Spiritual Practices

Amazing Grace: Craig’s Story

I have a confession: The story of how I first decided to trust in Jesus has always felt slightly boring.

I grew up in the church and was part of the youth group in the 1970s. As a teenager, I heard a steady stream of radical stories of how people were coming to faith in Jesus, usually out of the rock-and-roll drug culture.

My friends and I who were born and raised in the church were always amazed by these stories. And if we were completely honest, many of us secretly wished we could upgrade our testimonies. You know–trade them in for more exciting versions.

It wasn’t until college that I realized what it meant to come to faith in Jesus for myself. I thought I had a faith story because I knew most of the Bible stories (at least the important ones) and was active in my church. But when I was away at college, I discovered that I hadn’t necessarily made my faith my own. I found myself at a crossroads–I was going to either embrace the faith I had grown up with or walk away from it completely.

I attended (somewhat reluctantly)  a campus ministry retreat during the spring break of my freshman year. At that retreat, a breakthrough happened regarding my faith. After a week of Bible studies looking at the life of Jesus, I found myself wondering about Jesus’ disciples–they seemed so clueless as to who Jesus really was. As we studied the life of Jesus, I was struck by how the disciples kept putting Jesus in boxes of their own construction – boxes he kept breaking out of, or better yet, was never in. Jesus wanted the disciples to truly know who he was and what faith in him was all about. He wanted them to know that the good news he preached was about grace–and that grace was a free gift that couldn’t be earned by living a good life. I had heard all of this growing up in the church, but it hit me in new and real ways that week.

I spent the final evening of the retreat taking a walk alone, thinking over my life. I felt a lot like the disciples and their interactions with Jesus. I wrestled with this idea of grace versus living a life good enough for God to love and accept me. By the end of the walk, I felt a deep conviction that I had put Jesus in a box. I took him out of the box when I needed him or when I thought he wouldn’t ask too much of me. For the first time, I admitted my fears of completely trusting and surrendering my life to him.

My heart grew full as I took in the truth of God’s grace as a gift I could not earn, but one he freely wants to give. I prayed and can’t remember the words, but it was a prayer of thanks, of repentance, confession, and trust – I told God I wanted to be all in.

The image that came to mind at that moment makes me laugh now. During the 1980s, there was an ad for Nestea iced tea, which showed people taking the “Nestea plunge” – falling backwards into a swimming pool. By trusting God and receiving his grace – I felt just like that– not reaching toward him, but rather a release and relief of falling into his love, forgiveness and acceptance. For someone who had lived thinking they needed to be “good enough” to earn God’s love, it was like a heavy weight had been lifted from me. I had come to truly understand and receive God’s gift of grace.

Philip Yancey summarizes so well what I needed to learn about grace:

Grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. It means that I, even I who deserve the opposite, am invited to take my place at the table in God’s family. By instinct I feel I must do something to be accepted. Grace sounds a startling note of contradiction, of liberation, and every day I must pray anew for the ability to hear its message.” What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey (p. 71)

While I still don’t think my story of coming to faith in Jesus is terribly exciting, I have come to firmly believe there are no boring stories of people responding to God’s amazing grace. It turns out that the stories are all radical– for every single one of us.

About the Author: Craig Gartland
Craig is Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Blackhawk and oversees Adult Ministries. He completed his Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary and spent over two decades of his career in campus ministry. He is married to Sharon and they have four children. His passions include cycling, listening to jazz music, photography, and the writings of C.S. Lewis.