The Difference Between Reciting History and an Unplanned Pregnancy
I grew up in a very conservative, “bible-based” church. So naturally, I memorized insane amounts of Bible verses as a kid. Most of them were about the “love” or “salvation” or “grace” of God. To be honest, I had no experience of the love or salvation of God. I was more scared of him than anything. But I learned the verses all the same.
There was this test at the end of the school year with a handwritten and verbal component, testing how well we’d memorized the verses word-for-word. And if you got a good enough grade on the test, you got a free ride scholarship to summer camp.
To my recollection, I passed every year. Free trips to summer camp. I did the book work to appease the powers-that-be, pass the test, and make my parents proud. And in exchange I got to escape with my buddies for a week or two, stay up late playing pranks with shaving cream, and exploding flashlight batteries in a bonfire. Win win.
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My wife and I had our first son Lincoln before we were married. If you grew up in a conservative bible-based church you can imagine the shame that comes along with that. Not just the shame, but we were young and relatively stupid and got ourselves way deep into a relationship without doing our homework first. It was brutal. Those eight or nine months in between hearing the gut-wrenching words “I’m pregnant” to the time our beautiful baby boy was born were the closest thing I’ve ever known to hell on earth. We were young, poor, part-time employed, and caught up in a very intense relationship that neither of us was sure we wanted.
My dad quoted a famous preacher, “Before God can use a man greatly, he must cut him deeply.” Great, I thought, because it feels like I’m getting my neck snapped.
My prayer in those days were like R-rated psalms. I cursed at God. I even screamed at him a few times. I questioned why my situation seemed so severe. I knew I’d screwed up. But many of the consequences I faced went way beyond the average Teen Mom episode. I told my best friend that it felt like I was falling into the mouth of a dragon while a set of big, ominous Eyes watched the descent.
Throughout the experience, we received more kindness and love and salvation than we deserved. Melissa moved in with an amazing family who helped mentor us through the situation and without whom we would not have survived. Our parents loved and supported us. People threw us baby showers. We went and saw counselors. A generous family let me house-sit in their lakeside home for a year. And our friends, young as we were, embraced us and sat with us through that long and tragic year.
Six years later, Melissa and I are joyfully married with three beautiful children. We own a home in a heavily wooded neighborhood and we get to share it with our friends and family every day. We make enough income to support our family, help others, and pursue our passions. Together we’ve lived through many undeniable, vivid experiences with God.
Oh, and I’m a pastor now. People who have kids before they’re married aren’t supposed to become pastors. And if Sixteen & Pregnant is any indication, guys who have kids before they’re married don’t usually go on to get degrees and land a job full of fulfillment and meaning. Somehow we’ve been gifted a life that, if we’re honest, we don’t really deserve.
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The kindness of God is immense. The year long descent into hell was painful. But somehow through that, I experienced the love and grace and kindness and salvation of God in ways I never understood as a kid with a head full of Bible knowledge. I’m not upset that I had to learn loads of Scripture as a kid. I’m actually pretty thankful for it. It’s just that memorizing Bible verses about the love and salvation of God pales in comparison to actually experiencing it.
“There are more ways of learning things than studying them in books. Book learning, in fact, is often a poor substitute for firsthand experience if you really want to get inside a subject or have it inside you.”
I once heard a pastor call this the difference between “information” and “revelation.” We can know a lot about Jesus without ever having met him. Throughout the course of my pastoral schooling I had to read a lot about theology, biblical studies, and all that. I had to write papers debating the finer points of theology. Eventually I came to the point where I realized that the very best theology comes from our experiences with Jesus. Theology is the knowledge and study of God. But if our knowledge of God stays on the page, and never gets down into our here-and-now experience, it doesn’t do us any good.
If we are filled with knowledge but never having real-time experiences with Jesus, we’re just reciting history.
You can be a great, well-respected, faithful Christian person in our culture, going to church and serving all the time and having loads of Bible knowledge…and never experience Jesus. I’m not saying those are bad things. Those disciplines help to sustain our relationship with God. They’re important. Discipline and consistency is vital. But they are the means, not the ends. The “ends” is an experiential relationship with the living God in Jesus.
That may seem like a subtle nuance, but it makes all the difference in the world. One is reciting history. The other is an encounter with the God of the Universe himself. In this case, mistaking the means for the ends can be the difference between dead religion and the fullness of life.
(This is an excerpt from my recent sermon at Common Ground West based on John 9. To listen to the sermon, click here.)