I was three-and-a-half when I met Jesus. The image of a church pew, my mother’s face, and the altar are embedded firmly in my mind. The complete picture has faded over the years, like a well-worn photograph. And like a photograph, it has sometimes been forgotten, misplaced then later found again in the stack of pictures that is my memory.
But the impact of that moment, now a full 18 years ago, has never left me. I can’t say that as a three-year-old I knew the full implications of what I chose to do, nor did I bring expectations for my life with me. All I knew then was that Jesus wanted to be my friend, and I was going to let Him, whatever that meant for me.
Even growing up as a pastor’s kid, a missionary’s kid, and a church kid doesn’t mean life is exactly easy. Though I have to say, I have been blessed with two wonderful and faithful parents and a big sister who always looked out for me. I was protected from many things that many other children have experienced.
But there’s no bubble. I’ve had many moments of selfishness, brattiness, stupidity, loneliness, pain, grief, depression, even hatred and rage. I know myself pretty well, and as much as I’d love to say that my record’s spotless, there’s no truth to that. I’ve dealt with sin and its consequences; with temptation and its challenges; with hurt and its changes.
I think sometimes, when I tell people that I became a Christian at three-and-a-half, some believe that I must be indestructible, well-adjusted, and able to deal with life’s problems with perfect ease. Don’t think there haven’t been moments I’ve wished that were true. The reality is, my heart has got the same troubles that most everyone’s got, and I live in a fallen world same as everybody else.
Which is why, if you’ve ever noticed, everyone’s looking for someone. For beauty, there are supermodels. For power, there are politicians. For wealth, there’s the next position up. For fame, there are pop idols. For intelligence, there’s Jeopardy!’s longest-running contestant. Even in the things that we want, it’s usually something that someone we admire wants or possesses first before we really seek it. We’re wired to look to someone greater, better, higher, farther.
Growing up, for me there was one person in particular that I looked to. I wanted to be like this person. Many of my decisions as a child were influenced by this person. I watched the development and growth there, and decided I wanted that for myself. Even in spiritual matters my eye followed this person.
Then that day came. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. It was the day that that person failed me. I was close enough to be helped, and I was close enough to be hurt. That day it felt like my world was falling apart, and over the course of years it eventually seemed like it would.
It’s always hard to hear about defeats and failures. There are many of them to go around for all of us. I can’t say that my own story will turn out the way I want it to. As much as I run after its control, it always seems to elude me. As much as I look to other people they always seem to fail me. As much as I seek after my own perfection it always seems to reveal the flaws within me. And because of that, whenever I want to blame circumstances I’m left with no recourse; when I want to blame others I corner myself; when I want to blame myself I find there is no one else left to carry the blame with me.
This brings me to Jesus. Just when you thought this article was about me, it really is about much more than that. This is about what Jesus and His Passion mean for me. A friend of mine just tonight mentioned that, at my age, I’ve already covered about a quarter to a third of my life. It’s a good moment for reflection on what the last 18 years have really been about. Throughout that time, as often as I’ve tried to make it about the author of this article, I can only say that, in looking back, I’m very relieved to say that it isn’t.
Just like you, I’ve spent these years of my flawed life surrounded by flawed people—fake heroes, insufficient idols, overstated statistics, incomplete affection, self-serving intentions. That is not to say there isn’t any good in us—it just isn’t enough to keep the bad from overtaking us. For as much love as there is in this world, it somehow seems to come up short, stalling in loss.
But at age three-and-a-half I made a Friend who has never left me in all my years. That may sound simple, but that’s because it is. It’s something a three-year-old can understand, and something that as an adult—whose experiences have taught him that reliability seems to constantly be out of reach—can boggle the mind. Never gone in the good times, always there through the hard times. “Jesus Christ never changes! He is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus is forever. He’s the real deal.
Not long ago I watched as my sweetheart shared with several dozen abused kids that when God comes into a life, He separates out all the hurt and all the sin from us, clearing the way for us to always rise above, even when we’re falling. Most of those kids were a third of my age, but they got it. I could see it in their faces. No matter how much bad stuff came their way—even after all they’d been through—they knew that Jesus would sort it out for them. How often I’ve needed to remember this simple lesson!
And that’s the God who is mine. That is what Jesus’ blood in His Passion has done for me. I know that when the world falls apart and all the pain and all the regret seem inseparable, my Jesus comes between and takes it on Himself for me. As I reflect on the time that has passed since the first day I met Him, I can see that in every step of the way He has been with me, always loving and never leaving, true to the end, and carrying for me what I am incapable of carrying for myself. In Him I’ve only ever found what I truly needed—peace in trouble, forgiveness in failure, endurance in hardship, passion in purpose, and power for living a life that is fully alive through Him.
“If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” –John the Apostle, from I John 4:15-16 (NIV).
We often see what we want to see.
Jesus’ faithfulness has exceeded all others. He is the only Savior of this world, the only constant in a world filled with change. I may be flawed and surrounded by flawed people, but I find perfection in His grace and covering.
Which compels me to profess that for all the times people have failed me, there are innumerable instances in which I have seen Christ’s love demonstrated in those same individuals. One of the greatest mistakes we can ever make is to believe that failure should lead us to despair. It’s a dangerous temptation, one that often comes in the times when human failures—including my own—hurt us. Jesus came to be our sufficiency, our covering.
We do not ride out the course of our lives on our own. God uses relationships, and He uses them to demonstrate both His love and grace. The reality is that Jesus gave His perfection for our imperfection, and in every moment I am tempted to despise the failures of others, I must remember that Jesus’ grace wasn’t sufficient just for me, but for everything I would ever face in my life.
Not only that, however, but I am called out to live Christ’s commission: which is to love others with His love.
Now the funny thing about this is that, I think, so often I’ve tried to do this on my own. It seems a bit self-defeating, once I really sit down and think about it. After all, how can I love with Christ’s love if He is not involved? It isn’t my love. I can’t manufacture it or imitate it. It must live through me.
And there is a deeper truth which, if we miss the one above, we will most certainly miss out on this. Because typically, we tend to think of Christ’s love only in the context of our own lives; that is, that Jesus died for my sins and my mistakes and the times that others have hurt me. All of which is exactly true.
But if Christ’s love is meant to live through me as well as in me, then it is not only sufficient for me, it is sufficient enough to cover those around me. And suddenly, those same people who I have hurt and sinned against, and who have hurt and sinned against me, can be seen in a new light. Despair’s claws lose their grip on those failures, and light shines in on this truth: that every failure, every weakness, becomes an opportunity for my great God to show His strength.
His love isn’t sufficient only to live in me, but to live through me. My outlook on those around me must change so that I see them the way Christ saw me. The Passion isn’t simply the way Christ lived for me, but the way I am called to live for others. Love compelled Him to carry a heavy burden—not just the cross of His death but the cross of His lifestyle—so that I could experience the life He came to bring.
“Loving others” was never meant to be a chore. It might be difficult, hard to carry, even painful—but it is far from meaningless, far from boring, far from drudgery. Think those are appropriate descriptors of Christ’s life? Check out the realities of His life and the experiences that defined His lifetime. Simply because we are called to love those around us doesn’t mean our lives must be bland, flat, uninteresting. On the contrary, what is more interesting than the dynamics of human relationships? And what could be more exciting than to watch how God might use us to somehow touch the lives of others, even if it is in the simple graces we are called to extend? The Apostle James didn’t hold mass evangelism as the highest of Christian virtues (though that is good), but he did hold up simple acts of love: feeding, clothing, caring for the needs of others—be they physical, emotional, or spiritual. I am convinced that some of the greatest lives ever lived have gone unwritten in human history, but they have shaken eternity with the simplest acts of goodwill.
Hundreds of thousands were executed on crosses during Roman rule. It was one obscure Man of obscure reputation from an obscure community that shaped the course of the world by living the perfect life for others. It was obscure men from an obscure race who chose to chronicle the life of this obscure Man that shook the foundations of humanity. I’ve often wondered if the Apostles really knew the implications of what they wrote and lived, and perhaps at least John did. But I really do wonder: for all that the Apostle Paul wrote in his lifetime, did he ever wonder if it was really worth it—and then write Philippians 3?
None of knows how God might use the love He placed within us to touch others. But we know the potential because we’ve seen it played out over and over again in great men whose lives were not measured by the length of their lives, the weight of their gold, nor the extent of their power—but rather by pursuit of their high calling in Christ, to make Him known in whatever ways were at their disposal. True love is much like water: it takes the opportunities given it and flows there—and the purest waters often flow in the deepest of crevasses.
If we choose not to see it, then our only option is to live in despair for the failures in us and around us. But that is not the life Christ died for, and now lives for. The hero that lives within each of us is manifested in what Christ did for us. His love given us is sufficient enough to rescue us as well as rescue others through us.
That’s right. Loving others for Christ’s sake is heroic—it is the most heroic activity of them all, because it has all the power of Life itself behind it. Jesus Himself declared, “The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing” (Matthew 10:42, The Message). Instead, you will see the truth: that a life without love for others isn’t worth living—and a life spent loving others through Christ’s love overflows with wonder and reward beyond compare…just like Jesus’.
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” —Jesus, in John 15:12-16.