Lost in Church
At this moment, I was directed to Jesus, as an all-sufficient Saviour. Then my heart acquiesced in his atonement, and in his dealings with such a vile sinner, as I saw myself to be; and my soul reposed itself on the arm of everlasting love. I felt the chain break; O it was the bondage of sin! I opened the Bible, and read these words, ‘For this cause, I bow my knees to the God, and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ It will never be in my power to give an adequate description of my feelings in view of this passage. There was a beauty, majesty, and sweetness in it, which are indescribable. I dwelt upon it until my heart was a flame of love. Jesus revealed himself in his glory.
— Levi Parsons (1792-1822)
Parsons, at age 19, became a Christian despite having grown up in the church. “This moment” was no run-of-the-mill spiritual high; it was a conversion, a great awakening, the first explosion of a true Love. But how could that happen? Isn’t there a kind of person who was raised the right way and went to a good Church and doesn’t need converting?
Levi Parsons and I are two of a kind. We are the kind that grew up at Village Baptist Church in Beaverton, Oregon, and that, at four years old — much to the satisfaction of our parents — got down on our knees and closed our eyes tight to recite, “Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I accept you into my heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Then came the typical Christian life. Service trips, mission trips, summer camps, Bible studies. Periodical renewal in each of these, or so we would expect every time.
Cain was the first of us, the born-and-raised believers in God. He made the first sacrifice, and the younger brother (the convert who copied him), stole his place in the Divine limelight. We, who lived piously from day one, wondered why we couldn’t have the sort of emotion we heard in impassioned testimonies in church. We took it as a fact of life that converts always have the better stories. When asked, though, we would tell a nice testimony — albeit one that replaced the indubitably emotional, (ostensibly) powerful, ‘transformative’ moment of conversion that others had. Instead, we told of a vague movement towards “making my faith my own,” always as the result of some recent difficulty, knowing that, no matter what truth lay elsewhere, we could not be seen to be merely following along with the beliefs of our parents.
Our type worked the fields, as God had commanded (read: condemned) 1 us to do. We heard of the feast for the prodigal brother, but where was our invitation? Where was our feast? Where was our embrace? 2 What are the ninety-nine sheep 3 supposed to think when the shepherd leaves them for one? To leave would incur holy wrath, to stay incurred indifference. We were being ignored. 4 We were being mocked. We were God’s hostages.
Our kind’s prayer life sort of existed. When we offered more than the obligatory throwaway prayer that we prayed at the end of our quiet time, we made demands. Taken far enough, we got mad, because we only ever demanded the right thing! We demanded emotion. Make me feel! We demanded interaction. Give me an answer! God did not comply. No answers. So we were angry until we were not, because we had no answer and no choice. But somehow, we could manage to end up where we started, back to status quo, static faith. Just one more up-and-down on the Spiritual roller coaster. It happens.
But something was not quite right – not quite right with us. We only ever noticed this in trauma or exhaustion, at our breaking points, beyond our defenses, when someone from outside, who escaped (somehow?) from this life of just-not-feeling-it, surprised us with: yes, the gate is narrow (Matthew 7:14), and maybe we never really passed through it.
When we knew we were not where we wanted to be, and when we felt like God’s hostages, we became angry or we despaired. Matthew tells us we can only ever love or hate 5 God, and if we were being honest, we did not love. This honesty forced us to ask: if not love, what were we doing this all for? What had we actually been worshipping, working for, and sacrificing to all this time? If all of it was not for the One we hated … it must have been for us. We were a god; we were our god. We were a demanding god, working the Father’s field to oblige provision of comfortable outcomes. We were an envious god, suspicious of the emotional investment of others, but always wanting their experience for our own. We were a cruel god, destructive to all, and holding ourselves above all. We did it all for our own exaltation, and we knew that was repulsive, and we knew we were repulsive.
And we had caused the Almighty to send His Son into death. What could be worse than that? What could be worse than us? Was there any part of us that could be salvaged?
At age 19, Levi Parsons “was directed to Jesus,” and at age 19, I was lost. After confronting my own repulsiveness and with nowhere else to look, I opened the Bible, and read these words, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him … we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace … like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” 6
These words say that Jesus bore it all. Quietly. Voluntarily. He bore it for me.
Jesus bore it all. Our whole lives, we had heard of who He is, but we had not wanted Him. Our whole lives, He had known exactly who we were, but He wanted us anyway. He knew we caused ourselves pain, and earned ourselves even more. And He chose to take it all anyway.
Quietly. We deserve our pain yet we accuse. He deserved none yet He opened not His mouth.
Voluntarily. I would never choose to suffer as I have suffered, much less to suffer as I deserve, but He did. Why?
He bore it out of Love for me.
This was a unilateral mercy that interrupted my self-worship and my frustrations. This was undeserved relief from the swiftly-becoming-unbearable burden of living my brief life and dying my endless death. I had never not needed Him, but by growing up in church, I could hide that Truth from myself. He took pity on me in my need, and offers me a different life: His own singularly worthy life.
“At this moment, I was directed to Jesus, as an all-sufficient Saviour.” I realized that He did give an answer; He is the answer, He gave Himself. This answer, this everlasting Love, steps in and changes everything. Like Parsons, “I dwelt upon it until my heart was a flame of love” — love that I had never felt before.