By Ross Engel –
I fell in love with weight training the first time I walked into the gym. I was a scrawny 14-year-old kid who barely weighed in at 115 pounds. I was so weak that I could barely lift the 45-pound Olympic bar. I had played soccer and basketball for years, so I was pretty quick on my feet. I had just started doing gymnastics, and I wanted to get stronger and faster. My introduction to weight training was a great awakening to a new world, one that I have now spent the better part of 22 years enjoying. That scrawny, wide-eyed kid who stepped through the doors of the gym those years ago is not recognizable when people see me now, but he’s still there in my mind. He (along with a fair share of life’s tormentors) is the unseen motivation behind every set, rep, and training journal entry.
It is good for me to remember why I started in the first place. It helps keep me grounded and has given me the ability to say “yes” and “no” to some of the weight room temptations that tend to arise.
Recently, I found myself in the middle of a conversation about the ministry. Someone had asked me a rather simple question, one that Pastors often seem to be asked. Over the years, I had developed a bit of a brush-off answer to the question, but this situation warranted an honest response.
“What made you want to become a Pastor?”
Typically I would give a generic answer to such a question, something like “I felt drawn to the ministry” or “I wanted to serve God and His people.” Occasionally I’ve been known to blame my wife, joking that I knew that she wanted to marry a Pastor, and since I wanted to marry her, I had to become a Pastor (so if you don’t like me as a Pastor, it’s her fault, not mine).
But all those answers were typically a safety blanket for me. They protected me from getting too honest with folks, or risk sharing the truth and being rejected.
Remembering why I started is just as important in ministry as it is in the gym.
I can sum up why I wanted to become a pastor in one word: forgiveness. Believe it or not, it actually is partly my wife’s fault!
When my wife and I started dating, we had one of those really frank and honest conversations where we divulged our whole lives to each other. As I shared some of my darkest past with her, I was quite worried that this sweet girl might hear the truth and run the other way. But instead of responding as I expected, she uttered three words: “I Forgive You.”
Now I grew up going to church and hearing about forgiveness each Sunday. I grew up in a great Christian home where we talked about forgiveness. But for some reason, it wasn’t until I heard those words from the woman who would become my bride that I felt like I understood what forgiveness truly was.
I was liberated! Set free from guilt and shame and the fears that I had been holding onto for so long. There was acceptance. There was mercy. It was the forgiveness of my sins put into action. In the midst of it all, my understanding of God’s forgiveness for us in Christ was suddenly much clearer.
You see, I had often experienced forgiveness in a less than perfect way. Typically forgiveness was more of an, “I forgive you, but as soon as you mess up again, I’m throwing this mistake in your face,” or “I’ll forgive you, but you can never do it again,” or “you must earn this forgiveness that I’ve now given you.” Forgiveness may indeed have been given, but guilt and shame and fear were powerful allies that often were used as weapons of control. Somehow the way I experienced forgiveness from others managed to influence the way that I imagined God’s forgiveness for me.
Conditional. Incomplete. Something that needed to be earned. And so I was terrified of God and His judgment.
I was wrong.
God’s forgiveness is complete. Just as Jesus Christ said on the cross: “it is finished.” There is nothing I still need to do. There are no sins that God isn’t able to forgive. His forgiveness is perfect; he removes our iniquities as far as the East is from the West. God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it isn’t based on whether I sin again or not. The debt owed for my sins and yours was paid in full by Jesus through His own suffering and death. His forgiveness isn’t based on our best efforts or on avoiding this sin or that sin. God’s forgiveness doesn’t disappear as soon as we sin again and He doesn’t throw our past sins back into our face after He’s forgiven them.
In a word, “forgiveness” is what sent me off to seminary. I wanted my life’s work to be the joyous task of delivering Jesus’ forgiveness of sins to people in need of forgiveness. I wanted others to know what it meant to be forgiven, liberated from sin, wrath, fear, and shame. I wanted to proclaim Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.
It is so easy to become distracted from that simple task of proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness to sinners. When I’m pushed to be a church executive, vision caster, businessman, or some other thing instead of a Pastor, I force myself to get back to the basics and remind myself why I started in the first place.
Forgiveness! And to proclaim God’s forgiveness in Christ!
May that task always be remembered, and may we never be scrawny in that task!