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I remember the exact moment when I realized that Jesus loved me—and LIKED me—ALL the time, not just when I had performed correctly. My life seemed like it was falling apart around me. I was no longer able to control everything and come across as a “godly” person. I started having panic attacks, and because I didn’t know what they were, I was worried that I might be dying. I was trying to find the reason all of this mess was happening (because there is always a reason, right?), searching my heart and past actions until I was completely confused.
Somehow, in spite of everything, I was still clinging to my relationship with Jesus because I did understand that I was a sinner and He was my Savior. So I took a walk in the woods at my favorite park and talked with Jesus. I told Him that I was a mess and I didn’t know what I’d done to make it this way, but that I was sorry. I remember exactly where I was standing when I knew in my heart that He loved me anyway. There wasn’t an audible voice, but the God of the universe spoke clearly to my heart:
“I have never loved you more than I do right now.”
And I cried, but I didn’t understand because I’d read Romans 8:1 many times: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (NKJV)
To me, that meant that as long as I was doing all the “godly” things God didn’t condemn me, but if I was “in the flesh,” i.e. not performing correctly, then I was under God’s condemnation. I’d lived like that for almost ten years. So, I reasoned, how could God love me so much right now, when it was obvious that I wasn’t “godly”?
My parents joined the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) in the early 90s. They are truly wonderful people and great parents, and they had only the best of intentions. We were never a “hardcore” ATI family. We attended a few seminars, used the Wisdom Booklets, and maybe went to Knoxville twice. My dad was actually a public school teacher and pretty skeptical of a lot of ATI and the conservative home school movement. I am very thankful for him and his wise advice over the years. (He kept me from wearing head-coverings, going to Romania with ATI, getting into a bad courtship, and he encouraged me to go to college.)
I’ve discovered many subtle lies that snuck into my mind through the Wisdom Booklets and other Institute teachings; however, the biggest influence on me was not the program, but a church we started attending when I was fourteen. When I talk about it now, I call it “The Crazy Church.” It was basically a giant, legalistic cult. Every family who went there home schooled, wore dresses, followed the ATI standards and guidelines, practiced courtship, etc. For the first few years, it was huge. People came from over two hours away!
I was young, impressionable, and I wanted desperately to be accepted. There were two groups among the teens: the godly group, and the rebel group. More than anything I wanted people to think well of me, so I learned to do everything I could to be part of the godly group. I followed all the rules; I was ready for the “What has God been teaching you lately” question; I knew the right words to use; I was “meek and quiet.” And at every Sunday service, every mid-week gathering, every youth service project, every winter youth retreat and summer family camp, I learned that God would like me better if I performed correctly.
I played the part and followed the rules well for five years. I became an “example of excellence” and people looked up to me as one of the “godly” older girls. But then I started having doubts. I started questioning. The ridiculous, legalistic standards were just not lining up with the God that I saw in the Bible and in my relationship with Him. Long story short, my doubts and questions ended up getting me classified as a rebel and yanked from my pedestal. It was a frustrating time. These were my friends, my peers. But soon the church was falling apart, and my family, along with many others, left.
In the four years that followed, I started cutting through the lies I’d believed and letting go of my legalistic standards. I stopped wearing dresses, bought my first contemporary Christian CD, worked at a Christian camp (and discovered people who looked “normal” but really loved Jesus!), began college, and started dating a great Christian guy who’d gone to public school (gasp!).
On the surface I’d lost a lot of the legalism and I looked pretty normal. But here in the woods, on this spring day in 2006, I was still struggling with the lies I’d been taught. Jesus said He loved me right now, in the middle of my mess. But the Bible said that I was under condemnation if I wasn’t “in the Spirit.” I went home and got out my Bible. I’d been given a new one for Christmas and it was an English Standard Version. Flipping quickly, I turned to Romans 8:1 and to my surprise, this is what I read:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Where was the rest of that verse?? I went online and looked at the NIV: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I searched the NASB: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The only versions that added that extra phrase were the KJV and the NKJV!
I’m not trying to start a Bible version argument here, but in that moment I realized that, once again, I had believed a lie. There was no condemnation to those who were in Christ Jesus! I was in Jesus because I believed that He had saved me—I was not condemned! A huge weight fell off of me. I laughed and cried and knew for the first time the grace and love of my Savior, and His amazing, unconditional love for me.
I’m still picking through the lies I’ve been taught and believed over the years. But I am able to look back and know that in the middle of everything, God was still in control, He still had a plan, and He will use the things I went through for His glory.