“There is nothing you will ever do that will stop me from loving you,” my father told me before walking out of my room. I was a 17-year-old high school senior and I had just been arrested for multiple felonies.
One night a couple of friends and I foolishly broke into vehicles, stole credit cards and drove throughout New Orleans buying beer and other things with the cash and credit cards we stole. We were arrested and charged with 11 felonies. The news hit the paper and the shame and guilt quickly consumed me.
So when my father walked in my room, I was expecting a lecture – one I deserved. Or perhaps a long list of consequences that I had surely earned. And though I would receive instruction and consequences in the coming months, the first and loudest declaration was my father’s affirmation of continual love and support.
I did not know Romans 2:4 when my father walked out of my room, but I experienced it: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”
God used the kindness of my father to show me the kindness of the Father. He wins us to himself with his grace and mercy, not with his wrath and judgment.
Some viewed me as a good kid. I was in several Advanced Placement classes, had been elected to represent my high school at Boys State, and was vice president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
But even “good kids” can make really bad and dumb and foolish decisions.
Today well-respected coaches, pastors and community leaders seem to be imploding at epidemic levels. Stories of abuse, affairs, lapses in integrity, and destructive behaviors consuming leaders seem to fill the news at a relentless and alarming pace.
If good leaders who have so much to lose can fall and lose it all, how much more likely is it that a good kid who is navigating the challenges of being a teenager will fall as well? None of us is above falling. All of us are frail. The apostle Paul warned: “Whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Yet in other ways, I really wasn’t a good kid at all. In reality I had built a nice façade for the hypocrite that I was. And the implosion, the crumbling of my inner character, exposed me.
I stayed home the entire summer of 1993 after my arrest. And sometime that summer, while reading the Bible and being desperate for a new life and hungry for forgiveness, the Lord saved me. I was forgiven!
Yet consequences still remained. I was told I could not attend Boys State and was asked to step down as one of the key leaders of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Those were the right decisions, but they painfully taught me that earthly consequences remain even after forgiveness has been obtained through the Lord’s gracious offer.
Even with the sting of the consequences, my falling was the greatest thing the Lord could allow. I saw a clear picture of my sinfulness and experienced a humbling that can lead to longing for Christ and his grace.
Richard Sibbes wrote: “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” I did not know that quote my senior year in high school, but I sure found it to be true.
A few months after I was arrested, during the singing time at the Baptist church I grew up in, I walked to the pastor and asked him if I could ask the church to forgive me for failing to live as a Christian and for embarrassing our collective community of believers. I stood in front of the people, voice cracking, and asked for their forgiveness. And they sure offered it.
The tears and hugs of the congregation were overwhelming and a tangible expression of God’s mercy given to me. My father stood next to me, as he had been the whole time. It has been almost 25 years since that moment, but it still marks me today.
Today I serve as a senior vice president of LifeWay Christian Resources, where I alerted the Human Resources Department that quite possibly there is an arrest somewhere on my record.
More importantly, I am the father of two daughters I love very much. My parents passed on a lot of great lessons to me that I am passing on to my kids: never buy what you cannot afford, work hard and love your neighbors well.
And much more importantly, my parents showed me that their love is greater than my foolishness, which is what I want to show my kids more than anything.
By showing me their great love, my parents simultaneously showed me God’s grace is greater than all my sin. And God’s grace is ultimately what transformed me and what can transform anyone.
Pastor Steve Brown wrote: “If you love your kids and they know it, while they may be a long way from home, as prodigal sons or daughters wallowing in the mud with the pigs, watch and wait. Your kids will come back … because you love them.”
I share more about our tendency to ruin our lives and God’s grace being bigger than our ruin in my book “How to Ruin Your Life: and Starting Over When You Do.”