And Jesus said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
So read the verse from the man’s worn and highlighted Bible, a man who not only agreed to meet with me but had insisted. His goal was to “disciple me” (as he called it) on matters of the Christian faith. Hours before, we had met at a a Christian event held on campus where I was attending college, and I now found myself with him in a common area of the college dormitory, discussing religion.
The man proceeded to tell me what it took to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ: I had to be public about my faith, he said. I had to “share Jesus” wherever I went: With friends, family members, roommates, classmates, even complete strangers. I also had to do everything the Bible told us to do, which included praying for people to be miraculously healed and even “praying in tongues.” And Jesus, he stressed, requires radical obedience — even disowning my closest friends and family: This is what was required to be a true follower of Jesus.
Jesus, the man stressed, requires radical obedience, even disowning my closest friends and family: This is what was required to be a true follower of Jesus.
This was particularly hard for me to hear. The little I knew about this man I did not like, nor the flavor of Christianity he stood for. Not only because of what he was now telling me but also because of the event I had recently attended — which, to be honest, had been the cheesiest form of terrifying I had ever experienced. I had every reason to tell him where he could take his version of Christianity.
But the verse from the Bible he had shared had me a bit shaken. Was it even remotely possible what he was saying to me was true? Was it possible Jesus demanded a life of constant preaching to friends, neighbors, relatives and even complete strangers? Did the true Christian life consist of an endless series of public acts of religious zeal in order to prove to Jesus I was not ashamed of Him? Perhaps the version of Christianity I had been raised in (which, as I thought about it, demanded very little sacrifice) was the real counterfeit, and his was the real thing.
If so, I was in big trouble. For one, I was an introvert by nature, relatively shy and reserved. It also did not help that I had been raised in a home governed by the family ethic, “But what will the neighbors think?” I had inherited this family trait of self-consciousness and was, as a rule, far more concerned about what others thought of me than anything else. The thought of doing anything public as it related to my faith was absolutely petrifying.
I had unfortunately inherited the family trait of self-consciousness and was, as a rule, far more concerned about what others thought of me than anything else. As a result, the thought of doing anything public for Jesus was absolutely petrifying.
But I reasoned I could not afford to be wrong on this issue, so I set out to become what this man said Jesus required: Someone who was not ashamed of Jesus.
And that, my friends, is where the trouble began.
For much to my horror, I discovered that no matter how hard I tried, I simply could not do it: I could not live for Jesus.
On the very morning following my decision, I resolved to tell my dorm roommate about Jesus. I had no idea what I was going to tell him, but I had to tell him nonetheless. But the moment came, and I simply froze: I could not bring myself to do it: My fear of what he would think of me was simply greater than my willingness to live for Jesus.
Not only this, but I found the stakes were much higher than I ever imagined. As I entered the bathroom of the dorm, the thought came to me, “If you were really not ashamed of Jesus, you would tell everyone right now about him.” But I could not bring myself to do that, either.
The same thing occurred as I entered the dorm elevator (full of students) or sat down at lunch in the cafeteria. Or walked the halls of campus, or sat in the lecture halls: At every turn, I was presented with greater and greater opportunities to “lay down my life for Jesus.” And all of them, without exception, ended in epic failure.
At every turn, I was presented with greater and greater opportunities to “lay down my life for Jesus.” All of them, without exception, ended in epic failure.
But it wasn’t exactly failure; it was much worse. Failure is when you cannot do something. It is when you lack the ability. But I had the ability: This was the problem. I had two legs to stand up with in the middle of a crowded auditorium, two arms to gesture with and perhaps carry a Bible, and a mouth to preach with. No, this was not failure: This was an absolute refusal on my part to live for Jesus. I was simply unwilling to look ridiculous or be mocked by my peers. I was unwilling to lay down my reputation, let alone my life, for Him — a fact I was now reminded of every day, from the moment I awoke to the moment I drifted off to sleep.
Any sensible person at this point, I am sure, would have abandoned the whole endeavor and said, “Forget it. This Jesus thing is a big joke.” But I was no sensible person. I was, to tell the truth, driven by a dream.
At the age of sixteen, as I lay on my bed one afternoon reading my Bible, I prayed, “God I only want to live for you.” It wasn’t much of a prayer, but at that moment something happened to me. This tremendous sense of peace and love came over me. I would later have words for what I experienced: I had been filled with the Holy Spirit. But at that time, I had no words for it. All I knew was: Something amazing had come into my life and had changed me forever.
And that Something did not depart. When I would write in my journal (a thing I liked to do at that time of my life, when I was not riding my skateboard on the sidewalks of Southern California), I found this sense of peace and love would increase. Not only this, but thoughts and ideas — for essays and stories and poems — would coming pouring forth. Often, a tangible presence would seem to fill my room, and rest upon me.
In short, I had bumped up against Something (Someone, to be exact) that was worth spending the rest of my life on. And though I was light on Biblical understanding, I knew enough to know: That Someone was Jesus. I knew He was greater than life itself, and that included the present pain I now found myself in. So you see, I was no sensible person: I could not let go.
I knew Jesus was greater than life itself — and that included the present pain I now found myself in. Any sensible person would have given up on Jesus, but I was no sensible person: I could not let go.
And I did not. And this is why, driven by my inability to become what I felt I must, I ran from everything I knew. My efforts took me halfway across the globe to Ireland, the birthplace of my ancestors. But looking back, the one thing I was unable to leave is the very thing I wished to distance myself from: Myself. I had come to despise what I was. And this why, in a small church building in the city of the Cork, I found myself weeping bitterly.
On that particular night, the pastor of the church led me to a small room off the main sanctuary to talk with me privately. As he did, I said to him, “I am going to do it this time.” He must have thought I was a complete lunatic. But if he did, he never let on. Instead, he opened his worn and highlighted Bible and turned to a much different verse, which read: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” These were the words of the apostle Paul, who described himself as the worst of sinners.
And that is where the trouble that had begun several years before finally came to an end.
At least, it was the beginning of the end. Over the coming months and years, I would come know quite a different Jesus — and quite a different version of Christianity. I would come to understand that Christianity is not about Jesus placing upon us burdens we could not possibly bear, but rather taking upon Himself the greatest burden He alone could bear — our own sin.
Over the coming months and years, I would come to know quite a different Jesus. I would come to understand Christianity is not about Jesus placing upon us burdens would could not possibly bear, but rather taking upon Himself the greatest burden He alone could bear: Our own sin.
I would come to understand Christianity is not about us having to prove ourselves worthy before an exacting God but rather discovering we have been proven worthy already by a merciful God: That through the sacrificial death of Jesus for my sin, I had become nothing short of blameless.
Such love was big enough to fill the room of a young teenager who had done literally nothing to deserve it, and much too big to demand the humiliation of a college student in order for him to receive it.
But I was right about one thing: I was too concerned about what others thought of me. In fact, given the right circumstances, I would readily betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver — if that was enough to buy me acceptance by my own peers. Of this I was certain. And God was, too.
This is why, nearly three decades later, as I lay on my bed one afternoon writing in my journal, the following verse came to me: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” And I suddenly remembered my time in college. I knew these were the words of King David concerning his failure to confess his own sin to God. “But God,” I protested. “You have already shown me I have nothing to confess from that time in my life. The burdens I placed upon myself at that time were not yours but mine alone.” But then came the final verse: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
And then I understood.
God was putting on my heart that time to confess not anything I had done, but rather something I had learned. Though God had never asked me to do any of those things, with each failure I had learned that there was a limit to what I was willing to do for His Name: That despite my love for Jesus, my acceptance by others was far more important to me than Him. God was giving me an opportunity not to confess to Him what I had done, but rather who I was.
And then I understood: God was giving me an opportunity not to confess what I had done, but rather who I was.
And this is where the Great Exchange took place. I realized in that moment that my knowledge of who I really was had been a secret I had kept from God and, to a great extent, myself. But God was making me a bargain: Beauty for ashes, joy for mourning, a white robe for my nakedness, precious gold refined by fire, my life for His. In short, the power to overcome. But it would not come through denial, self-hatred or great exertion. It would come through simple confession.
I am the chief of all sinners. Like Paul who persecuted God’s own people, or Peter who denied the One he loved to save his own skin, I do not deserve to be counted among those who are called God’s people. But I will spend my life to honor His death, and wash His feet with my own tears. For I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Of this I am and certain —- and I will not let go.