My friend recently admitted to me that after decades of faith in Christ (and almost as long touring the country to inspire others) he isn't sure if he can go on. He isn't sure if he wants to live. He isn't convinced of anything.
He told me that there are secrets in him that haunt him every night. Things that he has done in his past that literally, after nearly thirty years, still have him in a state of subtle expectation that the police will soon be coming to collect him. He shared a couple of these stories from his past with me, watching my face for disgust and my body for unnerved tension. But I didn't flinch. I'd heard worse.
He then went on to say that, after all these years of teaching others of the grace of God (the hardly believable reality where nothing we can do or destroy disqualifies us from divine love, and that no one's sin is stronger than God's forgiveness), that he fully anticipates hearing on Judgment Day,
"Nope. Not you. You're too bad."
I tried to help him understand the inadvertent arrogance in that. I also tried to help him understand the toxicity in believing in a loving God that holds grudges more tightly than he holds grace. He agreed. Cognitively he agreed. But he still looked like a man only intellectually aware that he was eating his favorite meal because the greater concern was that it was his last before being executed.
After our meeting, I texted him Paul's words in Romans 8:38-39. It reads "I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Paul, the man who before becoming a follower of Christ, stood by and held the coats of those that killed Stephen with rocks for saying words he wasn't allowed to say. Paul, the man who had made children orphans if he found out their mothers and fathers were followers of Jesus the blasphemer. Paul, a first century religious terrorist by many definitions. This Paul was now ready to confidently assert that neither death or life, or presumably those that cause those things, or spiritual forces or their seemingly powerful effects, nor anything going on now or that will be later, or anything else in creation (which pretty much covers every thing) can detach us from the unfathomable love of God revealed in Christ.
But there's a glaring oversight in this text.
Why doesn't Paul mention the past? Angels, demons, life, death, today, tomorrow- But what about our yesterdays?
There's a couple reasons I can think of. One might be that Paul didn't consider including something that no longer exists. The past is gone. It therefore has no more power. It wasn't worth bringing up, because something that is nothing certainly wouldn't have any power of our relationship with a God that is currently, presently, with us.
But this only works philosophically. My tired friend, aware of all the texts about grace and forgiveness and can quote them as well as anyone, still feels his past and all those he hurt in a very real way. It still feels like something that costs him divine affection. Like an amputated arm that still feels ghost pain. It's the arm that's not there. But the pain, even in the absence of the limb, is still a very real experience. It's not accurate to say that what was no longer has any affect on now.
How many people sit and stare, incapacitated by shame, for things that happened a lifetime ago? How many of us have missed out on today, because yesterday's demands for rehashing overtook us yet again?
The past, for a thing that no longer is, has an enormous amount of power and influence in our life. Good or bad. If not, there's no reason to pretend to benefit from reading Romans 8 or any other scripture. It was written millennia ago.
There's another reason I can think of that Paul didn't write, "I am convinced that neither the present nor the future nor the past ... will be able to separate us..." It may have everything to do with Paul saying "I am convinced". The Greek could be translated "I am persuaded." Perhaps Paul couldn't write about the past not having separative power with any integrity because he wasn't yet persuaded that it was true.
He could speak of the power of demons being thwarted. He could talk about power systems that everyone assumed had the last word on everything, being made finally impotent. He could talk about even death itself getting mocked by resurrection. But at night, in his bed, perhaps those became mere ideas compared to the harsh reality of what he'd done. At night in bed he replayed his past, still hearing little boys and girls crying and begging him not to take their daddy away. He could still smell blood in the air as the rocks thudded into Stephen's skull. He could still feel the shame of giving enthusiastic agreement to the complete destruction of so many beautiful lives- and doing so on authority of God. Sure he'd repented of all that and had done a lot of good since. But it's far easier to bury a martyr than the shame that comes with making one.
If Paul was as human as my friend, and as you and I, then it was probably a long time before he was "convinced" that grace was stronger than regret. The other stuff is easy to write. But the past is often the last frontier within us that love and grace are allowed real, final access to. It's such a counterintuitive thought that we could be loved and embraced, despite our pasts, that many of us are unconsciously insulted by the idea. Nothing good could be applied to such bad! So we keep them apart. And we go on agreeing that grace and forgiveness and love are beautiful things, but only for sermons and for inspiring send-this-to-seven-others-emails and for anyone other than ourselves. We're just not persuaded. And so we're condemned.
I wonder if Paul, in the absence of the distractions we all use, distracted himself in his restless nights by writing letters to people until he couldn't hold his eyes open. Letters about grace that we would someday call the New Testament. Letters about grace that he mentally ascribed to, while his heart remained for too long, shamefully unpersuaded by. I wonder if the thorn in his flesh was his unrelenting memory.
Below find my version of Romans 8:38-39. You are invited to use these words as a way to more fully entrust yourself to God. A God powerful enough to handle anything we throw at him. Or, like Paul and I and my exhausted friend have done for years, I guess you could dismiss the words and continue believing God just can't handle our pasts. The future, demons, death....sure. Bring 'em on. But our pasts are just too much for him.
I hope, like I'm certain Paul finally was, that you and I can be persuaded by the greater God.
Here's to living in an even greater Love. And here's to the peace that comes from finally accepting it.
"I, Steve, am about 85% convinced that neither the present, nor the future,
nor our pasts...
will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."