Visit Fil's website - journeyresources.org and check out his book "Breaking The Rules"
Sitting before me appears to be an innocent picture of a young boy, neatly dressed, standing next to his dad. Yet to me, it’s the most revealing picture that I’ve ever seen. It has become a window into my soul enabling me to see into my life as a child and understand how at an early age my soul was formed.
Taken when I was seven years old, Dad and I are decked out in our Sunday best. We look, as some folks say, “picture perfect.” I’m certain that either before or after this “photo op” occurred, Dad escorted me to the doorway of my Sunday School classroom and prior to giving me a kiss and sending me inside, he repeated the weekly mantra: “Now Fil, your mom and I have taught you how to behave. Don’t you disappoint us! You know how to act!”
Recalling those days at the doorway and the Bible stories we were taught helped me recognize that the lesson was essentially the same: “You’ve been taught how to behave. Don’t disappoint us. You know how to act.”
Is it any wonder that much of my life I’ve frantically paced back and forth, wondering, fearing, and dreading how God feels about me? Does it surprise you that I became a relentless overachiever whose fainting hope was to earn God’s love and approval by doing and performing?
By adulthood, I was caught up in a private storm of weariness and hopelessness. For years I’d maintained my allegiance to respectable moral habits and values. I even became an accomplished religious professional—a persistent overachiever whose self-image and reputation were based on hard work and the appearance of clean living. My lifestyle got me plenty of admiration and status within my Christian culture, but it was wreaking havoc within my soul. No one knew I was really aching inside with shame, despair and self-hatred.
My religion comprised plenty of good things—important truths and principles that led me into plenty of worthy endeavors. Bit it also led me into running and “winning” the entirely wrong race. I’d falsely believed that being a
good Christian meant believing and doing the right things—which can never compare or be confused with living in daily, intimate relationship with God. Thus I got lost in the details and, as a result, lost my soul.
While my choices were my own, I sometimes wonder how different my early life might have been, had someone told me the really good news—the true gospel. By the time I knew enough to tell others that God loved them, I hardly believed it for myself. I thought God would love me only if I lived up to the right standards. But what if someone had convincingly told me that the other side of our sin is the unstoppable grace and goodness of a scandalously loving Father who wants to welcome us back into relationship with Him? What if someone had told me that my true identity lies in how He sees me, not how I see myself, and that His desire is for me to accept the reality that I am unconditionally loved, completely forgiven and forever free? What a profound difference it would’ve made if I’d understood that rituals, guidelines, and even rules are only intended to be a sort of map that can lead to a priceless treasure. Instead, I’d confused the map for the treasure, and in the process, I never saw the beauty and wonder of the treasure: Jesus Himself.
It wasn’t until the “cheese slid entirely off my crack”—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—that I realized I could no longer live this way. Recognizing that I didn’t feel loved or forgiven and that I wasn’t free, I dragged myself to a spiritual retreat, desperately seeking help for the first time. It was there that I finally asked the Lord in all transparency, “Have I ever really known You, or is it simply religion I’ve had a relationship with?”
This was the beginning of my emancipation. I’ll never forget the words of my spiritual director at that retreat: “Fil, you must allow God’s definition of you to become your own definition of you. He’s crazy about you! You are loved! From this moment forward, that truth must become the most important truth you know about yourself.”
As I began to firmly recognize and dismiss my distorted and false impressions of God, I was given an increasing awareness of the true and living God, who surpasses all human concepts and expectations, and is beyond anything we can
ever envision or intellectualize. The radical transformation of my life from religious oppression to secure, joyful intimacy with God still amazes me. Restless striving no longer controls me. The ongoing process of unlearning and relearning has brought peace, gladness, and deep inner healing I never imagined possible.
Looking back on my life, an exceptional benefit our family enjoyed during our twenty-five years working with Young Life was month-long assignments at resort properties. When our son Will was three years old I was to be the speaker at a newly opened facility, ten hours from our home. Knowing my days would be filled once we arrived, my wife and I decided to take a whole week to drive the trip, allowing us to spend some quality time together as a family. Thus, for seven fun-filled, light-hearted, carefree days, Will and his older sister were the focus of my attention.
As expected, when we reached our destination I hit the deck running. On the fourth morning, I remember sitting in a meeting, aware of someone pacing back and forth at the end of a long hallway to my left. At first, I gave no thought to the person’s presence. But as the march continued, I turned and discovered that it was Will. When he passed in my full view, he slowed down and looked in my direction. I was now distracted, wondering what was going on. He kept pacing, so the next time he passed I motioned him to come to me. I pray that I’ll never forget the look of utter joy, relief, and delight on his face. First walking and then running toward me, he shouted, “Him wants me! Yes! Him wants me!” After enjoying a week of nonstop attention, my son was wondering whether I liked him and still wanted to be with him.
“Him wants me!” That simple declaration, shouted exuberantly with confidence, is the best explanation I have to offer for the ongoing radical transformation occurring in my life today. God wants me! Not because of anything I’ve done or have the capacity to do. God wants me, for the simple reason that I’m God’s son. And nothing I ever do or fail to accomplish can budge the fact that I’m dearly loved, completely forgiven, and forever free.