“You’ve ruined my life.” I was having lunch with a friend of mine and about choked on my food when he shared this with me. “Ruined your life?” I asked. “How so?” “Ever since you and I prayed together and I accepted Christ, my life has not been the same. The things I enjoyed before are no longer any fun. The parties. The drinking. The sex. I had no problem with it before but now I feel guilty. I hate who I am and what I’ve done. I feel ashamed. And it feels like life has only gotten worse since I became a Christian.” Does that resonate at all? Every felt that way? I know I did when I first became a Christian. The things I did before that seemed to satisfy now just made me feel more empty inside. Nothing from my former life could satiate the spiritual hunger that was growing inside me. That’s when a mentor of mine first introduced me to repentance.
Repentance. The word in the Greek literally carries the sense of making a turn. 180 degrees. A U turn as it were and heading in the opposite direction. Once the spiritually hungry find their satisfaction in Christ, something truly awesome takes place. The Holy Spirit – the 3rd Person of the Trinity – literally takes up residence in your heart. And He’s not there just to hang out. He gives you a new heart. He gives you new desires. He is there to direct your hunger to the only place where it can be filled. In Christ. So we start to feel this gap in our lives between the people we once were and the new person we are becoming. And as much as we try to hold onto what once was even as we lay hold of what’s to be, the gap only grows wider. Making our hold more and more tenuous. The Holy Spirit forcing us to let go of one or the other. They cannot co-exist because they pull us in opposite directions.
That’s what my friend was experiencing the day we had lunch. And as we spent time unpacking what this all meant it began to hit him that he could never go back. He had received Christ and the Holy Spirit was now pushing him to make a U turn in his life. To give up his old ways and take on the new. To stop trying to put this new life he had in Christ into his old worn out life. It simply could not hold Him without bursting. It wasn’t built for it. That’s why he felt such a disconnect. That’s why he felt so miserable. His head and heart and body were all out of alignment with his regenerate soul.
“So where can I learn all this new stuff?” He asked. “There’s really only one place and that’s in a local church.” I replied. (I have to admit it was so refreshing to talk to someone who was so raw and so new to Christianity. Literally, this guy was a blank canvas with no background or knowledge to go on.) I encouraged him to find a local body of believers where he could go and learn and build relationships and be mentored and led into this new life in Christ. I warned him how dangerous and difficult it would be to try and go it alone. How he would be at Satan’s mercy if he tried to follow Christ by himself.
I’ve often wondered what happened to that young man. Though he and I remained friends while I lived in town, once I moved, we lost touch. Did he take my advice? Did he find a church family? Last I heard, he was still looking…and still struggling. Over the years, I’ve had many similar conversations with people. People who feel the gap between the man or woman they are and the man or woman they know they should be in Christ. They are hungry for more of Christ and they have tasted His goodness and faithfulness but they haven’t taken the next step to begin to intentionally make the U turn following Christ requires. As a result, their spiritual life suffers. Their hearts grow cold and hard towards Christ and His people. They drift in life from community to community, never quite settling down. Never letting anyone in. And this leads them to serious doubts about their faith. Is God really faithful? Then where is He? Why doesn’t He show up? Why doesn’t He answer my prayers? Why doesn’t He meet my needs? All the while, God is patiently and gently pointing and nudging and pushing them back towards the church.
The local church is the primary place where we learn to follow Jesus. It’s the laboratory where we experiment and discover how to make the U turn God is calling us to make in our lives. We watch as other believers make this turn. We learn from those who are further into the turn than we are and have discovered some things along the way. We help those who are behind us and just getting started. Turning from sin is not something we do easily or naturally or without a fight. We need brothers and sisters in our lives who will point out our blind spots. Who are willing to have the courageous conversations necessary to confront and challenge us in our sin. We need to confess our sins to one another and bear each others burdens and recognize that none of us make this turn smoothly so we restore each other gently and with great tenderness. It is in the local church where we learn what self-denial looks like because we are challenged to put it into daily practice as we relate to those who are different than us. It’s in the local church where we learn how to lay down our lives for each other and serve one another and give generously to provide for each other. It’s in the local church where we experience God’s grace and practice forgiveness as we make mistakes and hurt each others feelings and disappoint one another along the way. And, finally, it’s in the local church where we see the greatest victories won as people’s lives are transformed over a lifetime of learning to follow Jesus.