Stories of Grace: How Near-Expulsion Brought Me Near to Jesus
As we count down to our 10th anniversary conference, we’ll be featuring stories of grace on our blog. This series is a very personal one to those of us who have been with Rooted for a while. Our journey as a ministry is only one that can be understood through hunger for the Gospel and the generosity of God with his beautiful grace. It’s the story of unlikely travelers embarking on an unknown journey filled with many triumphs and failures – and being blown away at God’s grace every step of the way.
Our prayer is that as you read these stories of grace, you’ll come to see your own story in the light of God’s grace. And that you, too, will be awakened afresh to the grace of God in your own lives, and to anticipate together with all God’s people the adventures that lie ahead!
“If you’re not walking with Jesus, you’re not going to make it through this year. You’re going to get expelled,” my mom told me during a three-day suspension my junior year of high school.
After yet another major disciplinary infraction at my Christian school (this time it was cheating on a test with several classmates), I was one incident away from expulsion. And it was only September! My track record was not very good in terms of avoiding demerits, so making it through the year seemed impossible.
Up to this point in my life, I had thought I was a Christian. I had grown up attending church, going to youth group and camp, and being educated in Christian schools. I had heard the Word preached regularly. I had even spoken about my relationship with Jesus in front of our congregation following summer camp. My parents, teachers, and coaches had invested in my spiritual development year after year. And yet, I had missed the most important thing of all: the gospel.
The good news that Jesus saves sinners out of His abundant, sacrificial love and grace had not landed on good soil in my life (Matt. 13:18-23). I did not understand that the gospel was the core story of grace that held the whole Bible, the Christian faith, and the Church together. I did not see that the Father’s loving pursuit of His people through the person of Jesus was the center of it all.
Instead, my teenage understanding of Christianity was centered on church attendance, living a generally moral life, academic and athletic performance, and emotional expressiveness in worship. I wanted to believe. Deep down I was convinced that the things I had been taught about God, myself, and the world were true. But my affections weren’t captured. I couldn’t will myself to grab hold of Christ, even though I had convincing examples of faithfulness lived out before me.
Not only did I lack faith, I lacked true understanding of my own sinfulness. You have to believe the bad news of your own sin before you can believe the good news of the gospel. I didn’t believe the bad news – that I was a sinner without hope save the grace of God. This has become a truth that I reiterate to students in my own ministry: Unless you come to terms with your own desperate sinfulness, Jesus won’t mean anything to you. He will seem useless and forgettable. Embracing and owning this bad news is essential for the good news to be truly good.
Godly Grief Produces Repentance
At the time of my near-expulsion, 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 became meaningful to me:
“For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
The apostle Paul is referring to a painful, lost letter that he wrote to the Corinthian church in between 1 and 2 Corinthians. In that lost letter, he rebuked them for specific sins in which they had been entangled. In verse 8, Paul admits a sort of dual feeling about his last letter: he regrets it —but not really! He regrets that it caused the Corinthians pain in exposing their sin, but he does not regret the result of that grief: repentance. By the grace of God, the exposure of the Corinthians’ sin led them to repentance (v. 10). They experienced a “godly grief” that led to life and salvation.
Godly grief is one with a moral and relational focus, engaging with the offense that your sin has caused God and other people. This kind of grief comes from a heart that is being renewed by the Holy Spirit and therefore experiences sorrow over the pain, shame, and alienation sin has caused. It leads to salvation now, and ultimately to a fuller consolation at Christ’s return.
In contrast to this godly grief, Paul explains that “worldly grief” fixates on having been “caught” rather than on the offense caused to others. It has a consequence focus. It leads to regret in this life and ultimately death. This is because worldly grief evidences a heart at war with God; it side- steps the essential response of repentance.
Worldly grief is what I had experienced in response to my sin up until the day that I was suspended. I felt sorrow over getting caught and being exposed, rather than over the relational turmoil I was causing. Each time I fell short, I made earnest promises to turn things around and make amends. But I didn’t have the power to change. I needed the Spirit to reveal my sin to me and to empower true repentance.
And, thanks be to God, on that ordinary day in conversation with my mom, my story of grace materialized. I mourned the offense of my sin and its consequences on my relationships. I cried out to God in prayer seeking Jesus’ forgiveness and grace, and He freely gave it to me. I was far from possessing mature faith, but I was alive in Christ! I received His forgiveness and gift of righteousness. I was filled with a desire to know God and to grow as a follower of Jesus.
I began actually reading my Bible. God enabled me to gradually restore relationships with my parents, coaches, and teachers. He called me to multiple leadership opportunities at my school. In an overwhelming gesture of lovingkindness, the Lord even allowed me to be restored as a member of the National Honor Society at graduation (I had been kicked out for the cheating incident).
God has been so kind to me in revealing both the bad news of my sin and the good news of His grace, not only this initial time, but repeatedly as I have grown as His follower. May the Lord Jesus extend His grace to you and your students as well.
In light of my story of grace, here are a few encouragements for parents, youth workers, teachers, coaches, and students:
-Pray, pray, pray! Pray for the students who seem blind to their sin. Ask God to give them eyes to see the bad news and then be drawn in by the good news. Parents in particular, don’t give up praying for your struggling kids.
-Take opportunities to graciously expose the sin of your students. This may be an opportunity for them to be drawn to Jesus. Check your own heart posture and tone as you do so, but be bold. Seek to engage with the sins of a deeper kind. For me, there was a great deal of pride leaking out into other parts of my life. Focus on the sin and idolatries beneath the presenting circumstance or symptoms on the surface.
– Students, be honest about the reality of your sin. Once you see and grab hold of the good news of the gospel, do so again and again. Repentance is the path to life and salvation, the essence of the Christian life this side of glory.
-Students, take advantage of the Christian mentors and biblical teaching you’ve been given. Engage with parents, youth workers, pastors, teachers, coaches about their own faith and following of Jesus. Go to them with your questions and struggles.
For a video version of this story of grace, you can go here: https://livestream.com/westminster/ events/8823407
This talk was given during a chapel service at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, MO.