God was how much He loves me. Somewhere along the way, my view of God had gone from Him loving me to Him expecting from me something unrealistic I could never give Him. I couldn’t give Him all of my behavior; I always failed in one way or another.
I remember that day. I’m sad to say I was twenty-six years old. I had a bad reputation—I’m sure of it. Christians didn’t like me. Most of them looked down their noses at me. There were a couple who could see me as God saw me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I knew they were pretty cool for a reason, and I understand now that it was because they could see me as God saw me. For the most part, they treated me accordingly. They didn’t approve of my behavior, but they knew the difference between what I did and who I was.
When I was twenty-six years old, I got down on the floor and said, “Help. I don’t know what to do. I just know I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m sick of waking up every day in an empty life, in emptiness. I may have fun for a little while, but I’m still empty. I’m sick of it.” That day I made a decision. I didn’t have some huge moment—God didn’t come out of the sky and speak to me—but I made a decision that I was finished with my past life.
I decided to turn away from everything I knew was wrong. I did an about-face: I was heading in one direction, but I turned around to go the other way. I knew what ways of living were wrong because I was raised to know. I did an about-face and ran away from those wrong ways. I had been a sprinter in school, so that’s how I thought of it. I started sprinting toward God and the love I had trusted in when I was little. I knew I had been loved when I was really little. I simply knew it. Where had that love gone?
I stopped going to bars. I stopped hanging out with friends who drank. I just stopped. I stopped calling them back. Eventually, they stopped calling me. If you don’t drink around drinkers, they get mad, and sooner or later they’ll stop asking you to go. I stopped hanging out with people who were on a bad path.
I also tried to reconcile hurts. I met with people and asked for their forgiveness. I said, “I’m sorry I hurt you. Would you forgive me? Can we reconcile this? Can we fix this? I don’t really know what else to do, but I’m sorry.”
I decided to go to church. I needed some friends. I needed some friends who were doing what I was doing—because I couldn’t do it alone. I started in a tiny little semi-school class. I did this right away. I felt really awkward, as if I had a big “Chief Sinner” sign on my forehead and everyone in the room knew what I had done. They knew I was wrong; they knew I was a sinner. But the truth is, we all are sinners and every sin is forgiven by God. Will you choose to humble yourself and put yourself out there? Will you take a chance on yourself to have a new life? It was really awkward, but I did it anyway.
It’s awkward to go to church as a visitor. It’s awkward to walk in and be like, “I don’t know where the bathroom is, and I’m about to wet my pants.” It’s awkward to walk in and say, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve been here before. Yes, I know where the sanctuary is,” and then end up in the library. It’s awkward, but it’s worth it. I think all of us have the moment when we’re lying in the gutter and we realize, “Hey, something’s got to change, and it’s worth whatever it takes.”
I made my decision. I left everything from my past and started going to church and getting involved with people who (supposedly) loved God. I started serving. I became a greeter. I got on the finance committee of my church. I went to church Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights—every time the doors were open. I ended up joining a Bible study where we read the Bible from the beginning to the end. I did the slides for the music ministry. Every time we did praise and worship, I was the one who had typed up the words. I typed up the verses. I served on every committee.
I pretty much had the reputation: “If you need something done, ask her because she never says no.” I just started doing, doing, doing. I see new believers on this track every single day. They say they want to be in Christ, so they start serving, serving, serving. What I didn’t know was that eventually I was going to hit a roadblock. God did not design me to be a human doing; He made me a human being. What I needed to do when I decided to give my life to Him was sit down and get to know Him.
Ephesians is one of my favorite books in the Bible because I think it describes the believer’s journey in the beginning. In the beginning, we’re supposed to sit. Then we’re supposed to stand up and walk. Then we’re supposed to stand firm. A newborn baby can’t even hold up its head; momma has to hold it up. That’s what we’re like when we first come to Christ. We’re like newborn babies who can’t hold up their heads, yet we may try to jump right into serving. Our heads start bobbing around, and sometimes we cause ourselves pain and trouble because we busy ourselves with serving before we really know God.
Even though I turned my life away from sin, I still didn’t know God. And it’s knowing God that sets you free. It’s the truth that sets you free. Eternal life is knowing God. It’s not heaven or hell; it’s knowing God.
I hadn’t understood this before. No one had ever told me that it’s not about how good or bad you are but about knowing God. When I finally learned the truth, I realized I wanted to know God so well that other people around me would want to know Him. They would see that I know Him and would want to know Him as I know Him.
I remember waking up one day completely exhausted from serving. Don’t get me wrong—I love serving. It set me free because it started in me the passion to read God’s word. When I typed those scriptures for the church slideshow, I couldn’t put my Bible down. I couldn’t stop reading the passages. I wondered, “Is this who God is? I never knew this.” Up until then, the only way I had known God was from someone else’s perspective and through someone else’s teaching.
It was when I started reading Ephesians that my entire life truly changed. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 helped me to understand the basics of the faith. When you first come to believe in Christ, you need to have the sitting stage. You need to take the time to sit down and read God’s word for yourself and study it and meditate on it. You learn about who God is and who He made you to be: an adopted child.
There are amazing prayers in Ephesians 1 and 3. If you were to pray those two prayers over yourself, you would be forever changed. Every day your mind would be transformed in the image of Christ. You would be renewed and made new in your mind. When you’re saved, your spirit is made new and perfect.
Reading Ephesians opened my eyes. I realized, “This is what we’re designed to do!” The first thing we’re designed to do when we come into Christ is sit down and get some spiritual milk so we can begin to understand the forgiveness and the love of God. When I finally got to the point where I truly forgave myself—because I truly believed God had forgiven me—I received the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit to stop sinning.
I will never forget the day I realized I hadn’t forgiven myself. On that day, I finally did. I thought, “I’m letting this go. God has forgiven me, and I’m not going to hold condemnation over myself anymore. I’m not going to hold on to bitterness and guilt.” This is what changed me forever. I haven’t been the same since that day.
After we sit and we learn, we start to fall in love with God. The more you know Him, the more you love Him. The more you love Him, the more you want to obey Him. You want to walk with Him. You want to be righteous—and He makes you righteous. You are righteous in your spirit. Your behavior can’t change who you are. It can’t, not ever. Never ever. But you can improve your behavior to match the righteousness to which God has called you—to match what He has already made you in Christ. Your behavior can continue to become more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ. You start doing God’s will and walking in the path of Christ, and this becomes your new way of life.
That is what we read about in Ephesians 4, 5, and 6. If you understand the love of God, if you know who He is, and you understand how valuable you are—a masterpiece, chosen before you were born to be holy and blameless—then you don’t act in your old way of the flesh anymore. You don’t continue in that sinful behavior. You don’t continue in sexual immorality. You don’t continue being selfish and a pain in the rear and angry and bitter.
You don’t stay there, because the love of God is so overwhelming that it overshadows all of the hurts and the pain and the sin and you want to shed your old self like a snakeskin. So shed it. It’s ready to be shed. Just let it go.
You have to take possession of your new identity in Christ. You have to own that you are chosen, holy, loved, and blameless. When you know it and you believe it and you say to yourself every single day, “I’m chosen, holy, loved, and blameless,” then your mind, your will, and your body transform into the image of Christ. When you actually believe you are a new creation, the old way of thinking and speaking and acting becomes easy to shake. Speak the truth in Ephesians 1, 2, and 3 over yourself daily.
I finally realized through reading Ephesians that knowing and loving God and knowing who I am in Christ are what make my behavior right. It’s not what I do or what I work at that makes the difference. It becomes easier to take possession of my new identity and go God’s way when I understand the battle has already been won.
It’s not easy in the sense that I have to deny my flesh. That part is always a struggle. I have to guard my mind and deny my tendency to dwell on negative thoughts. I have to take every thought captive, but the key is that I now want to do it because I know I belong to the Lord and am filled with His Spirit. I have such a strong desire in me to be free in the Lord that I actually have the ability to turn away from my sinful and destructive nature; it can’t control me anymore because I know who God is.
This brings us to the part about standing firm, Ephesians 6:10–20. Once you know the love of God and you’re not trying to work out your salvation for yourself, once you stop worrying about trying to be good enough and trying to be worthy, you realize you are free from your sin. You throw off the old snakeskin of your previous life.
You decide, “I’m not going to be entrapped by the devil any longer. I’m not his slave. I’m a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and I refuse to be a slave to anyone else.” You are able to stand firm because you can identify and distinguish between the fingerprints of the enemy and the fingerprints of God. You know Christ came to bring life and life more abundantly while the enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10 NKJV).
You know how the enemy tries to steal from you; you know how he has stolen from you in the past. You know when the door has been opened to the enemy, and you quickly slam it shut. You stay on your guard and stand firm, and you slam the door in the enemy’s face. You refuse to allow the enemy and his lies to hold sway over your life anymore. You stand firm in the truth and the love of God because you know that you are chosen, holy, loved, and blameless. You are God’s workmanship, His masterpiece, and you refuse to allow strife into your relationship with Him. You refuse to let anything get in the way of the abundant life He wants you to live and the good work He plans for you to do.
You refuse to allow the enemy to undermine and steal your friendships, your marriage, or your relationship with your kids. You refuse to allow the enemy to make you feel unworthy or unloved. You refuse to allow the enemy to make you feel trapped and a slave to your sin. You stand firm and take the word of God seriously. You allow the word of God to renew your mind. God equips you with full spiritual armor and gives you His word as a sword (Ephesians 6:10–17 NIV). He gives you everything you need to fight the enemy and stand firm in the faith.
In Christ, we are free from the control of our sinful nature and the death it brings. We are free to turn away from sin. When we are tempted, we have “a way out” (1 Cor. 10:13 NIV). We are free to choose love and let go of hatred. We are free to move beyond the pain and guilt of our past. We can live in freedom as a result of God’s grace and mercy.
Let’s examine mercy and grace. We are the objects of mercy when we are spared the punishment we deserve. We experience grace when we are offered a free gift we did not earn. It is difficult for us to comprehend grace fully because our society is work-oriented and proud. We have a hard time receiving gifts we haven’t earned. We believe we should put in our eight hours and then receive the pay we are due.
Here’s the problem: God does not owe us anything good. God challenged Job, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11 NIV). We cannot give anything to God that does not already belong to Him. Therefore, God does not owe us any benefits, favors, gifts, or blessings.
Our God “pardons sin” and “delight[s] to show mercy” (Micah 7:18 NIV). He “tread[s] our sins underfoot and hurl[s] all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19 NIV). Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34 NIV). God has compassion on us “[a]s a father has compassion on his children” (Psalm 103:13 NIV). His love for us is unshakable, and His “covenant of peace [will not] be removed” (Isaiah 54:10 NIV).
I don’t believe this means we obey God to prove we love Him. No, the love we have for Him because of what He has done for us is what creates a response of obedience to Him. Paul called it “the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5 NIV). A life of loving God and loving people with our thoughts, words, and actions is the evidence of our faith (Gal. 5:6, 14; Matt. 22:35–40; John 13:34–35; John 15:17 NIV).
When I was young, I was called stupid and was abused in my own home. Sure, I heard some good comments, too, but I didn’t know how to discern which comments were actually true. I felt worthless. I carried insecurity into my adulthood, and it hurt my relationships.
Throughout your life, many people will have their opinions of you. Some will like you. Some will not. It’s hard not to feel rejected or unworthy when people turn on you or when you fail. People’s opinions and your own opinion of yourself are simply that—opinions! Opinions are subjective, not God’s truth.
When you are a child of God, the only thing that is true about you is what God says about you. Paul said, “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4 NIV).
To help children and adults quickly recognize the difference between someone’s opinion or general facts and God’s absolute truth, we developed the game “Truth or Trash.”
Truth is what God says. Trash is anything He does not say. Trash can include facts and opinions. After you have played the game, practice discerning the difference between truth and trash in your daily life. We all encounter negative talk. Ask your children, “What did you hear today that was truth? What was trash? How do you know?”
Before you know it, you all will be able quickly to discern truth from trash! As you recognize trash and replace it with truth, words will no longer burden you.
As you identify trash in your own life, please share with me how you have replaced it with God’s truth!
The Truth or Trash iPhone App is OUT!
Please consider sharing this free resource with your friends, on your blog, on Facebook or Twitter, with your pastor, your children’s pastor, your co-op, or in any other ways you see would be a great fit!