It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I felt like a failure.
I’d made the Presidential Honor Roll. I’d won the favor of my professors. I’d made new friends.
And yet I’d failed. And not just anyone: I’d failed God Himself.
It had started innocently enough. Ever zealous to more deeply explore my faith, and in need of an elective for my second semester, I signed up for a Christian Beliefs class offered by the Religion & Philosophy Department. After all, I reasoned, what better way to deepen my understanding of God and strengthen our relationship than to engage in college-level study of Christian theology?
What I wasn’t counting on was the diversity of thought that managed to squeeze itself under the Christian umbrella. Sure, I knew I’d disagree with some people over things like how and when to baptize, or whether to take Genesis 1 literally. But who knew there were so many theories on how Christ’s work saves? Or on God’s relationship with His creation?
And who knew some of the people I disagreed with had such well-thought-through reasons for their views?
Again and again, I found myself asking, Why do I believe what I believe? Why do I believe this instead of that? And when I tried to answer, I found myself going in circles, one question leading to another.
I decided that, in order to answer decisively, I would have to take my faith apart, inspect each belief, and then put it all together again. If I succeeded, I could live assured that I possessed a sound, harmonious faith. If I failed – something was going to have to give. I quaked at the mere thought.
I struggled in silence lest my questions fatally rattle someone else’s faith – or lest I meet inadequate answers that only made my task more daunting.
And all the while, I felt sure God must be very disappointed in me – I who’d always been strong and steady, able to explain Him to myself and others. I felt that if I wanted Him to be happy with me again, I’d have to get my act back together, clean up this mess I’d made, and repair all the broken pieces. Only then could I once more feel fit to serve Him with confidence.
Having made it through the semester, I was now ready for some respite. Summer camp at the ranch where I took therapeutic riding lessons was approaching. I welcomed it as an opportunity to retire for a little while from intellectual battles and spiritual wrangling, to focus on the hands-on work of barn chores, horseback riding, outdoor adventures, and art.
God and I would take a timeout, so to speak, and then I’d reenter the fray with new strength and make Him proud by knocking this theology thing out of the park in my fall Bible classes.
At first my plan went smoothly enough. I arrived at the ranch on day one, met my assigned helpers for the week, attended opening devotions, and then proceeded to throw myself into all our activities, ready to have a good time.
But then things began to happen.
First, there were the ranch’s new high ropes elements. I had never before attempted to scale a forty-foot climbing wall, zoom down a zip line, or swing on a “flying squirrel”. And yet that’s what I found myself doing (with some accommodations for my disability), facing a new element each day. Each new obstacle sent me on a rollercoaster of nervousness, grim resolve, last-minute panic…and then, with the first step of faith, exhilaration.
By the end of the week, that step of faith was getting easier.
I began to suspect God had followed me to summer camp. Not exactly observing our prearranged timeout. (Then again, I couldn’t swear He’d ever actually signed the deal.)
Still, so far He seemed mainly out to do His usual jobs of teaching me about faith and ensuring I didn’t accidentally land myself at Heaven’s door before my predestined hour. Nothing special. Nothing too personal. Nothing He couldn’t do from the center of the arena while I went through my paces on the rail. You can be disappointed with someone just enough to keep your distance while still going through the motions of directing and supervising them.
But then the other thing happened.
There was a certain volunteer (we’ll call him Peter) who’d been assigned as one of my helpers at the beginning of the week. He’d been doing the job diligently and thoughtfully, and even went out of his way to encourage me. Being about the same age, we became fast friends.
Then, on the last day of the week, just as we were preparing for the camp’s closing ceremonies to be held in the ranch’s amphitheater, a thunderstorm rolled in. We campers all crowded into the front room of the ranch house while staff and volunteers worked to set things up in the covered riding arena instead.
I sat at the end of a bench near the front door, listening to the sound of chatter and watching people go in and out. After a while, Peter approached, apparently having been helping with arrangements and now ready for a break. The seat beside me being occupied, however, he turned and walked away.
I watched with a pang of disappointment. He’ll probably take one of the empty spots across the room, beside some of the other campers. There was no way I could get up and join him without getting my other helper involved, not to mention causing a small scene (something my extremely socially insecure self couldn’t handle.)
Then I heard a chair scraping.
He was pulling a chair out of the far corner of the room. Pulling it up to sit beside me, on my other side.
And I realized then that God really wasn’t going to leave me alone. He wasn’t going to stay in the center of the arena while I careened around trying to do everything right on my own (and failing miserably). He wasn’t going to let me put myself in a corner until I figured it all out. Figured Him all out.
Because He knew I could never do that. And if I tried waiting till I did, I would die in that corner.
And He loved me too much to let that happen.
Ironically, halfway through that very week, our morning camp devotion had been on the Good Shepherd passage in John 10:1-21. The message? God loves you.
I’d nodded sagely. Yes, I know He does.
Now I wonder: Did I?
Sure, I knew God loved me in the general sense that He loves everybody. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NASB)
And I knew He loved me individually in that my relationship with Him through Christ was personal. That He listened to my prayers, forgave my sins, met my needs, taught me things through and for my individual circumstances, gave me unique gifts, and had a unique plan for my life.
But apparently I’d underestimated Him. Not only does He love me when I understand Him or am on a path to please Him, but He also loves me when I don’t understand Him and don’t even know where the path is.
And that’s how He loves you.
He doesn’t wait for us to solve our own problems. He doesn’t make us walk across a room to be with Him, or climb to Heaven to reach Him. He comes to us. He finds us in our dark corners – and He brings us out.
The opportunity to have a relationship with Him isn’t based on our efforts. It’s based on His. Jesus crossed the gulf between us left by sin, to live and love among us; then He bridged that gulf forever with His cross and empty tomb. And nothing can ever break that bridge or throw back those who flee to it. All we have to do is take His hand and climb up and over.
Yes, He’ll sometimes step out ahead of us and ask us to follow. Yes, He wants us to seek Him.
But He’s often not as far away as we think. And if we get lost, He’ll seek us. He’ll seek you. He’ll seek me.
And when we think we’re the ones looking for Him, we’ll more often than not turn around to discover that He’s the one looking for us.
It has been many years since that moment in the ranch house on that stormy summer afternoon. And I still don’t claim to have God all figured out.
But I’ve learned that that’s okay. That omniscience isn’t necessary for following Him or living for Him – faith is. I simply accept what I do know, hold loosely what I think I know, and trust Him with the rest.
And if I get things wrong, or do things wrong, I know that He loves me enough to come after me and, if I let Him, lead me back onto the right path.
I’ve had to review this lesson many times with changing circumstances and challenges. You’d think it would be a pretty straightforward lesson, easily summed up in that most classic of children’s hymns. Yet each review adds a new angle, new depth, another layer of affirmation: Yes, He loves me. Even here, even now, even after that, even through this.
I’m starting to think one of Satan’s favorite and most destructive lies is that God doesn’t really love us. Not us. Not that much. Not past that point. Not that way.
We sin so often or so hugely that we think He can never forgive us. We experience so much hardship, pain, and disappointment that we think He must not really care – or worse, is out to hurt us.
And yet, somehow, He can. He does. And He always will.
A few years ago, I came across the CSB translation of Psalm 23, that most famous of psalms, and was struck by its phrasing of the last verse: “Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life….”
Only goodness and faithful love.
Yes, trouble may chase us. Pain may nag us. Sorrow might ambush us again and again. Guilt and shame may nip at our heels.
But the only things that can keep up with us, day in and day out, all the days of our lives, are the goodness and faithful love of God. And like the Good Shepherd He is, He will send them after us relentlessly. No, scratch that – He’ll come after us Himself, bringing them with Him. Because that’s who He is.
As G.K. Chesterton said, “God is not a symbol of goodness; goodness is a symbol of God.”
So when you feel surrounded by darkness, look around for goodness. When you feel weighed down by sin, cry out for forgiveness.
You’ll find them. More importantly, you’ll find their Source.
Because all this time, He’s been finding you.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow mePsalm 23:6 (NKJV)
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Please Note: I don’t mean to discourage Christians from taking college classes on Christianity or the Bible. Mine helped me better articulate my beliefs, understand opposing views, and become humbler when approaching theological debates. I went so far as to minor in Religion. However, in my experience, college Religion classes are not advanced Sunday school classes or Bible studies. Studying one’s faith academically is different (for me, harder) than studying it devotionally. Keep this in mind if you’re considering taking such a class, and make your decision thoughtfully and prayerfully.