“Grace means that all of your mistakes now serve a purpose instead of serving shame.” - Anonymous
“God writes straight on crooked lines.” - Anonymous
I love a good story, especially one where God chooses to use the young and the hopeless.
In the first chapter of the book of Jeremiah, God interrupted Jerry’s young life with a radical challenge. “I’m choosing you to shake up this world. In fact, this is precisely why you were born! I’m going to use your life and words to pull up, tear down, take apart and demolish the old, and then we’ll start over by building and planting what I desire.” In utter shock, Jerry replied, “But God, I don’t know anything. I’m terrified of public speaking! Besides, I’m just a teenager, and no one is going to listen to me.”
Before you judge this kid too harshly, I wonder how many times you’ve said, “But,
God . . .” as you’ve offered up your seemingly reasonable excuses for why something simply cannot be done by you.
But, God, that’s impossible!
But, God, people will think I’m crazy!
But, God, I’m a mess!
But, God, that’s not in my wheelhouse of experience or gifts.
We are quick to point out the apparent absurdity of God’s expectations. Most of us have a finely tuned this-is-ridiculous meter that tends to function quite well when set off by the unexpected.
We don’t have to dig very deeply to find a reason to say no to God. Why? Because we are painfully aware of our past failures, our present weaknesses, and the future likelihood of repeating the same mistakes we’ve always made. We choose to believe that God can’t use us because we’re not strong enough, smart enough, or good enough.
Here’s something I need you to embrace and remember: Our past shapes us, but it doesn’t have to control us. Our history influences our future, but it shouldn’t imprison us. In Christ, we are more than the sum of our past mistakes.
I bet I’ve had a thousand conversations with people who reject the idea of experiencing a hopeful and meaningful life because of their epic failures. They don’t think about what might be possible in their lives because they can’t get past the things they’ve done or get beyond their real or perceived inadequacies.
COACH, I HAD AN ABORTION
I coached track and cross country at the high school level for many years. As a marathoner and avid runner once upon a time, I enjoyed inspiring a younger generation to fall in love with the simplicity and purity of running. If I hadn’t become a pastor, I probably would have become a high school teacher. Working with students was always a great joy.
One miserable spring day in the first hour of track practice, we experienced rain, hail, and high winds. The kids hated days like this, and so did their coaches. When the lightning started up, it was time to send everyone home. It’s one thing to run as fast as lightning, quite another to get hit by it. It’s funny how a javelin works reasonably well as a lightning rod.
One girl, Emily went to the bleachers instead of the locker room. I had noticed that she seemed distracted at practice that day. She sat down in the stands and buried her face in her hands.
As a coach, I had learned early on that young women can be a bit moody at times. They go through all sorts of physical and emotional changes. They fall in love, have their hearts broken, and then fall in love again, so it’s sometimes difficult to keep them focused on their performance at practice. I know, guys can be emotional too, but most are too macho to show it publicly.
I figured Emily was wrestling with something minor in the grand scheme of things, but I thought I’d better check on her just in case. As I approached her, I discovered she was sobbing. In fact, I’ve rarely seen anyone cry so hard. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I should leave her alone or ask if there was anything I could do, but I knew I had to say something.
“Emily, are you okay?” (First stupid question.)
Now she’s rocking and wailing uncontrollably.
“Hey, are you upset? (Second stupid question. Women might be emotional; guys are just dumb.)
I wanted to put my arm around her to comfort her, but as a male coach alone with her in the grandstands, I needed to be wise. So, I just sat down next to her and waited for her to come up for air. After a few minutes, with her face still buried in her trembling hands, she said, “Coach, I don’t know what to do. I’ve had an abortion.” Then she let out a cry so loud anyone within a hundred yards would have heard it.
My heart sank. I’d heard this confession from other women before but never from a fifteen-year-old. For heaven’s sake, one of my daughters was her age. At that point, I was choking back my tears. But what she said next will forever haunt me, “Coach, my life is over. I’ve *&#% things up so bad I know God hates me. Nothing will ever be okay again.”
Being a man, a coach, and a pastor, my natural inclination is to want to fix things. If it’s broken, I can repair it. If an answer is needed, I can find one. If you want some wise counsel, the doctor is in. But what do you say to a young woman who’s suicidal over her decision to have an abortion? Her parents didn’t know. Her friends had no idea. She didn’t have a pastor, just a coach whom she trusted because she knew I cared about her.
I took a deep breath, put my hand on her shoulder and gently whispered, “We’ve all made horrible mistakes in our lives, and things do change, but God never hates us, Emily. He’s not mad at you; He’s weeping with you. When your heart is broken, His heart is broken too.”
We spent the next thirty minutes talking. I listened as Emily poured out her heart. I learned a lot about Emily in that short time. The one thing I know she heard from me was that God can forgive us of anything. I assured her over and over again, “God’s not mad at you; He’s mad about you, and He still has a good plan for your life. Restoration is His specialty.”
Like this young woman, many of us feel we’ve gone too far and failed too miserably to ever get back on track. Even if God once had a great plan for our lives, we believe it’s too late now. But avoiding epic failure is not a prerequisite to experiencing a hope-filled life.
Moses was a murderer. David was an adulterer. Rahab was a prostitute. Peter was a betrayer. Saul (aka Paul) persecuted and imprisoned Christians. Yet each of them lived amazing post-failure lives with God.
We’re all in trouble if the path to hope and purpose in Christ requires perfection. We must learn to get past what we’ve done and get beyond our glaring inadequacies. God is bigger than our foolishness. He can redeem, restore, and renew any life that is fully surrendered to Him.
A BIG PROBLEM
We tend to see God through our shattered perspective, and that’s a big problem. With a severely damaged self-image, we generally have a broken God-image too. In fact, let’s be honest, some of us believe God is great and all-powerful, but we can’t imagine Him doing anything astonishing through our lives. We sing worship songs about His awesomeness, but we believe God is limited in what He can do with screw-ups like us.
A considerable part of the dilemma is that we like to create gods in our image. We make gods out of the rich and famous. We elevate leaders (including politicians and pastors) to god-like status. We put them on a pedestal somewhere prominent in our lives, but in the end, it’s a puny little god we’ve made to worship rather than Almighty God. Sadly, if our God is too tiny or too human (like us), then our faith and confidence in Him will be too small as well.
Deep down we want to believe that God can do anything, but we’re pretty sure He has limits when it comes to us. Time or space might not constrain God, but a craftsman is only as good as the material he has to work with, right?
And we know what we are.
More mud than marble.
More sandstone than diamond.
More broken than whole.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not a big fan of self-confidence. Despite what the positive thinking gurus have to say, I’m not okay (and neither are you). I can sit in a lotus position for hours chanting, “I am good. I am awesome. My life force in the universe matters. I am good. I am awesome. There is nothing I can’t do.” But in my gut, I know I’m not that good. In fact, I know I’m pretty messed up at times.
So, what’s the alternative to emotional self-flogging or self-confident bragging? The substitute for self-confidence is God-confidence. In other words, I must put my confidence and hope in God and His ability to accomplish anything even through a cracked pot like me.
The god I’ve created in my mind has limits. The God of the universe does not.
I am broken. He is not.
Working with people who are demoted to the scratch-and-dent pile of life is His specialty.
I WISH I COULD . . . BUT I'M DIVORCED
A few years ago, I had coffee with a middle-aged man in our church. Tony was gifted and full of potential. However, I noticed that he’d stayed in the shadows and refused to get involved. When I asked him why, he replied, “Oh, I wish I could serve, but I’m divorced.”
I was flabbergasted. “Who told you divorced means disqualified?”
He took the next twenty or so minutes to tell me his story. He and his first wife married young. Neither one of them were Christ-followers during their marriage. They both came from broken and dysfunctional homes deeply bound by sexual sins. Sadly, during their ten-year marriage, both of them had multiple affairs. The fact that their marriage had survived beyond a year or two surprised everybody who knew them. Eventually, they “fell out of love” (I hate that phrase) and went their separate ways.
A few years later, after another failed marriage and two DUIs, Tony hit bottom and ended up in AA. His sponsor was the first person ever to tell Tony about Jesus. Eventually, he became a devout follower of Christ, and within another year or so he married a godly woman who loved Jesus with all her heart.
He was Lutheran when they got married. She was active in the Church of Christ. Neither one of them felt comfortable in the other’s denomination, so they decided to start fresh at a new charismatic church in their neighborhood. After just a few months they were told by the pastor, “You are welcome to attend our church, but you can’t serve here since you are living in sin.”
With tears in his eyes, Tony said to me, “We had no idea that God saw our marriage as a mistake and sinful, but we couldn’t divorce each other. If that means we can’t serve God, so be it.” Then they left that church in humiliation.
As Tony told me his story, I went from being dumbfounded to being mad (I’d say pissed, but that word is offensive to my momma)! How could anyone tell this man he was disqualified because of sin that had happened before he was a Christ-follower? I grabbed my Bible and went pastoral on him. With a passion that surprised him, I assured this brother that he did not need to live as a second-class Christian.
Maybe you’ve read this verse: “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” Or perhaps you’re familiar with Paul’s words to Titus, “God saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.”
I looked Tony in the eye and said, “Buddy, everything that happened BC (before Christ) is gone! New birth and new life mean a new start, and we are never disqualified by what we did before we surrendered our lives to Jesus! In fact, the blood of Jesus covers all our sin, including the ones we committed after becoming a Christian. If we’ve confessed it and repented of it, no sin can rob us of our destiny or disqualify us from service in God’s kingdom!”
It was his turn to be dumbstruck. It was as if the heavens parted and he heard the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved son, and I am well pleased with you.”
Is divorce a sin? Often it is, but it’s not the unpardonable sin.
Why do we so easily doubt the goodness of God?
Why do we listen to the gloomy voices of the self-righteous or the dark voice of the accuser?
Why are we so quick to disqualify ourselves because of past failure?
BETWEEN THE CROSS AND EASTER
If anyone ever felt ineligible for future greatness, it would have been the first disciples of Jesus. Every one of them had abandoned Jesus on the night Judas betrayed Him. In His moment of need, they all ran. Some, like Peter, swore they didn’t even know Him; others hid in the shadows, but they all sinned. I can only imagine the guilt and shame that consumed them.
The Saturday after the crucifixion was a horrible day for these troubled men. We see it as the period between the cross and Easter, but at the time, they didn’t see it that way or understand what we know in hindsight.
The Jewish Sabbath was typically a day of rest, but this Saturday was a time of gut-wrenching heartache. The disciples’ teacher, Rabbi, Lord, and closest friend lay dead in a stone tomb. Their dream of a Messiah-led rebirth of Israel was crushed. All hope of a Jewish revival was now completely shattered.
The disciples feared for their own lives as they cowered in an upper room somewhere in the city of Jerusalem. Overnight they had become religious outcasts among the very people who once had sung the praises of Jesus and His motley crew.
These men and women who loved Jesus experienced a dreadfully dark and demoralizing day. In their minds, He was gone forever, and they were in part to blame.
On the Friday of His crucifixion, they had run, they had denied, they had watched from a distance in horror, and they had wept in agony. On Saturday, they lived in shock, in dread, and in dark corners of deafening silence.
Remember, they didn’t understand the promise of Easter or the hope of the resurrection.
Not on that day.
It was the second worst day of their lives, and from their limited perspective, they would never have a good day again.
I wonder how many of you are in a similar place?
Something inside you has died. You’ve lost a dream, a relationship, a job or a friend, and you’re exhausted. In fact, you’re an emotional and physical wreck. Numbness covers your heart, mind, and soul like a dense winter fog. You can’t even think about the future. The misery of yesterday and the emptiness of today have stolen from you any joy or hope for a better tomorrow.
Perhaps you often drift in your mind to some horrible past sin. Maybe you’re devoured by your failure and overwhelmed by your foolishness. If that’s you, please listen to these words: God knows where you’ve been, where you are, and where He will take you. He understands the crushing anguish of sin that led Jesus to the cross for us, but He also knows (far better than you do), that Sunday is coming, and it will be a brand-new day.
God knows your past, present, and future better than you do, but He sees a sunrise of hope on the horizon. Simply confess your sin and rest in His grace so you can live free and forgiven. Let go of the things you can’t change about your past, and trust God with your present and your future. Stop making excuses, walk in forgiveness, and don’t let your regrets become a reason to opt out of hope or living an epic life in Christ.
God is bigger than your past and greater than your sins. And you can live with no excuses and no regrets when you realize that God never wastes anything or any life that is fully surrendered to Him.
So stay true.
Don’t give up.
Hang on to hope.
Sunday is just around the corner.
 A Bubna paraphrase of the biblical book of Jeremiah, chapter one.
 Not her real name.
 2 Corinthians 5:17, NLT
 Titus 3:5, NLT