For freedom Christ has made you free. Therefore, stand firm and do not again become subject to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
When someone hears himself being admonished by these glorious words, with the salvation or damnation of his soul at stake, he becomes frightened and makes a commitment immediately, unless he is well armed and well grounded against this. For it cuts like a sharp razor and penetrates body and soul. Luther, The Sermon on the Mount. Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 21, pp. 252-253.
When I left home, I was 17. I moved as far as I could away from the Chicago suburbs. Then I came back and went to the University of Illinois for a year. Halfway through the second semester I decided that the reason I was so miserable was because I lived in Champaign, Illinois.*
*for further information on this you can begin your research here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uVDoYdYS8w
So after no small amount of mental and emotional anguish for both me and my family, I dropped out of U of I and ended up back in Seattle.
Strangely enough, I did not end up happier in Seattle. In fact I was more depressed and miserable. I would get into why, but that would take a long time. The point of this story is not to tell you about how bad I used to be (or still am) but about the way the devil can destroy a person who has become convicted of sin. That is, if the gospel is not preached to the convicted person immediately.
The Lutheran Confessions talk about this. But it takes experience to understand what the Confessions are talking about. And even if you’ve experienced it, it takes the Holy Spirit to give wisdom to you so that you don’t hammer and crush people who are already convicted of their sins.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (On Justification, parts 36f.):
Lastly, it was very foolish for the adversaries to write that men who are under eternal wrath merit the remission of sins by an act of love, which springs from their mind since it is impossible to love God, unless the remission of sins be apprehended first by faith. For the heart, truly feeling that God is angry, cannot love God, unless He be shown to have been reconciled. As long as He terrifies us, and seems to cast us into eternal death, human nature is not able to take courage, so as to love 37] a wrathful, judging, and punishing God [poor, weak nature must lose heart and courage, and must tremble before such great wrath, which so fearfully terrifies and punishes, and can never feel a spark of love before God Himself comforts].
C.F.W. Walther, the “founding father” of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, quotes Luther to this effect in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel:
“The doctrine of the Law, then, was given for this purpose, that a person be given a sweat-bath of anguish and sorrow under the teaching of the Law. Otherwise men become sated and surfeited and lose all relish of the Gospel. If you meet with such people, pass them by; we are not preaching to them. This preaching is for the thirsty; to them the message is brought: ‘Let them come to Me; I will give them to drink and refresh them.’ ”
…“The Law cannot restore the soul, for it is a word that makes demands upon us and commands us to love God with our whole heart, etc., and our neighbor as ourselves. The Law condemns every person who fails to do this and pronounces this sentence upon him: Cursed is every one that doeth not all that is written in the book of the Law. Now, it is certain that no man on earth is doing this. Therefore, in due time the Law approaches the sinner, filling his soul with sadness and fear. If no respite is provided from its smiting, it continues its onslaught forcing the sinner into despair and eternal damnation. Therefore St. Paul says: By the law is only the knowledge of sin. Again: ‘The Law worketh nothing but wrath.’ The Gospel, however, is a blessed word; it makes no demands upon us, but only proclaims good tidings to us, namely, that God has given His only Son for us poor sinners to be our Shepherd, to seek us famished and scattered sheep, to give His life for our redemption from sin, everlasting death, and the power of the devil.”
After almost becoming a garbage-eater and swallowing the Holy Ghost, feathers and all, together with food out of a dumpster, I read Walther’s book, and that was what made sense of things for me and brought me back to the Lutheran Church. You can imagine my surprise and dismay upon going to seminary and hearing Walther ridiculed on a regular basis. But that’s another story.
No one is able to learn theology without experience, i.e. suffering. So it’s no surprise if aspiring theologians at seminary, having not been through enough of a sweat-bath yet, do not appreciate the importance of the distinction between law and gospel. That’s why I’ve managed to portray Jesus as a terror to already repentant sinners—even after having experienced the misery of seeing Christ as a “new Moses.”
Anyway, back to the garbage eaters.
Suffice it to say that during this period I was far from God and entangled in a lot of delusions and lies. And I was suffering. Towards the end of this I started to think that I was going to lose my mind permanently.
Somewhere in this time period—it would have been in the spring—March, April, early May, 1998, I was walking down Broadway in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. This is where I was attending Seattle Central Community College. I went there for a year so that I could get residency in Washington state and begin the following year at the University of Washington without having to pay out of state tuition.
That’s when I ran into this really nice guy who had a long beard and a bicycle. He started talking to me about God or Jesus. Now I was not particularly interested in talking about God or Jesus, and I let him know.
In fact, I was pretty annoyed that everywhere I went, it seemed like people always started talking to me about God or Jesus. Or they would act like I was a Christian. I remember I was in some class where we had to write a paper describing some painting of our choice in the Seattle Art Museum. For some reason, I decided to do mine on a painting of the flagellation of Christ. I was talking about it with some girl from the class, and she said something like, “You’re kind of obsessed with Jesus. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, that’s just you.”
That really bugged me.
I didn’t want to talk about Jesus or God because, very simply, Jesus got in the way of me doing and being what I wanted. It wouldn’t have bothered me if Jesus had been just one god among many, or offered one more cool form of spirituality as an option among the many that were on sale in Seattle.
Seattle was not an atheist, secularist place. Hippies and dreadlocked rastafarians were everywhere. They were all “spiritual.” Neo-paganism and Wicca and shamanism were everywhere. Hare Krishnas were regularly on the sidewalk handing out literature. Scientologists stood and offered to give free personality tests. (I took one. They said I was too screwed up to be a scientologist.) Buddhist temples were not hard to find in Seattle (although the real Buddhists didn’t advertise as much.)
Then you had nearly every church on every corner with a rainbow flag out in front and a sign that said “Open and Affirming,” letting you know that the Christian churches by and large were just presenting themselves as one more option in the religious smorgasbord. They were cool with alternative sexualities and didn’t want to be associated with the patriarchal, exclusivist Christianity of the past.
Even Muslims had their niche. At the one place I went to get gyros all the time, they always had signs up decrying the abuse of the Palestinian people by the Israelis and advertising invitation to Islam classes. And even though Islam really is exclusive, it too was acceptable in Seattle, because it had the cache of being foreign. Or not being Christian.
But Jesus was not acceptable in Seattle, unless He was an icon or an image associated with another time and place.
If He was proclaimed as He is, someone who speaks to us today and makes claims upon us, He was laughed at at best. If you gave away that you actually believed in Him, you became a strange creature. Lots of people would hate you. Others would look at you with pity or disdain or strange fascination. This was in about 1997, 1998. At least among the people with whom I hung out.
But Seattle’s issues with Jesus were one thing. The issue was—I was hostile to Him. I wanted to be left alone. Jesus made claims on me. That was the real issue. I knew Jesus would not permit me to act as if He was one God among many. He could not be a deep religious thinker whom I, as an intellectual and a poet, chose to follow as someone whose teaching suited my taste.
It wasn’t just moral restrictions that were the issue. Primarily it was that Jesus claimed exclusive access to God. Salvation came only through Him. And that meant it wasn’t that I just wouldn’t be able to do this or do that if I was a Christian. If I was a Christian, everything would belong to Jesus. I would depend on Him completely and belong to Him; I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t believe in Him when He would have been an embarassment. If people hated Him, I would have to be hated. And that was most of the people I hung around with.
If people I didn’t like were Christians, I would have to love them and be associated with them. (And there were hardly any Christians I liked.)
It wasn’t any one particular thing that I didn’t want to give up. It was that I would have to give up everything; whatever Jesus wanted me to keep I would keep, whatever He wanted me to lose I would lose.
I didn’t want this and couldn’t tolerate it, and yet it still bothered my conscience somewhere that Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
So, as I was saying, this hippie-looking guy with a long beard and a bike, wearing what appeared to be an apron, was talking to me about Jesus. Somehow I gathered that he had left all of his possessions behind with a group of other people in order to follow Christ.
Now this, I thought, was cool and worthy of respect. At least if the guy was going to be a Christian, he wasn’t going to be a bourgeois, fat, materialistic, Republican “Christian.”
I told him something to the effect of, “Well, when I was a kid I was raised to believe in Jesus. But I don’t want to follow Christ. “ Maybe I said something like, “Maybe one day I’ll want to.” And then the man, who, I emphasize at this time seemed extremely genial and kind, said something like, “Well, there’s a lot of heartache found in pursuing the world.”
That stuck with me. I was living that. Consciously, it seemed like nothing was more unlikely than that I would ever be a Christian. .
Fast forward to the summer.
During the summer quarter I started taking classes at the University of Washington. During this same period I had undergone a radical change in direction that might be described as a “conversion experience.” [Not that a “conversion experience” is necessarily the same as actual conversion to Christ.] What this amounted to for me was that I quickly and drastically changed direction. I started reading the bible and praying zealously. I quit hanging around with my old friends, started going to church, and trying to engage with what I was studying and writing as a Christian.
It was a period of high anxiety. I was by no means stable and I had doubts about how this was going to turn out.
Key to all of this was the conviction that the reason I had been so depressed, so close to nervous collapse, and had such difficulty functioning, because I had been running my own life instead of doing God’s will.
How did I come to that conclusion? Because I was desperate.
I figured that the reason Christianity had not “worked” before was because I had not been fully committed. Now I tried on a daily basis to have a will completely committed and surrendered to Christ.
I still remembered—and believed—the doctrine I was taught as a kid—at least that part that we are justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.
However, I reasoned that if I had wandered from Christ so far as to deny Him, that proved that the faith in Him that I thought I had as a child was not saving faith at all. Works don’t save, but they prove that faith is living. I also remembered and believed that from my childhood religious training.
Because I had experienced and lived the outright hostility toward Christians that was common among people I hung around, I thought about martyrdom. I wondered whether I would be able to be faithful to Christ even if I faced death for it. My constant question to myself was, “Am I ready to forsake everything for Christ?” If I could answer “yes,” to the question, then I could be assured that I had true faith in Christ. If there was hesitation, then it was to be feared that my faith was not real, saving faith.
Right around this time I was walking through Red Square on the UW campus. It was a bright sunny day. Suddenly I looked and saw the same bearded guy who had talked to me a few months earlier. Surely that was providential! I went over to him and said, “Hey, do you remember me? I became a Christian since we talked last.”
Then he stared at me and said with a completely different demeanor than he seemed to have had the first time we met: “Have you gotten involved with the worldly church?”
Just as Luther describes in the quote up at the top—those words cut me “like a razor.” I felt cold fear, like he had just uncovered the truth about me.