I went back to Wichita, Kansas, three years after burning down the life I’d had there.
I’d fallen deep into sin and the self-delusion that so often accompanies it—and then walked away from a church full of people who had taken care of my family while my daughter suffered from an inoperable brain tumor. I’d abandoned the wife with whom I’d buried that child. I’d anesthetized myself with liquor and women, all the while nursing my grievances, the wrongs I felt I’d suffered, and the twisted logic that—in my darkened thoughts—justified those actions.
I’d run until I found myself on my knees in a little apartment in a strange city, a gun in my mouth, a shiny 9 mm round in the chamber. The gun was my Smith & Wesson; the shaking hand that held it, my own.
This is what happens when you run out of ground to burn. You find yourself on your knees. One way or another, you’ll be on your knees.
And here is the thing about God: No matter what we tell ourselves, He is never the one who gives up on us. His vineyard is always open, waiting for laborers, and He pays us a full day’s wage, even when we come at the eleventh hour (Matt. 20:1-9). The doors of heaven’s garden are open, yet we earth-scorchers turn our backs on good and growing things. On life itself.
But sometimes, thank God, we are brought low enough to see the earth for what it is and learn our place in it. For me, at least, that was the beginning of redemption—on my knees, gun in hand, ready to exercise the last piece of control I thought I had left, by ending my own life.
When you run out of ground to burn, you find yourself on your knees. One way or another, you’ll be on your knees.
And it occurred to me, as I knelt there blubbering and trying to muster the courage to put some pressure on that trigger, that maybe my insistence on running my life had been the problem all along.
Just as He’d placed people around me who’d tried to stop my self-destruction, the Lord brought me again amongst people who ministered to me. I set about the work of redemption, beginning first in the dry, cracked soil of my own heart. We can’t get right with anyone else, after all, if we aren’t first right with the Lord. It was with good reason that David wrote, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Ps. 51:4).
Thankfully, “the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Ps. 103:8). But making the heart fit again for gardening requires a gouging of the hardened crust, an upturning of soil. The Lord is indeed merciful with us when we bring our transgressions to Him, but He requires us to look them full in the face: “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom” (Ps. 51:6).
Healing can be painful.
It’s hard to describe this work without erring. We either make it sound as if it succeeds because of our merit or give the impression we have no responsibility in the matter, because it’s all up to God. I keep the vineyard parable in mind: The Lord welcomes all who labor and compensates us fully no matter how paltry our efforts—but we must labor. The parable doesn’t mention anyone who slid into the vineyard and just sat around all day. Only workers were paid. I also think on the comforting truth offered by Paul: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Note that the operative word is “walk,” not “rest.”
So I had work to do, but it was always responsive work. The Lord put the full truth of my actions in front of me, and I grieved. Then He gave me opportunities to serve people like those I’d wounded, and I served. We labor in the Lord’s vineyard, but He is the foreman. And the instructions haven’t changed, no matter how we try to adapt God’s church to our modern Western comforts. Pray, read Scripture, fast, care for widows and orphans, visit prisoners, love our neighbors as ourselves.
Ah, yes, my neighbors. That included my now ex-wife, living by this time in North Carolina, where I’d also moved to be near our children. I asked for forgiveness, and she mercifully gave it. It included my children, who suffered terribly from my choices. And it included all those people left standing on the ground I’d burned back in Wichita.
Of course I love them. But I have to do what’s necessary to make myself happy. That’s what I’d told myself, in the midst of striking matches. But now I was beginning to understand that, at least the way our Lord speaks of it, love isn’t feelings, but actions. Yes, I’d felt love toward my family and friends—that is, when I’d thought of them at all. But had I acted in love?
No, I had acted as if I hated them.
And so I found myself in Wichita, on charred ground. “You disappeared for a while,” said a friend who met me for breakfast. He was someone who’d once called me his best friend, someone I’d not seen or spoken to once during those three terrible years. It’s the shame, you see, that will keep you away, even after you begin to come to your senses. I told him that.
He forgave me. He forgave me before I ever sat down and asked for it. Have you ever had someone be Christ to you in that way? It was a humbling breakfast. It was one of the best meals I ever ate, though I can’t remember what was on my plate.
If you’ve not asked for forgiveness, you should. And if you’ve not given it, you should—if not for the one who asks it, then for the sake of your own soul.
Another once-close friend couldn’t meet—not that time, nor any time I’ve been back to Wichita since. His email responses to my queries were brief, cordial, like what you might offer a librarian calling about an overdue book. He’s protecting himself, protecting his family. And who can blame him?
There were other friends I didn’t tell I was coming at all. Not because I didn’t want to see them, but because I was afraid they’d say no. The afternoon before I was to leave town, a brief spirit of courage swept over me. They’d cared for my family during my daughter’s illness—fed us, done repairs on our house, taken us into their home in the dark months after our child died. I had to go see them, even if they slammed the door in my face.
I drove to their home and sat for a while outside. What if they did slam the door in my face? What if they yelled at me? My return had been so much better than I could have hoped. What if this soured all of it?
But then, I thought, It isn’t about me, is it?
I got out of the car, walked to their door, gently knocked. No answer. I knocked louder. I heard the conversation inside grow quiet. The door unlatched. And then we were standing there on either side of the threshold—me not knowing what to say other than “Hi,” and the two of them wordless.
Their eyes filled with tears. They pulled me inside and hugged me for a long time. Have you ever felt forgiveness? Felt it around your shoulders, in the depths of your heart? Forgiveness is love poured out on us undeserving, and it’s a heavenly feeling.
If you’ve not asked for it, you should. And if you’ve not given it, you should—if not for the one who asks it, then for the sake of your own soul.
Not that I can blame the people with whom I’m still not reconciled. As I write this, I realize in some cases, while I’ve tried to reach out to them, I haven’t literally asked for forgiveness. Maybe they think I want to pretend I haven’t hurt them. Maybe I should be more direct in asking them to forgive me. It’s such a humbling thing to do. Exactly the medicine a prideful man like me needs.
And all this isn’t to say that once you receive forgiveness for the harm you’ve done, it makes everything better. You can cut off someone’s arm and then ask her to pardon you, and she may well find the grace to do so. But her arm is still gone. It will be gone until the Lord returns and makes all things new. Human forgiveness can’t make everything the way it was. I experience this even among friends with whom I’ve restored relationship. There’s a cautiousness on both sides—theirs because they wonder if I’ve truly changed, and mine because I’m ashamed.
Redemption, in other words, isn’t an event. It’s a garden you’re trying to grow on the ground you’ve marred. Some trusting, loving souls will join you right away to till the soil, to make it fruitful again. Surely they have the faith of children, and the kingdom of heaven will be their reward (Matt. 18:1-4).
Others will join you, but they’ll never be able to let you forget. It’s tempting to resent them for that, but truly, we should be reminded of our sins every day. Every day. That painful remembrance may be all that keeps us from returning to our evil as a dog to his vomit (Prov. 26:11).
And others you’ve wronged will join for a while in your scorched-earth garden, but the work will prove too painful. Some will just stand on the edges of that scarred ground, their backs to you. There are times when you’ll be tempted to walk away, to plant a new garden in good soil, in a place where no one knows you. But this burnt earth is yours, this garden is yours. Redeeming it requires your labor.
And you may not see much fruit in this life. But if redemption is your goal, if your vision is of the life of the world to come—the life that in your sin and sickness you almost lost, but which is just as open to you now as on the day you were born—it’s not too late to begin that labor. Even at the eleventh hour, it’s not too late.
Photo-Illustration by Craig Ward