Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker of a pitifully sad face accompanied by the words “My life before Jesus,” and then next to it, “My life after Jesus!” paired with a wildly happy face. A nice notion, but it’s simply not true. Faith in Jesus Christ will not necessarily “turn your frown upside down.” And claiming otherwise cruelly compounds the already painful struggles many people have with shame and sadness.
That’s why, for over 20 years, I’ve begun most Friday mornings with my friends Rod and Mike. I trust these men more than any others I’ve known. The freedom to be truthful has brought me remarkable relief, even exhilaration. These men have helped me realize that to live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story—the light side as well as the dark. Admitting that I have a shadow side has helped me discover who I really am and what God’s grace means.
For crying out loud, where did we get the idea that we’ll ever become the people we believe we’re supposed to be? The pages of the Bible overflow with stories of brokenness. All of the biblical characters we love and admire were a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses. David, Abraham, Lot, Saul, Solomon, Rahab, and Sarah—these are the names of courageous, committed holy men and women who also fell far short of the mark at times. They were people who could be defenders of the faith one minute, and insecure and unbelieving the next.
We might expect the characters of the New Testament to be an improvement, but they’re not. This is especially true of the ones Jesus affectionately called friends. Prostitutes, ragamuffins, head cases, tax collectors, adulterers, losers of all kinds—His disciples were hardly saints. They were impulsive, lazy, dishonest, and selfish. The biblical characters of both testaments were, as the kids say these days, a hot mess. I believe it’s high time for us to recognize how the Bible undoes the illusion of an unbroken life and calls followers of Jesus to come out of hiding. Scripture reveals the fact that each of us is a bundle of paradoxes and assures us that there are absolutely no exceptions.
Admitting that I have a shadow side has helped me discover who I really am and what God’s grace means.
Jesus’ teachings convey that the life we yearn for often is hidden in the midst of brokenness—that the simple life He offers frequently finds its beginnings in complexity. “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:3 NLT). The most authentic friendship with God comes through life’s most shattering experiences. If grapes and grain are not crushed, there can be no wine and no bread. If the seed doesn’t fall to the ground and die, there can be no harvest.
Mark’s story about Jesus’ encounter with a self-destructive, demon-possessed man reflects this truth. Following the poor guy’s less-than-welcoming plea to be left alone, Jesus asked, “What is your name?” (Mark 5:9). And His interest in a man everyone else had long written off sent a message: Who you truly are matters very much to me.
I can certainly relate. For years, I longed to know who I really was. However, having turned from my Creator, I was instead “possessed” by other creatures. From them, I learned to connect my identity with what I do more than who I am. This led to relentless striving for greater ability, superiority, giftedness, and training. My need to be everything to everyone was overwhelming.
But identity is something that only God can give us. Because God made the demon-possessed man, only Jesus could know exactly how to solve the mystery of his brokenness. And Jesus dealt in spectacular fashion with the tragedy this man’s life had become. The solution—casting his many demons into a herd of pigs—was unconventional and unpredictable (Mark 5:10-13). Then as Jesus was about to leave, the man who had begged to be left alone now pleaded to be allowed to go with Him (Mark 5:18). What a radical transformation! In finding Jesus, the former madman discovered his own true identity, and in finding his identity, he found Jesus. Once he knew who he really was—a beloved child of God and friend of Jesus—he was equipped to rejoin humanity. Therefore, Jesus told him to return to his home and live the life he was created to enjoy.
All of the biblical characters we love and admire were a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses.
I’ve reflected on this story for many years, and there are things I still don’t understand. However, it’s clear that Jesus loved the man in ways he’d never experienced before. Yet, Jesus didn’t love him for any of the reasons we expect. Jesus cared for him, not because of his ability, superiority, giftedness, or training. In his former state, the man had none of those things. Christ’s love depended on one thing only: who Jesus is. It wasn’t even remotely about the man, but instead had everything to do with the matchless character and nature of the Savior.
Years ago, I had a month-long speaking assignment at a Christian camp in New York. My wife and children were coming with me, but we knew my days would be filled once we arrived. So we took an entire week to make the trip, allowing for quality time together as a family. I’m glad we did, because upon our arrival, I hit the ground running. Days later I was sitting in a meeting, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone pacing back and forth at the end of a long hallway. At first, I gave it no thought. But as the march continued, I turned and discovered that it was our 3-year-old son Will. When he passed in full view, he slowed down and looked in my direction. Both distracted and concerned about what he might be thinking, I waited for the next time he passed and motioned for him to come to me. I will never forget the look of sheer joy, relief, and delight on his face. First walking and then running to where I sat waiting, he shouted, “Him wants me! Yes! Him wants me!”
What about you? Are your days spent frantically pacing back and forth—wondering, fearing, and dreading how God feels about you? If so, I have some awesome news. Jesus wants to take you by the hand and lead you to the real you, the person you truly are, the person He made you to be. Your view of yourself can change, if you’ll see yourself as Jesus does—as one who is deeply loved, completely forgiven, and forever free.
Photography by Dan Saelinger