The handwriting in the front of my first Bible, the King James Version bound in black imitation leather, is unmistakably that of a child. The inscription simply says: "Fil accepted Jesus Christ on February 26, 1961." Looking back, I'm still not sure what happened to me on that day.
I grew up smack dab on the buckle of our nation's Bible belt. From early childhood I was taught that religion was the only ticket to the best life in this world. The church I attended provided me with a tightly sealed view of God, the world, and me. Since ours was the kind of family that showed up whenever the doors were opened, I lived within the pervasive cloud of the church's influence, which narrowed my vision and shaped the borders of my world. I learned about our corner on God's truth, and anyone who dared to disagree with us was either flirting with hell or already headed there.
My religion was characterized by a code of requirements, those activities or beliefs necessary to gain good standing with God. As I grew older, the essential truths associated with my religion became increasingly precise and the boundaries surrounding it more constricting. Vigilantly, my religion taught me that God is powerful, flawless, and provoked to anger by my weakness, defects, and disregard.
In ironic contrast to the freedom it was alleged to provide, religion enslaved me to a rigid and demanding regimen of rules. The self-salvation blueprint became the pattern I was to follow if I were to have any hope that God would recognize me as "fit for heaven." Attend religious services. Show acts of generosity and kindness (show being the operative word). Believe sound doctrine. Avoid immoral activity. Read the Bible. Pray. Obey the rules. Think pure thoughts. Boldly share the truth with others. Don't cuss. Don't drink. Don't smoke. Carefully guard your appearance and reputation.
These telltale signs were regarded as the only means to acquiring an abundant life and thereby guaranteeing security, acceptance, love, and forgiveness. Since this was the life I wanted and was striving for, I dedicated myself again and again to believing and behaving properly. Yet, despite my desire and determined efforts, I rarely felt that I was making steady progress. The only abundance I experienced was mounting feelings of disappointment.
I was ten years old in 1961 when a traveling revival preacher came to town. And he was mad! Mad at all the sinners there—and mad at me. At least that's the way I remember it. The first night of the revival I felt overpowering shame and regret as he described our wickedness and the gory details of Jesus' death. Feeling as though he was speaking directly to me, I listened intently as the preacher recited the latter half of a familiar verse, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). The dreadful climax came when he urged each of us to ask ourselves, "If I were to die and face God tonight, how could I expect a holy God to allow me entrance into heaven? Why should God not cast me into hell's fiery furnace?"
It was a traumatic thing for a ten-year-old to go to bed feeling guilty, ashamed, and afraid, especially when those feelings were provoked by the preaching of what was meant to be good news. Before drifting off to sleep, I remember telling God, "I'm sorry for being so bad."
What if, instead of attempting to scare the hell out of us (which has never been very effective with me), the preacher had emphasized the extravagant love and outrageous mercy of God?