From Slum to Shining Sea

Memories of my past often hit at unexpected times. Memories that are ironically vivid when compared to the haze of waking up with a splitting headache and no recollection of the night before. I also remember nodding off at the wheel and careening into an embankment on the way from the night shift of my second or third job, as I desperately tried to make ends meet.

I remember sitting on the hard, cold floor of a local jail cell, and I remember having no clue what to do, and no one to call. I am haunted by memories of missing out on countless birthdays and holidays, and watching my siblings grow up because home came with too many strings attached. And I remember the many times I leaned over a toilet because the meal sitting in my stomach felt like an unbearable rock, and my stomach felt like the only thing in my life I could control.

The Price of Freedom

Growing up in a solid, Christian, God-fearing home, at some indefinable point between child-like faith and adolescent angst, my two-dimensional version of God had become synonymous with rules, broken rules, and never-ending failure. So I left.

I was 17, and while I don’t remember ever questioning the truth I grew up hearing and believing, I was weary of the conflict and the guilt. I sought the pleasures and acceptance that seemed so much easier to attain on the other side. Why keep masochistically trying so hard at something I seemed destined to fail? So I stuck religion in my back pocket to pull out and use at a later date when I could keep all the rules and really knock it out of the park.

And I liked knocking things out of the park. I was a surprisingly ambitious black sheep. I worked hard, got good grades, homecoming court, the college acceptance letters. I longed for control and stability, but lurking in the shadows as I bounced from house to house for the remainder of high school were the bad relationships, eating disorders, deception, arrests, binge-drinking — the collateral damage of “freedom.”

I left for college excited for new beginnings and greater space from the prying eyes that I felt measured my failure as the distance from that child-like faith of old to the Friday-night frivolities of new, while seemingly ignoring my successes. The world’s measuring stick was much kinder to me.

The battle between my flesh and my faith raged on, but thanks to the faithful prayers of a persistent mother (among others), I was never able to get wholly comfortable with my wandering. God was quietly pursuing his black sheep. My successes felt shallower, the valleys felt deeper, and my sins less satisfying. Though as my list of things to fix and stop doing grew, I kept telling God I wasn’t quite ready for him. I had fought too long and too hard for my freedom to give it up without a fight. And I was too weak to fight.

Girl Meets Boy

Then like so many good stories begin, I met a guy — certainly not the guy my dad would have chosen — a partying, loud mouth atheist. By then I was returning home on special occasions, and before long found myself bringing him to meet “my crazy religious family.” Oddly enough, this guy actually liked them. He even dusted off his church pants to prove to his girlfriend’s family he could clean up his language for an hour just as well as the next guy. Fast-forward through some intellectually compelling sermons, a lot of C.S. Lewis, the New Testament Gospels, a few sovereignly placed Christians, and the silent prayer of a still faithful mom that he’d “get saved or get lost.” Before I knew it, he was completely changing before my eyes.

My stereotypes about God and my family were being strategically shattered. Here was a guy who had been doing everything wrong — the kind of guy whose opposition to faith once made a Christian girl in his religious studies class cry. And God took him right where he was.

I had always pictured myself walking parallel to God’s path, and as soon as I was ready, I would jump on board. But I was slowly realizing you’re either walking with him or you’re running away. And after years of running away to fulfill my own desires, I yearned to return to the fold. I was weary of reaping what I was sowing. The allure was gone and I longed for home and rest.

This showed me that God has a sense of humor. My ex-atheist boyfriend helped show me my need for the God I confessed to believe and bring me home to the family I had been running from for so long. So I married him.

Heart Change

It’s beautiful how God draws his chosen to him in such different ways. My husband describes his transformation to Christianity as “post tenebras lux” or “from darkness to light,” and at times I’ve envied his Paul-like conversion. My sanctification road has been a bit more meandering. C.S. Lewis’s words always jumped out at me, when he said,

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

I’d read it many times, always focusing on how thankful I was to be out of the slums and done making mud pies, forgetting about the journey to the beach.

No doubt, I enjoyed the sweet natural blessings of obedience. I was learning and growing and no longer oblivious to the thread of God’s providence being woven in my life. But I remember sitting at home as the dust settled on my new little Christian life of marriage and a baby, and all the trimmings of a subdued and domesticated prodigal daughter, wondering if things were really that different from before. Had my heart changed as much as my actions or did my obedience just boil down to a bunch of circumstances?

  • A marriage certificate, making it okay to have sex
  • A grown-up job coupled with tiny humans to keep alive, making it more difficult to stay out all night and make stupid choices
  • A legitimate driver’s license not printed and laminated by my roommate, making it legal to drink

Had I only quit playing in the mud because I happened to be at the beach with nothing but sand? I was justified once and for all by the blood of Christ, but the gravity of how this gospel I trusted in for my eternity was also meant to intersect my life here and now and every hour was somewhat lost on me.

Somewhere around the time I started suspecting the babies we were making had been woven together in my womb with the hardest and most exhausting parts of each of us, I found myself running short of my standard mothering/parenting how-to books and picked up J.I. Packer’s Knowing God from my husband’s stack of books.

Barely into the first chapter it became painfully evident I had no business claiming to really, honestly know the God I kind of thought I knew everything about. And I was missing out on the utter joy of really experiencing him. Even in my obedience I hadn’t fully shaken those strong chains of self-sufficiency and functional deism — more collateral damage from those idols of freedom and independence I had long worshiped.

Saved for True Pleasure

Then somewhere among the pages of John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, the picture of that God and the story he has written for all his children started becoming clear. God is meant to be not only glorified, but enjoyed. Not doing this is wasting God and wasting our life. “God created me — and you — to live with a single, all-embracing, all-transforming passion — namely, a passion to glorify God by enjoying and displaying his supreme excellence in all the spheres of life.” And that “enjoying and displaying are both crucial.” The legalism I claimed to hate had rooted deeply and left me as the type of person Piper described as having no trouble emphasizing the glory of God in their thinking, but did not seem to enjoy God much in their life. And God “is most glorified is us when we are most satisfied in him.”

We were created for so much more than simply avoiding bad behavior. Did I really think that God desired to pluck me away from the pleasures of this world only to replace them with something less pleasurable or satisfying? If I didn’t believe the God I gave my life to wanted me to have less than what he saved me from, why was I living as if that were so? God created us to run towards pleasure with reckless abandon. Those intricately woven babies of mine made that abundantly clear. No, my problem wasn’t pleasure-seeking (which as C.S. Lewis described, was far too weak). My problem was that what I was seeking as the object of my pleasure or worth could never satisfy my soul.

Grasping this profound reality was like making it past the beach and finally dipping my toes in the sea. And without the sea, the beach can feel a bit like a desert. I came to see that the infinite joys God intended for me did not come simply by moving out from the ghettos of my rebellion but by feeling, and seeing, and tasting, and hearing, and delighting in the ocean, the ocean of Christ’s all-satisfying grace with its vastness and closeness, power and stability, ability to both exhilarate and refresh — the true freedom I had always been searching for.