When I was a kid, I remember reading the “choose your own adventure” books by R.A. Montgomery. If you missed out, they went like this: You were the main character of the story, as a deep sea diver looking for Atlantis, or a mountain climber looking for the elusive Abominable Snowman, or a space explorer–you get the idea. At pivotal points in the story, you had the opportunity to choose. To follow a guide, to stay and fight, or try and escape. Depending on what you chose, you either found the lost city, or worse, fell to a certain death. The beauty of these books was that some of them, while only a little over one hundred pages long, had something like over forty possible endings.
Have you ever thought about what your life could have been, had you not made certain choices?
Life is a series of choices. But sometimes we feel we are not free to make the choices we want to make.
For the last several weeks, at our church we’ve been looking at a letter from a man named Paul, who ended up writing the majority of the New Testament letters. Something happened in his life that apparently brought him to a place of freedom. He later writes in this letter, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)
In this letter, Paul seemed to be free from a lot of things that consume our thinking: free from others’ opinions of him, free from pleasing others, and now, free from what he once was. Paul seems to want to make his readers know this truth:
God loves us as we are…
and wants to set us free from what we were.
There is an honest tension here. When you read the Bible honestly, you see that it is an invitation from God to move a person, and a people—from what they were into what they were meant to be. Now the difficult part is this: When someone comes to us and says, I want to move you from where you are to where you need to be, we resist. We might think they are trying to sell us something. Or, we can interpret that as a message that they don’t accept us as we are.
But that isn’t what God is saying. He loves us with an everlasting love.
While we were still apart from God—enemies of God—Jesus came for us. He so loved the world He sent His only son for us. His love is beyond words—it is a sacrificial love—as Jesus laid down his life so that we might be set free. God doesn’t wait until we clean up our lives before accepting us and loving us. He loves us as we are.
AND YET—there is something greater he is inviting us into. He wants to set us free from the things that still enslave us. Maybe it is regret from our past, or ongoing struggles in our present. This is why he says, “Follow me.” Not just once, but for the rest of our lives.
This is important for us to grasp. If we don’t get this–the invitation from God to learn from Jesus, be changed by him, and join in his work (see Bobby Harrington’s definition at discipleship.org)–our faith will stay stagnant. Jesus can remain only a Savior who you turn to when you do something wrong. Nothing else.
Paul had a greater vision of who Jesus was. Where did that come from? Let’s look at his remarkable conversion, found in the book of Acts, chapter 9:
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
In short, Paul had an experience seeing the risen Jesus Christ. Ever wondered what would have happened if he had decided this was just a dream? That he was hallucinating? Like the “choose your own adventure” books:
If Paul thinks it is a dream, go to page 23. If Paul believes it is real, turn to page 24.
Obviously, Paul believed that what he saw and heard on that day—on the road to Damascus—was real. And true. And that Jesus was worth reorienting his entire life around.
He didn’t just say, “Wow, Jesus took care of all the bad things I used to do.” He goes and spends time with Peter, the man who spent three years walking with Jesus. Paul learns from him the eyewitness accounts of what Jesus did, some of which we get to read in the gospels.
Then, get this, he goes to Damascus—the very place he was headed when the risen Jesus showed up. Damascus—the place where he was known to be an enemy of the gospel. And he begins to preach that Jesus is God’s Son—alive, risen—and worth following. Forget what is behind, Paul says. Follow Jesus.
And so what Paul once was changes. He knows what was being said about him now:
They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me. Galatians 1:23-24
What would be said about you? The man—the woman—who used to…now is….
I’m a part of a group of pastors that meet together monthly. At a recent gathering, one of the pastors asked this question: How do you know when you are lined up with the heart of God? After various responses, this is what I said: “When instead of anger I find myself responding with gentleness and compassion. When instead of despair I find myself holding on to hope. When instead of just trying to make people happy I find myself speaking the truth in love.” In other words, when I see a change taking place: from what I once was, to what God is inviting me to be.
So how do we get there?
How do we really embark on this journey of being changed by God?
The journey to discovering God’s love, and where we need to be set free cannot always be done alone. Most churches offer all kinds of opportunities: small groups, mentors, classes. But I remember my earliest part of my own growth was with a group of my peers in high school. We just got together and studied a book together. We weren’t part of one church, but were classmates trying to figure out how to follow Jesus as 17-year olds. We were in the midst of making decisions for our future, and trying to figure out how to turn to Jesus to help with the struggles we had.
What about you? Can you think of one thing you are struggling with right now, that a year from now you’d like to be able to say, “That’s who I used to be. But Jesus has changed that.”
Spoiler alert: in book #2 of the choose your own adventure series, Journey Under the Sea, you are a deep sea adventurer, seeking the lost city of Atlantis. You dive down deep into the ocean, go through a grotto, and discover a strange group of people, with a different language. They tell you (through an interpreter) that they are enslaved to a wicked king. You have to make some difficult choices. They ask for your help. If you help, if you then ask for their help, you end up leading a revolt to overthrow the evil king. And the book ends with, “You and the people are free.”
In some ways, that adventure is like what it’s like to join a church. You are seeking. You find a group of people that is also looking to be set free. This group of people–church people–at first seem different, with a different language and everything. You have to make hard choices to join them. But in the end, you, and the people, find yourself living free.
God loves us as we are, but wants to set us free from what we once were.