This is part of a series of posts I am currently writing, looking back at significant moments and experiences over the past 10 years.
Stories of people delivered from forms of addiction or destructive behavioural patterns are powerful. They are powerful because they give us hope. Hope for ourselves, hope for others and hope for us as a people – the human race. They are stories of bad people becoming good people, or as some may interpret them, stories of good people freed from the cultural or structural chains which bound them. We all have pictures of what ‘good’ or ‘proper’ living should look like and expect people to live that proper life, not destroying themselves but more importantly, not destroying others. We value life but even more so, we value autonomy. We desire to be free yet struggle to apply our freedom properly. I have such ‘freedom’ stories, of how I became better and overcame (is still overcoming and managing) destructive patterns and addictions in my life. This past month marked the tenth year of (consciously) being made free. My story is, however, not one of becoming free from things but being freed from myself.
I did not enter this world a good man, nor was I shackled through structural constraints or foolish choices of my own, and neither was I born a unique individual, completely detached from the human race. I am a man like all of you, born into the same reality as all of you. I inherited human nature and was nurtured in human ways by other human beings. The growing entanglement in destructive thinking and the resulting behaviour was not primarily what I needed deliverance from; they were the symptoms of my rage against existence and the struggle to cope with myself. I was fallen, unable to correctly relate to the world around me, a descendent of Adam. I needed freedom from my identity in Adam: I was detached from reality; and, relationship with my Creator, myself, my fellow man and all created things had to be restored.
Being human and born in Adam, my primary desire was to be ‘perfect’ in and of myself. I desired to be considered perfect by myself and others; I craved the acknowledgement that my ways were good, praiseworthy and true and that I achieved my purpose for existing. I positioned myself so that others may approve, praise and desire to imitate me – me, because I believed the perfect way was to be found and achieved in me, and that happiness existed in that place. At times it meant conforming to norms worthy of praise but when rebellious rejection of accepted norms became the object of praise, I eventually opted for rebellion. I bought into various subcultures and honoured the principles which bound them together when that meant I might experience a state of fulfilment. At times it meant ‘being the same’; at times it meant ‘being different’.
Proper insight into reality seemed the logical way out of my detached state. It seemed the obvious first step to determine who or what the Intelligence behind my perceived reality was. The essence of that which determined ultimate meaning and purpose had to be discovered. Only then could I determine my appropriate position in relation to it, and ultimately become ‘it’. I had to discover ‘God’ or strive to complete the puzzle of who he might be as I journeyed through life. I had to figure out what the proper way of relating to others was, but while ‘God’ remained a mystery and me effectually the source of all truth, my goal was to balance ‘being nice’ to others and using them to satisfy my desires. I concluded that while ‘God’ remains A.W.O.L., my aim was to live long and prosperous, aspiring to do good along the way, whatever that might have meant, satisfying my desires with these goals in mind. I created meaning from my experience of the world in an attempt to move toward mentioned goals, both socially and psychologically. The created world and human expressions moulded me: identity shaping ideas and possessions, mind-altering ideas and substances. The inability to reconcile myself to reality led both to engagements with a self-created, media-fuelled sub-reality of imagery and ideas, and an unhealthy relationship with the created world and its fruits. Like father, like son. As Adam walked, so did I.
Early one Monday morning, while a student at Stellenbosch University, me and a friend sat on a beach – intoxicated, as that was what going on a break-away weekend meant to us as students – both willing to discuss our perceptions of reality, wondering whether meaning and purpose could truly be known. ‘Willing’, because alcohol was an example of a material fruit I had an unhealthy relationship with, often used to help me cope better with the unfulfilling reality I found myself in; it also made it easier to relate with my fellow man on a deeper, more authentic level. He was an atheist while I still thought of myself as religious, both of us then admitting that we were actually agnostics, unable to affirm our aforementioned positions with conviction. I cannot speak for him beyond that, but I grew to the place where I became highly doubtful about whether truth can be known at all. I believed it existed but had not much hope of finding it. In fact, I hoped not to find it, for then I could die wondering: uncertain… but perfect.
I sent up one final prayer, asking for Truth to show itself, promising that I will commit to it should I become convinced of its validity. There I was then, a Deist sending a message into the unknown, trusting I won’t receive an answer by the time of death. I was no longer responsible to search for it, I have done all I can, and pure intentions did guide all my actions after all. But God responded.
That was what I initially thought but, retrospectively, I realised I was in fact the one responding. By grace I finally began to see. A few weeks since that ‘final prayer’ I sat in a pub with another friend, when I suddenly developed this urge to go outside…
…this ‘pub’ actually summed up my current state at that time quite well. It is a place called Bohemia. At the time, me and friends often went there, and as the name might suggest, it was the university’s hub of non-conformity with its necessary dose of artistic expression, blended with cheap wine one could buy by the box. Most of us were by no means bohemian but were at least drawn to the romantic idea it presented and it offered the opportunity to have quality drunken conversations with people from all walks of life. This was sort of the deal: we pursued the standard middle class life style, and hung out with hippies to the extent we believed we value the simple life – student life. And yes, there was also the cheap wine of course. I can only speak for myself when I add that I thought of myself as somewhat enlightened for embracing an agnostic position as far as faith and life in general went. It also brought with it the benefit of not being truly accountable to anyone or anything, as every idea and experience were of equal value in that it was part of life and life was ultimately meaningless apart from my experiences…
…as I walked out of Bohemia that night, I still remember my friend being slightly confused as to where exactly I wanted to go, as we were having a decent time inside. Outside in the crowded street I spotted a group of people with a guitar a bit further down the road and told my friend, “That’s it, that’s where the party is at”. They turned out to be a group of Christians, one of them living in my university residence. A conversation began that evening which would see me confronted with truth in days to come. Realising what the implications of that truth might be and recognising my position of uncertainty as more convenient, I chose rather to continue more eagerly in my pursuit of happiness.
Four months later I came to a place one morning where I realised the path I’m walking down is filled with death and leads to death, it is ultimately hopeless. Depravity became tangible. The next morning I stood among people whose testimonies of Jesus Christ working in and through their lives, transforming their death into joyous life, left me in a position where Truth could no longer be denied. I did not fully understand truth then but was greatly transformed as I became able to admit that I am incapable of perfection. In fact, I realised my fallen state caused me to hate perfection – or at least the road leading to it – and that was the first thing I realised walking away from that gathering: I have begun loving and desiring the road to perfection, not as something I create myself, but perfection based in the lordship of Christ, along the Way he walked. The endless pursuit of knowledge turned into an encounter with truth. Being consumed by truth, I could now begin to understand all of reality and live accordingly.
It was a strange place and continues to be a strange place at times: while I continue in imperfection, I grow in perfection. I was no longer under the curse of sin as a son of Adam, destined to eternal death in myself, but have been created anew through Christ, the second Adam, eternally walking in life in Jesus. In this way I became a slave to righteousness and continually grow in understanding, turning away and breaking from my former habits daily. I was not saved from addictions and bad character traits, but from an inherited, sinful, human desire to be lord of all and a law unto all. I was freed from slavery into slavery through the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord over all of creation.
A man like all of you
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
– from Paul’s letter to the Romans
“What kind of God is broken apart so the wicked can feast on Him? What kind of God is poured out so you can drink? Your God” -Glen Scrivener