Jesus Was There
OCTOBER 3, 2023
If you knew me in the early 2000s you most likely would have thought I had it made.
I was a well-liked and respected executive pastor in a large, growing church. My wife was successful in her job with the Federal government. We were both well compensated for our work. We had four bright and talented children who excelled in school and activities. We had a new house, new cars, and the kids were all in private school. Outwardly, it seemed we wanted for nothing.
But inside I was dying.
I grew up thinking that I was dumb and incompetent, ugly and unwanted. I needed those things—the marriage, the kids, the career, the success—to prove to myself and others that I was wrong, that I wasn’t those things, that I wasn’t dumb, ugly, and unwanted. Those were not just good things, blessings from God. Those were ultimate things. They had become my idols.
But like all idols, they made poor gods. Though I had everything I sought after to make me feel better about myself, it didn’t work. The marriage, the family, and the professional success could not heal my broken shame-filled heart.
In a time of deep depression, as I thought of ways that I might commit suicide and make it look like an accident, I started medicating my despair with alcohol and everything went from bad to worse. It did not take long for me to become a blackout-drunk alcoholic and I lost it all. I lost everything, all my idols, the things I leaned on to prop me up were gone. In 2008, with my career ruined, and separated from my family, I was homeless, living in an inner-city rescue mission.
Living in a rescue mission, isolated from the “nice” parts of the city and the “good” people, I had an enormous sense that I was like a first-century leper. Lepers lived in “leper colonies,” encampments away from towns and cities, cut off from nice communities and good people. I was cut off from my family, friends, and church and was living in a “colony” of alcoholics and addicts. I remembered the last conversation I’d had with my pastor. He’d said to me, “You know, according to the Bible, what you are is a drunkard.” Roget’s Thesaurus lists these other terms for a drunkard: bad person, wretch, blighter, bum, lowlife, good-for-nothing, derelict, worthless fellow, and human wreck. Those terms described exactly what I felt about myself. That’s what I’d become, a good-for-nothing, worthless, human wreck, bum. A bad person. I was a modern-day leper.
I did not know what the solution was to the situation I’d gotten myself into, but I knew that I needed Jesus. So, I started reading through the gospels. After finishing Matthew, I began on Mark and in the first chapter got to verses 40-42:
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
In that instant, I had a visceral sensation that Jesus was with me. Just as he had, with pity, moved toward the leper, touched him, and made him clean, I knew, I knew, that Jesus was with me and, with pity, had moved toward me. I knew that Jesus loved me, that he touched me, and I was okay with him. I had thought that I had gone far away from Jesus. As my drinking had gotten worse, I’d thought that the distance between Jesus and me had become like a great chasm. I was so far away from him that even if I looked for him, I would no longer see him. I felt totally alone. So very much alone. But I was wrong. I hadn’t been alone. Jesus had been there the whole time.
Many times, when I’ve told my story I’ve said that Jesus came and met me in the rescue mission when I was reading the gospels. But that’s not quite right. Jesus didn’t come to me in the rescue mission. He’d been with me the whole time. Jesus said to his disciples, “I will be with you always.” Jesus had never left me.
Jesus had been with me while I was falling apart. He’d been there when I’d been drunk and when I’d raged at my wife and children. He’d been with me when I’d driven drunk and caused an accident. He’d been beside me as I walked through the doors of the rescue mission. He’d been sitting next to me when I picked up my Bible to read. In the darkest, most terrible time of my life, Jesus was with me. I saw that I had never been alone. And when the time was right, Jesus revealed himself to me. He let me know that he was there, that he loved me, and that he was not finished with me.
I had spent my whole life trying to sculpt myself into someone who others thought was worthy of being loved. The image I tried to create was an idol. I depended on that idol to make things right, to make life better for me. And it had never worked. It was a terrible god. Feeding the idol required more and more work but I always came up short. No matter what I did or how hard I tried it was never enough. I had exhausted myself, nearly killed myself, trying. And when it hadn’t worked, when I could no longer hold myself together, I had fallen apart.
Only then, only when I had fallen apart, when all my effort at making myself into someone others could love failed, after my idol had been destroyed, only then did Jesus reveal himself to me. There I was, in an inner-city rescue mission, cut off from family and friends, but loved by Jesus. Down to the depths of my being, I was convinced that I was loved and accepted and wanted by Jesus. He had never given up on me. He never left me. He was with me and would stay with me, no matter what the future held.