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Mind-Blowingly More Than I Bargained For (A Testimony)

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by Joelle Heilemann

I grew up in the church – literally. I am a pastor’s kid, and while most people only see their church on Sunday when everyone has their best manners on, during the week I chased my twin sister around the altar, messed with the keys and buttons on the organ, and played hide and seek in the pews.

Nature Photography

The first parsonage I remember was actually attached to the church building, so to me the sanctuary was just an extension of my home. Some people might raise their eyebrows at the thought of kids rough-housing in a place of worship, but I’m sure the laughter made God smile.

As I grew older, though, I learned not to play in the church: Kids were expected to behave a certain way in the house of God; and the preacher’s kids especially were to model that behavior. I respected what people thought of me and learned to play the game. At a very young age I was quite adept at putting my best foot forward. I was quiet and shy, but I was well behaved.

No one ever asked what was going on underneath.

I of course grew up hearing the Gospel message, both from my father and my mother. (Women weren’t ordained as ministers as easily back then as they are now, but my mother fought for – and won – her ordination when I was in grade school.) I don’t recall the gospel making much of an impact on me when I was young; it was part of home life, like the sanctuary I so irreverently romped through as a child. Besides, I was a good girl. What had I ever done that needed forgiveness?

As I got older, though, a terrible realization began to creep into my heart: as much as I tried to be good, I always failed. I could put on a good show, but on the inside I was full of terrible thoughts and desires I couldn’t control. There was something broken there, something I couldn’t fix. No matter how hard I tried to make my insides match my outside behavior, when my parents preached about the sinfulness of man I knew that that was true about me. I was afraid and discouraged, but I wouldn’t ask Jesus for help. I was already a failure at living a good life; living a Godly life was utterly out of my reach. I knew I would just mess it up. So I silently vowed to do better, and hoped that someday I would be good enough to be a child of God.

This went on for a surprisingly long time. Like I said, no one ever looked beneath the surface. Being a pastor’s daughter meant everyone assumed I was saved. I went to all youth functions, summer camps, teen retreats and revival services. I sang in the choir, bowed my head reverently during prayer, tithed on my allowance and helped raise money for church functions. Only one thing I absolutely never did was go forward for an altar call.

I couldn’t. Everyone thought I was already a Christian.

"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven." ~Matthew 6:10

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” ~Matthew 6:10

I couldn’t let them down by admitting the truth: that hearing about Jesus made me squirm inside, because I knew I didn’t belong to Him, I knew my broken self was at odds with Him – and I knew I wasn’t good enough yet to please Him. I just needed more time to get my act together; but the older I got, the more set in my sinful ways I became. Instead of becoming a better person, I was becoming worse. I had my pet sins and didn’t want to part with them, no matter how guilty I felt – and that would never do for a God who demanded all of my heart and devotion. So on I went, playing the good little Christian girl but on the inside running from God as hard as I could.

I was nearly 16 years old before I hit a breaking point. Conviction was laying heavily on me, but as usual I was so entangled in despair at my inability to reach God that I did not know what to do with the burden I felt in my heart. As I lay alone in the dark in my room one cold January night, I tentatively approached Jesus with an alternative suggestion: “Lord, I know I’m not good enough to be a Christian. Could you help me be better? And then someday when I’m good enough, then I’ll become a Christian.”

It was the first time I had ever admitted to God that I needed and wanted His help. He took that simple prayer – more like a negotiation, really! – and gave me something better than what I had dreamed. Just like that, He was there in my room, inside the fundamental essence of my being, pouring out His love and forgiveness into my sinful, starving heart. All those years of sickening fear were wiped away in an instant, and it was as if someone had turned a light on in my heart and mind. I came alive in a way I never had been before, and tears poured out of my eyes.

I had been accepted!

Not by anything I had done, but by admitting how much I needed Him! I reveled in the sheer bliss of it: Jesus had accepted me! Not in the absence of my faults, but in spite of them!

It was a revelation, and I knew that what He had done in my heart was deeper and more real than any other attempt I had made thus far to become a child of God. There had been times before this when I had tried to come to God. Those had been superficial actions based on emotion, which had faded within a short amount of time. This – this was entirely different. This was a real transaction, fuelled by God Himself. This did not fade, not when I eventually drifted off to sleep, not when I woke the next morning, not as the days and weeks and months went by. Something was new; I was new. I wasn’t afraid any more! Jesus was with me now, and He would help me.

And I was going to need a lot of help!

from the shadows to light

The anxious teen years were survived, more or less. I wasn’t as good a Christian as I wanted to be, but God had taken me on different terms, and I understood that. Sometimes all went very well, other times I really struggled.

College went much the same way; I went to a Christian college, as was expected of me, and while intriguing questions were raised, I never explored them much. I didn’t want anything to shake my faith. I knew God was real; I knew He had accepted me. I knew my parent’s faith, and to a large degree that was good enough for me. I didn’t understand why He was taking so long to fix my flaws, but I knew good and well I couldn’t fix them, so I plugged along as best I knew how.

I left college with God and without a husband, which kind of surprised me. I had planned on meeting the man God had for me there. Marriage was something I thought I had settled with God; I had offered to sacrifice much to be allowed a husband. But I reasoned my doubts away; God’s match for me was not to be found at college, then. No problem. I was young, and had plenty of time to find him.

I started my career in nursing, and within 6 months was living on my own, supporting myself. It felt good; but I was still plagued with a vague nagging guilt for not being a better Christian. I went to church, but the minute I left the building I left most of my Christianity behind me. I still trusted God, and I knew that my life was still different, but I was missing something.

One day I was doing my Bible reading at my local laundromat when a stranger struck up a conversation. I was a bit hesitant – I was still rather shy – but the stranger was insistent on knowing what I was reading. I told him, and he seemed immediately to regret his curiosity; he politely tried to dodge the subject of God and the Bible with humor, but something in me was prompted to talk to this man. As the conversation went on, the stranger opened up some – his mother had been religious, but he had gotten away from all of that as he got older. I wanted so much to help him; and suddenly a Voice inside my heart said “Give him your Bible.”

I did not want to give this man my Bible! I had had it all through college, it had many personal notes written in the margins, and I liked that Bible! But the command was clear: “Give him your Bible.” My fight with the Voice was a short one, the imperative was so pressing; within minutes, I handed over one of my most precious possessions to a man I did not know and never met again.

I don’t know what happened to that man – I hope he found Jesus. But I know what happened to me with that interchange. I walked away from that with a new thought: “Who IS this God I claim to serve? I thought I knew all about Him, had Him wrapped up in a neat and predictable package that I only open on Sundays and occasionally during the week when I need Him. But…He asked me to give my Bible away! What kind of God is this?? Is there more to Him than I thought?”

Girl jumping on sunrise at the beach

For the first time in my life, I really understood that there was more to God than what I thought I knew. I began to read the Bible as never before: not just reading it, but searching it. I wanted to know who God was; not just what I had been taught, or what other people thought of Him. I wanted Him to tell me who He is. Over the next weeks and months, I came out of the bubble of my parents’ faith and embraced a faith of my own – one based on a God Who could surprise and delight me, confuse and challenge me. A God, in short, who was truly worthy of devotion and respect. I had been accepted by Him as a frightened teen; now as I grew into adulthood I began to develop a real relationship with Him.

That relationship underwent many challenges over the next decade. Proving Himself to be a God I couldn’t put into a box, nothing in my life turned out as I had planned. The married life I had thought I had successfully bargained for became me accepting God’s call to singlehood – and rejoicing in it! The beautiful house in a town I loved, which I owned with a friend, became a call to a rural home in need of many years of work and repair. Even my loving, Christian family became a point of sacrifice as I walked in confused obedience through a time of estrangement from them; I did not speak to my own twin for nearly two years.

I learned more about the faithfulness of God than I could write in a dozen books, but I learned it through trials of every kind of fire you can imagine. And in everything, God was with me, as He had promised that first day. I didn’t often know where we were going, or how the road before me could possibly be God’s plan, and there were times I couldn’t sense Him at all; but He carried me through, and on the other side of the storms I could see how He worked all things for my good, and how He never ever left my side.

And He is still a God of surprises! When I had weathered it all and thought myself pretty well established as a child of God, He used a program at church to call me to a deeper walk with Him. At this point, I had been walking with God for 18 years. I was solid on several points of faith, but my daily walk was still hit-or-miss. I was relatively content with this; sure there were areas of defeat and struggle, but isn’t that the way of life? I still had a fondness for my pet sins. Part of me wanted more in my walk with God than what I had, and part of me liked to keep one foot in the world.

I knew that going any further was going to require more of me than I had previously given, and my old fear of inadequacies still haunted me – especially now, after another decade and a half of failures that Satan could taunt me with. I had accepted that failure was a part of life, but I struggled with knowing how that affected my standing with God. The faith I was raised in emphasized holy living, and in that arena I feel dismally short of God’s best. But I perpetually lacked the ability to live any better.

I knew grace was accepted, not earned; but how do I reconcile that with the exhortations in the Bible to live spotlessly before God?

lonely walk in the hills

Confusion and frustration made an easy ground for Satan to play with my mind and heart, and it seemed he won more victories than I did.

I had Jesus, but I had little to no victory.

It was only by His strength I was able to say yes to that call to a deeper walk with God. I tend to like things in moderation, even my devotion to God! But He once again challenged what I thought I knew. When it comes to God, there is no moderation; in our lives either He is Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all. Jesus had to overcome my natural desire to hold back, because if it had been up to me I would have smiled politely and kept half my heart in the world. But He had greater plans for me. I said “Yes” to the deeper walk with no idea what that would mean for me; I only sensed that it meant something new was coming.

It didn’t come for several months, and when it struck it was completely unexpected. No matter how clever we are, we cannot predict God! He ambushed me in the car on the way to work one morning; that’s the best way I can describe it. I had always known that Jesus had died for my sins, but that morning the understanding of it came to me with such clarity and conviction that I nearly had to pull off the road.

If you’ve never had such a revelation, I pray that you will; because such understanding does not come from study or from will-power, or even from experience: it comes from God alone.

I was struck by the completeness of Jesus’ death and resurrection; how it totally and utterly reconciled me to God. I didn’t have to be good to be Christian; I didn’t have to redeem myself. Only one Person in all of history could accomplish that, and He already did it 2000 years ago. I couldn’t crucify myself; and I didn’t need to! I was crucified with Christ; the old me was dead and buried with him; a new me was resurrected with Him! It was all DONE. I needed only to enter into that marvellous truth through faith; and then the power of God flows through me to shape my thoughts and words and actions into the similarity to Christ that I had longed for.

I had accepted Jesus’ help all those years ago as a bargain: that someday I would be good enough to deserve it. Now I understood that there was no “someday”; it had been nailed to a cross; I was already good enough, not by virtue of my own works, but by the perfect completed work of Christ. My “work” is to believe the Word of God – believe that Jesus has done it all (John 6:29, 19:30). All I needed to do was live in the light of that phenomenal truth!

sunset jump_cropped-1

Once I could accept that the work was done, that I had no need to prove myself or to earn His favor, then Satan’s grip on my heart lost its power. He couldn’t torment me with failure any more, couldn’t nag me with thoughts like “If you were a better Christian you wouldn’t…..” or “If you were a better Christian you would….” Instead I choose to believe God’s Word – that He would never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5), that He would finish the work He’d begun in me (Philippians 1:6), that He works all situations in life to our good (Romans 8:28).

God’s Word never promises happiness or an easy life; but it does promise joy and peace and hope, and in those we have victory over our circumstances, over our temptations, even over our old sinful self. And all because Jesus did everything – EVERYTHING – and all we have to do is rest on that truth in faith, trusting in His grace. Then and only then can His life be manifested in us – the fruit of the spirit and the blessings of being in right relationship with Him.

If you’ve never understood these things, then I pray right now that the Holy Spirit will open your mind and heart to understand His Truth. I am sure there is still much for me to learn – I doubt God is done surprising me! – but I know I can walk in victory every day, regardless of the circumstances that I face. – not because I am some super-Christian who has conquered my fears and flaws, but because I serve Christ, who conquered it all!

by Joelle Heilemann

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