Sarah is a college junior studying chemistry. She comes from a good home, and was raised in a Lutheran church. She has a story. She tells her story often, not because it’s unique but because it’s painfully common. She tells her story because Jesus has given her the freedom to tell it.
This is what Sarah has to say:
I grew up knowing a lot about Jesus, but I really didn’t know Him. I want to blame somebody but I can’t. My family faithfully attended church. My dad was a trustee and my mom taught Sunday school, but somehow my faith never translated into a relationship, simply Jesus and me. Faith was something I went to, participated in, and studied. My parents modeled a very safe and packaged faith. We prayed memorized prayers. I can’t remember them talking about needing Jesus or how Jesus was developing their character or helping them in a problem. My youth group was not much different. We planned events, raised money, played games, and usually everything was accompanied by a 15-minute devotion. Don’t get me wrong, the spiritual leaders in my life were fun, kind, responsible people, but I grew up with a faith that felt sterile and unpractical.
When the challenges of teenage life hit, I remember thinking that there must be more to faith than what I was experiencing. Why wasn’t my faith helping me deal with temptation, or the nagging critical talk that I spoke to myself? Why couldn’t I be happier? Why was I never satisfied? I started attending a public high school and I was thrown into a world that challenged all my moral boundaries. By the end of my junior year, I agreed to have sex with my boyfriend. The combination of curiosity, the influence of friends, my own insecurities, and just being tired of battling my boyfriend finally wore me down. My faith told me that it was wrong, but that wasn’t reason enough not to do it.
My first sexual encounter in my parent’s basement opened up a whole dark world for me. Sex was not physically pleasurable for me, but the power I gained over my boyfriend was intoxicating. I quickly moved on to more popular targets and found my influence equally successful. At first I felt sorrow and shame, but that wore off after a few months. All along I continued to attend church with my family and receive Holy Communion. During the confession of sins, I always thought of my most recent failure, but I lost the ability to feel sorrow and felt no real desire to change.
By my freshman year in college I began to sense a deep hole in my heart. I was jumping from one failed relationship to another. I hated the thought of spending the weekend alone and began to resent myself for always needing someone to alleviate my loneliness. I began to realize that the influence I gained over boys that intoxicated me in high school was a lie. They were using me. But none of this pain moved me to change.
Then a girl on my floor began to take an interest in me. I was lucky that my room was close to the elevator. It gave her a convenient reason to poke her head in my room and say hi. Eventually, she started looking for me in the cafeteria. Because of my preoccupation with boys, I never developed healthy relationships with other girls and so this new friendship scared me at first, but then I realized that she really cared for me. I admired her honesty, the joyfulness of her spirit, and the fact that she could manage her own life and have enough energy to invest in someone else.
One day she asked me if I knew Jesus.
“Yeah, I was raised in a Lutheran church. I go every time I’m home.”
“Lutheran? You’re Lutheran? So am I!”
Then she invited me to her small group Bible study at the Lutheran Student Chapel. I went, afraid, skeptical, intimidated, but I went. I knew enough about the Bible that I wasn’t afraid of looking like an idiot. I was afraid of being judged or feeling like a religious project or seeing a side of my friend that I didn’t like and losing her friendship. The first couple of weeks I didn’t say a thing. I had nothing to contribute. A few weeks later I managed to say a few short sentences. In the group, I witnessed a side of faith that freaked me out and drew me in, all at the same time. They prayed for each other. Really prayed. Significant stuff. Without knowing it, they addressed my secrets in their prayers for one another. I began to feel the Holy Spirit produce sorrow in me over my sin, not from the soup of despair, but out of a hope that I could have a better life. I found myself taking long walks on campus, praying, weeping, and repenting of everything I could remember.
But even after repenting of the same sins numerous times, I wasn’t feeling God’s forgiveness. Then at one of our small group Bible study meetings a girl shared how Joel 2:25 spoke to her that week. “The Lord will repay what the locusts had eaten.” She learned that forgiveness was not a matter of feeling, but of trust. She confessed that the locusts had eaten a large chunk of her past and she couldn’t do anything about that, but Jesus could. So instead or re-repenting of sin, she focused on accepting by faith that she was washed clean in the blood of Jesus. I needed to hear that. She was right. I say that verse to myself often.
Now, I have a new life. I still struggle with sin and temptation, but the intoxicating influence in my life is Jesus Christ. I am totally loved, completely accepted, made for eternity, equipped for His service. Jesus is teaching me how to love people, especially guys. I haven’t had a boyfriend in over a year and that’s totally ok. I cherish my Christian friends at the Lutheran Chapel. I understand that faith is not something I go to or participate in or learn about. Faith is about walking with Jesus and belonging to His body, other believers. I discovered this at a Lutheran campus ministry.
Thanks for listening.
Pastor Bill Steinbauer serves the Lutheran Student Chapel of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.