This past week, while going through boxes in my study, I happened upon an old journal. First, I just stared at it. I’d kept it during the absolute worst years of my life. But, reluctantly, like I might open a cage of snakes, I looked inside. Scanned a few pages.
Soon, my eyes fell on these words, penned on May 11, 2007:
“In one day, I can and do cascade from the heights of hatred to the depths of despair. I weep, I rage, I regret, I repent, I recant my repentance. I’ll be calm and okay for a while, then something will happen, or nothing happen, and the waves of emotion will change. There are days, whole days, when I am in a good mood, laugh, and feel free. And then there are whole days when I feel like I am the unhappiest of mortals. It is almost as if I am done and undone, unmade and remade, over and over…”
That was 14 years ago. I was going through a divorce at the time, adjusting to my new life as a truck driver, and still reeling from the aftershocks of my adultery, career loss, reputation destruction, and my resignation from the ministry. In other words, as the entry said, I was being “done and undone, unmade and remade, over and over.”
At the end of that paragraph, I had added these words: “I wonder how, once this is all over, how I’ll be, how I’ll turn out…”
Well, 14 years later, that question is staring me in the face: How am I? How did I turn out?
The Shadow Side
Of course, I would love to tell you that I turned out a much better person. That I am not the man I used to be. That, having gone through a dark and hellish existence for several more years, I emerged a stronger, smarter, vastly improved version of myself. That the Chad of 2007 is not the same Chad as 2021.
But that is not what happened. Instead, something else did.
What happened to me after 2007? I went through a very short and bitter second marriage and divorce, multiple moves, job changes, a string of girlfriends, and boatloads of alcohol. I rode the rollercoaster of hatred and self-pity, suicidal thoughts and sexual abandon, and lifted a middle finger to the church and especially her pastors. Things were ugly. Things stayed ugly for a while.
The old sinful nature within me raged and rejoiced and ravaged, like wild dogs set free, but constantly returning to their own vomit.
In other words, I got to know myself. The “myself” that had always been with me and, sadly but bluntly, is still with me. I confronted the ugliest, most demonic, stained and egotistical elements that comprise who I am. And while doing so, I also came to realize that there was only one person responsible for all these bad characteristics.
My parents? No.
The women who had been in my life? No.
There was no pointing of fingers. No reassignment of blame. Just a sharp and painful admission that This. Is. Who. I. Am.
In 2007, I wrote: “I wonder how, once this is all over, how I’ll be, how I’ll turn out…”
In 2021, here’s my answer: I am a person who knows the dark and dangerous shadow side within me a lot better than I did before.
Yellow Eyes in the Dark
Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that I am out chasing skirts and drinking myself drunk; relishing daydreams of beating certain people to a bloody pulp; or screaming and shouting profanities at God on a regular basis. I did all that. A lot. I say this to my shame.
But, thank God, those actions and attitudes are behind me, and have been for years. I am happily and faithfully married to Stacy, who is the joy of my life. Murderous daydreams rarely scratch and claw at the door of my mind. And I drink responsibly now.
So, no, I am not saying that I engage in the same actions now, nor am I wholly consumed by the same hatreds as before.
But you know what? They’re still there. Like glowing yellow eyes, lurking in the dark, right beyond the glow of a campfire. Lust? Yes. Hatred? Yes. Thoughts of revenge? Yes. The pack of wild dogs that roam and howl in my psyche are very much alive and well.
But, now, in 2021, at the age of 51 years, here’s the difference: I know they’re there. I am well acquainted with these dogs. And I know the damage their fangs can inflict. I bear the scars.
Therefore, my life—as I pray your life is, too—is one long, unending journey of unloving ex-sins. In other words, unending repentance. “The entire life of believers is one of repentance,” as Martin Luther famously wrote. Repentance for breakfast. Repentance while driving. Repentance while watching television. Repentance when my head hits the pillow.
Being undone. Being unmade.
Being redone. Being remade.
Welcome to the life of the Christian. Welcome to being a disciple.
Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says. In other words, plan to die. To be killed. Over and over, time and again. Plan for the Spirit to drag you back home, stinking from the pigpen. Plan for the Spirit to find you when you get lost like a stupid, helpless sheep. Plan for the Spirit to hold the head of your old sinful nature under the waters of baptism until no more bubbles rise to the surface, then to raise a new person, in the image of Jesus, alive from those same waters.
And plan for that song of repentance to play on repeat the rest of your life, to live a baptismal life of repentance, of daily death and resurrection. Because that’s the calling card of God. That’s how our Father makes things happen.
While this is happening, plan on one more—wonderfully unexpected!—event: joy.
Today, I can stare at the scars on my soul and finally, by the grace of God, laugh. They all betoken how the God of joy put a smile back on my face. As that other sinful man, David, once wrote, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). Oh, how I used to pray that verse! And the Lord of joy answered me.
He restored joy to me by restoring me to himself. He wrenched me from all those passing pleasures that are supposed to “make us happy” and led me to true joy, which is found solely and completely in Jesus.
This is the joy of having nothing to hide, but standing naked-of-soul and sinful before God, the world, and even the church, and hearing my Father call to his angels, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on Chad, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
I asked myself: “I wonder how, once this is all over, how I’ll be, how I’ll turn out…”
It turns out that I, still a weak and faltering mortal, beset by all manner of sin—that I am a beloved child of God in Jesus Christ.
What could possibly be better than that?