On Sunday morning, Hunter heard drum beats reverberate as he approached the church building from the parking lot.
He never had trouble getting to work or an appointment on time, yet week after week, he arrived to church a minute after the worship service started. With its large congregation and a music segment at the beginning of each service, though, individuals like Hunter could trickle in without anyone noticing their late arrivals.
When he opened the door to the worship auditorium, the music’s volume doubled in his ears, the audible equivalent of a blast of heat. A greeter who stood inside the door, a man Hunter had never officially met but had seen for years, gave him a wide smile and a pat on the back. Hunter found an open seat near the middle of the room.
Nearly a thousand people sang the lyrics projected on the wall. From listening to Pastor Chuck’s sermons and getting to know him personally over the years, Hunter knew his pastor sought an environment of freedom in worship. Some individuals clapped to the music, some closed their eyes while others kept theirs open. Many individuals across the auditorium lifted their hands in praise, while the occasional person leaped in place or danced with joy in the aisle.
Rather than singing this morning, Hunter observed the environment around him.
Along the auditorium’s walls hung fabric-covered rectangles to absorb sound, along with framed photos illustrating the church’s history. Dimmed lights, which hung overhead and along the perimeter, ushered a cozy ambience into the room. At the front of the room, on a large platform, the worship band consisted of about ten members: a lead vocalist and several background vocalists; an electric guitarist and a bass player; an alto saxophone player, a keyboardist, and a drummer. The band represented a wide range of ages, yet found common ground as they played an upbeat, contemporary song about God’s love that had set them free.
Hunter loved Sunday mornings in church. He could see the elation in people’s eyes, people from all walks of life whose relationships with Christ had changed their lives. To Hunter, church felt like a celebration. It reminded him of how glad he’d felt when he’d given his heart to Jesus Christ. He recalled the relief he’d felt, no longer dragging chains of failure and overwhelming guilt. And over the years, as Hunter looked back on his life and compared it to how he’d felt without a Savior, he’d grown more grateful.
Today, Hunter felt as welcome in church as he always had. He perceived the same sense of joy and wonder among the people who had gathered together. The song lyrics still resonated in his heart. Since becoming a Christian, whenever Hunter stepped foot in a church service, he held an awareness of his personal struggles. He knew he was far from perfect, as was everyone else around him.
Yet today, Hunter had arrived with an altered perspective.
Last week, Hunter had come to church aware of his attractions, but with the knowledge nothing physical had occurred. It had remained a temptation, just as it had every week of his faith life.
As he stood in the worship auditorium this morning, however, he did so with the knowledge of what had occurred between Gabe and him earlier that week.
Today, the contrast lurked in the recesses of his conscience.
The sense of guilt reminded him of how he’d felt before he’d become a Christian, back when he’d given minimal thought to God or religion. And on the occasions he had wondered about God, he’d had no idea how to reach out to Him or connect with Him.
Now, in the midst of a sea of other believers, Hunter felt alone.
The final upbeat song came to a close. From their various seats around the auditorium, individuals clapped or gave spontaneous shouts to God. Beyond God’s ability to meet needs and keep the whole world in order, the facet of God that Hunter found most fascinating was that He was a loving God. He was a God who noticed each individual, who knew each person intimately. A God who looked at each individual with compassion, loved that person in a manner beyond comprehension, and truly cared about the details of that individual’s life.
The band changed musical keys and transitioned into a slower, worshipful song. As the tone grew tender, Hunter yearned for a connection between God and him. He closed his eyes and shut out the people around him, focusing on the sweet melody and lyrics of the song.
As the music washed over him, Hunter ruminated on his relationship with Christ, who had rescued Hunter from his own devices and set him on a better course than he would have dreamed otherwise. Jesus had set him free. Hunter had received forgiveness for his sins.
But though he had received a clean slate in his life, his struggles and temptations hadn’t vanished, had they? Though he had hope, his problems hadn’t disintegrated.
Unfortunately, while Jesus had liberated him from sin, Hunter hadn’t experienced the smaller miracle he’d sought.
This morning, as the keyboard-driven worship song continued, Hunter’s mind wandered to the electricity he’d discovered when he’d kissed Gabe. Growing more aware of God’s presence amid the worship—of Hunter’s sin compared to God’s holiness—a wave of shame rushed over him. Here he was, worshipping God while he held secret desires for Gabe. A pang hit his heart. Tears formed behind his closed eyelids and seeped out onto his cheeks.
When God looked at Hunter, which one did He see: the genuine Hunter who worshiped God from the depths of his heart, or the Hunter who had succumbed to his weakness?
The truth was, Hunter cared very much about what God thought of him and how his faith reflected on others. So where did God stand on this struggle? And in light of that, how was Hunter to reconcile his feelings for Gabe?
For Hunter, the question wasn’t about God’s love. Rather, he likened it to a child who cared about what his father thought of him, who wanted to bring gladness to his father and make him proud of him.
He knew God loved him. That security had provided an anchor for his heart since he’d turned to Christ at sixteen years old. Besides, he knew from his Bible reading that God even loved people who hated Him or didn’t believe in His existence.
The question was, Did Hunter’s feelings and actions bring shame to God or this church?
Was Hunter a hypocrite for standing here worshipping while knowing the secrets he hid inside? God knew about his struggle. Was it anyone else’s business? Or was he a hypocrite for not confiding in someone, for keeping the issue private between God and him?
The worship song continued, the lyrics of which spoke about God’s grace. Hunter recognized the songwriter had based the lyrics on Psalm 139, a chapter to which Hunter had turned so often in his Bible that the page corner, already thin as onion skin, showed wear marks. When Hunter hit rough times in his life, he read that psalm because it reminded him of God’s presence regardless of where he turned. The psalmist pondered whether there was a limit to where God could reach him, and couldn’t name one. Even if he made his bed in hell, the psalmist said, God would remain beside him.
Hunter returned his attention to the music. If he lost his chance to worship with believers around him, his next opportunity wouldn’t come until the midweek service, and he needed this hour’s worth of refuge.
Yet he couldn’t remain focused. He couldn’t shake the feeling of slipping slowly down a muddy cliff toward a valley, toward unknown territory where answers evaded him.
God’s grace was the focal point of Hunter’s faith in Christ. Sin brought a penalty, but Jesus had paid that penalty on Hunter’s behalf. When Hunter had given himself to Christ, it had brought him into the family of believers, and Christ’s payment now covered him, the way an insurance policy might cover all members of a family.
But how far did God’s grace reach?
Hunter had never examined that question in such an applicable way. Like everyone else, Hunter sinned in his life. Most of those sins, however, were one-time failures. They didn’t carry with them long-term ramifications or strong emotional components.
Where did God’s grace begin and end? How much did it cover? Did it cover past mistakes only, or current struggles? Did grace come by the act of asking for forgiveness, or did grace already exist to the fullest degree in a heart that belonged to Christ? Was it a step-by-step provision, or did Christ’s sacrifice cover everything—past, present and future—to free Hunter from having to ask for God’s forgiveness detail by detail?
Hunter didn’t know the answers to those questions, nor did the Bible seem to state them outright. At least, not as far as Hunter could find in his reading.
And Hunter’s torment resided in that absence of knowing.
Most of all, he craved to know where God’s grace ended.
As far as Hunter could tell, whatever actions that might ensue with Gabe entailed a series of choices, and once he made a conscious choice, Hunter didn’t know if God’s grace covered it. Could one decision today doom him for eternity? Hunter’s salvation had come from a heart response, not physical works. The Bible said a man’s actions could never earn his salvation; rather, salvation came as a free gift, by grace through faith, lest any man should boast.
If Hunter’s actions couldn’t earn his salvation, could his actions sever his salvation?
God knew Hunter’s faith was genuine. God knew how much Hunter loved Him from what felt like his whole heart.
Where does God draw the line between heart and actions?
Hunter’s torment mounted. He was confident he was safe so far. Nonetheless, he wondered if any actions with Gabe might serve as baby steps toward losing his salvation. If he consented to his feelings for Gabe, would he risk his own heart straying from God? Would he step outside the canopy of God’s protection? Is it possible for someone to wander so far, he falls out of grace? Could Hunter wind up in hell, forfeiting his salvation for eternity, and trace its root to involvement with Gabe or another man? Was Hunter on the verge of setting into motion permanent damnation before he understood the full consequences and without hope of recovery?
An image flashed through Hunter’s mind—an image of himself floating in darkness, writhing in pain as the fires of hell burned away his soul and worms ate at his body, knowing a reprieve would never come and the agony would last forever. Fear of what would come with each instant. Loneliness in knowing God had departed, the notion that he could never again feel the comfort of God’s embrace.
Fear shot down Hunter’s spine, a terror so severe, he wanted to thrash his head from side to side, desperate to shake the frightful thoughts from his mind. But he remembered where he was—surrounded by people—so he forced himself to settle down, despite the fact that his stomach wrenched and his jaw now felt sore from its clenched state.
This wasn’t the first time such images had traveled through his mind. Hunter had considered those pictures year after year, and he had endured them alone.
In moments like these, Hunter turned his attention back to God’s love, the love that had accepted and welcomed him years ago. God had known Hunter’s challenges and had wanted him anyway. Hunter trusted that love. He trusted that, somewhere along the way, mercy had to be available for someone like him. Not because he deserved it, but because it matched the nature of the God he knew.
With his eyes still closed and another heartfelt worship song fading into the background, Hunter lifted his hands, tilted his face toward heaven, a grateful man worshipping his Savior who sat high on His throne. Tears came forth in such abundance, he gave up on trying to wipe them away. Besides, he wasn’t the only one who wept during worship.
To anyone who might have noticed Hunter, they would have assumed this was a simple moment of worship, which it was. But it was also more than that.
For Hunter, it was a desperate cry for God to show up and give him wisdom: hands open and arms outstretched, the arms of a child racing into his father’s embrace. Pleading for his father to never abandon him.
Excerpt Copyright 2015 John Herrick