We moved around a lot when I was young. My father was a career Marine, and at least once a year – sometimes more – we were in a different house in a new town. We didn’t attend church regularly – though my folks had both come from families that did – but one time I remember was when I was 7 years old. We had just moved to town, and my family decided to attend a nearby Baptist church.
My folks went into the adult service, and I went into the children’s church. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t know any of the songs or hand motions, but I remember receiving an aluminum coin with John 3:16 embossed on it. I memorized it from that coin: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. Those words rang true with me, and I tried hard to understand them. Everlasting life? For believing in Jesus? Of course, I’m in! Somehow I felt I had struck a bargain with God, and that he would honor his part by giving me “everlasting life” – whatever that meant.
I didn’t encounter the gospel again until I was 13 years old. My dad had retired and we moved back to my folks’ hometown in Kansas. Shortly after, their marriage fell apart, and they divorced. I spent most weekends at my cousin’s house. His family attended church on Sunday’s. So, that’s what I did, too.
I heard John 3:16 again, and a whole lot more. I found out, though, that I was not close to God at all. In fact, there was an un-crossable distance between us, and the problem was my sin – the things I had done that were against God’s rules, and even the way that I was. I was separated from the holy God. I understood then that my sin was not something to be celebrated, or enjoyed, or even tolerated. Instead, it was the very thing that was keeping me from God, and from everlasting life.
But I also learned that when Jesus died on the cross, he did so to take the penalty for my sin – not his own – to satisfy the justice of the holy God, and that “believing in him” meant trusting that his payment was for me, to pay for my sin – something I could never do for myself.
I listened to that message for several months and did nothing. Finally, in October of that same year, the youth group had an overnight retreat to a nearby camp. We sat by a fire that evening while someone explained the gospel again, and invited those that wanted to come and trust Jesus. This was the time, and that evening, October 5th, 1971, I knelt down beside the lake there and confessed to God that I was a sinner, separated from him, and that my only hope was to accept what Jesus had done on the cross for me.
My life changed that evening. I was baptized shortly after, and started attending church regularly. But not everything was good. You see, I continued to sin – and do to this day – and that affected how I related to God.
We were not overtly affectionate in my home growing up. In fact, I don’t recall ever saying the words, “I love you”. I don’t remember even hearing them that often. We weren’t mean or cold. It just wasn’t something we did.
When I would misbehave, and my parents had to correct me, I felt ashamed and did not want to face them. Over time, I concluded they probably felt the same way. I applied that same way of thinking to my relationship with God. I knew he forgave me, but felt like he probably didn’t want to be around me much. I could grasp the idea of a majestic, holy God. But I struggled to get hold of the idea of a personal God.
Then I read some things in the Bible – things like Romans 8:1, “There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, and in Colossians 2:13 that God had nailed all my sins to the cross of Jesus, and forgave me of every one – past, present, and future. But the real clincher for me was 2 Corinthians 5:21 that said, “He made him who had no sin to become sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him”. God did not turn away from me when I sinned. Sure, my disobedience disappointed and hurt him. But he drew in closer to me, bound my wounds, and said, “Let’s try this again”. I began to understand what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, but friends”.
Everything God had done, from the very beginning until today, was not just to give me everlasting life, but was about establishing an everlasting relationship with me – an everlasting friendship. And someday, I will leave this life, and go to that place of everlasting life. But I won’t be going where I don’t know anyone. Instead, I’ll be going to see my oldest and dearest friend – the one I’ve spent the last forty-plus years getting to know. That realization gives eternal meaning to all of life for me here.