Give me 10 minutes to share about Jesus converting me, please.
My conversion: (Though it’s long) If you read nothing else from me this year, please choose this.
I have not arrived. But I have something to praise my God for!
Three years ago I began to articulate to Emily how little joy I had. There were a lot of tough things going on at that time with extended family and ministry. But I had a small sense my joylessness was not because of my circumstances. I’ve known for a long time that joy is something we can have regardless of our situations in life because of Christ. But my head and my heart were not aligned. I had an amazing wife, incredible kids, my salvation, and many other blessings. But none of that seemed to matter to my heart.
Getting out of bed became a difficult task, and I would find myself weeping from a sadness I couldn’t explain. These became known as “hard days”. I would greet Emily in the mornings with a discouraged smirk. She would wrap her arms around me, sometimes pray silently, and always contend in the spirit for me all that day. Though nothing seemed to change. It only got worse. What was happening to me?! I had never wrestled with depression before. In fact, I was probably guilty of rolling my eyes at people who had. Why was God letting me slip away? Wasn’t He good?
We had landed in a church that preached joy in Jesus every week. This continued to illuminate the gap between my heart and head. A new season of ministry confusion began at that time as well. Maybe that was the problem? I thought, “if I could only land in the right ministry role, everything would be better. Maybe then I’d have more joy.” I spun and spun, trying to discern what my best ministry role would look like. The exhaustion of spinning only resulted in more discouragement and confusion.
However, not uncommon to me, I found myself with a whiteboard marker one evening frantically scribbling a diagram on my bedroom closet door. It was as though God was giving me a direct download again. He was giving me a grid for ministry that I could use to help others know and serve Him! Finally! A breakthrough! This new awareness felt joyful in the moment, but the following days were as hard as ever. My inner thoughts were darker than they had ever been. I began to feel like I didn’t care about anyone. And that was scary. Who is Nick if not one who loves well? Don’t I preach day and night, love your neighbor to Jesus!? Make new disciples! Reach the lost!
The diagram/grid was simple. In our human pursuit of happiness (or joy), only the Gospel truly satisfies. And only from a deep encounter with the Gospel of Jesus do we ever truly realize how much he loves us, and therefore love him and desire to be with him. And it’s only out of that place that we begin to have true genuine love for others that looks like Jesus. He gives us his heart for people. And only when we love others like Jesus does do we love them fully by showing AND telling them the greatest news of love there ever was. And from that, new disciples of Jesus are made and God is glorified. A simple cause and effect (slash) motivation paradigm.
As I sat with this new lens, it was convicting. It caused me to ask, am I actually making new disciples? Do I actually desire to? Or do I just like telling others to do it? Uh oh…
Around this time, I woke up one morning early in a full-on panic attack, breaking out in hives. I had never had hives. I thought I was having an allergic reaction to something, so I ran to the ER. One thousand dollars later I was home and fine and frustrated. I remembered an instance a few years prior when I had ended up in the ER as a pastor with a panic attack. The conclusion from that experience was that “I loved people too much.” And the learning was, it’s the Spirit’s job to bring people to Jesus. So Nick, relax. This time, a small voice was again whispering to me, “you are working too hard to love people.” Ok, I get it! So why was I still doing this? Knowing that at the root of our behaviors are core beliefs, God began to reveal that I often work hard to love people so that they see me as one that loves. And if I love them well, they will begin to love Jesus. What I thought was a pure motive was really rooted in my desire to be known as “one that loves.”
Realizing that my ministry and prioritization on evangelism was largely rooted in the idol of me made my whole life feel like a lie. I had been found out. My scheme had been revealed. As I journaled through this season of new awareness, many of my entries contained new sin-filled honesty about how I felt about people, honesty like never before. The masquerade was over. Jesus had figured out that I “love” people for my own gain, and also the degree to which I actually lacked genuine love for people. My identity as “one who loves” was stripped away and I was left naked and freezing. This was crisis mode.
Emily listened and loved me so well through this crisis. I began to articulate to her that it felt as though I was at a fork in the road. Either I was going to crash and burn because nothing mattered anymore, or I was in the midst of a conversion I had never had. She continued to pray, text me Bible verses to cling to, encourage me in God’s preservation of me, and give me space and time to emote or just be alone.
Based on my simple grid, if I didn’t love people, did I truly love God? Actually the real question was revealed, does God truly love me? How do I know? Friends said so. The Bible said so. But so what. I was wanting to feel it. I was wanting to be overcome by the “grace” I had preached about and encouraged others towards. I was wanting to experience it. I was not wrecked by the Gospel of grace. I didn’t know what grace was, and I certainly didn’t know how to identify it for myself in the midst of all my confusion and pain.
So I just believed it. And He left me there, clinging to a truth that I wasn’t knowing how to experience, waiting on Him…
And then God whispered again. He said the opposite of freely-offered salvation grace is self-righteousness.
Most of my faith journey has been about earning God’s favor or approval…being seen as one worthy of responsibility. I’m obedient, a hard worker for the King and Kingdom. But grace doesn’t care. Grace says, regardless of what you do (for me), you are mine and I love you. Come here, closer. Be with me. Let me tell you how I truly see you and who you are to me.
The revelation of the cause to my depression and suffering was rooted in my own sin/mis-alignment, and my need for a grace-filled Gospel. And God delivered this to me with the most incredible gentleness possible. As I had wondered why He had left me in the longest darkest season of my life, He was beginning to reveal to me that He had actually been leading me carefully, at the pace He knew I actually needed, with an incredible preserving gentleness, bringing me closer to Himself.
I don’t realize the depth of my self-righteousness. I’m sure it’s connected to my fundamentalist upbringing and various ways over the years in which I’ve learned to be pharisaical. But none of that matters now. I am experiencing His grace through a new recognition of my need for a Savior who’s blood covers my self-righteousness. I am beginning to repent and ask Him to make me new in this deep corner of my heart. He is giving me a conversion story I never had because I had been too committed to being self-righteous for Him. But He wanted something else…
He wants to use me to make new disciples of Jesus. But He wants me to be one first. He wanted me to be affectionately wrecked by the Good News of His grace so that I might live loved by Him. And from that place, genuinely love others as He does…inviting them to know Him too. Our lack of joy is always rooted in a misalignment with the Lord, not something else. And He’ll use our struggles to invite us closer to Him, which is where our ultimate joy is found. Theologians like John Piper, Jonathan Edwards and countless others have rightfully said that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. So He’ll do everything He can to help us know Him deeply. His desire to be glorified is the very thing that provides us with the opportunity to have the most joy.
This journey has certainly been full of work, receiving and believing the truth of scripture, inner-healing prayer times, and clinging to Him in the middle of the fog. I listened to countless sermons, had certain worship songs on repeat every morning wanting to believe what they sang about was true, and relied on the help of perpetual prayers of closet warriors, good friends and teammates. BUT GOD did the saving.
As I’ve shared this grid with others I’ve coached this year, their lives are changing too! But it’s not about the grid. It’s about the Gospel it points us to. If you lack joy or maybe realize your desire to be with the Lord and build His Kingdom is minimal, dive in with Him and let Him lead you back to His Gospel. Maybe you are like me and you have a nagging sense that your Kingdom activity is driven by something poorly motivated or misaligned. Ask Him about that. Let Him speak to you. He will. And when He is quiet, He is still moving. Cling to His truth in scripture when you can’t feel Him. He is there, gently leading you because He loves you so so much and has incredible plans for you!
I have not arrived, but this year I am especially thankful for my Savior!