Seeking Christ’s Rich Blessing of a Boring Backstory

It’s no secret that redemption is one of the most frequently-employed dramatic themes of many successful films and books. Because God has hard-wired all of us to seek redemption, nothing seems to please audiences more than that fateful moment when (for example) the handsome-but-selfish jerk is finally confronted with the error of his ways and suffers a total breakdown, sobbing alone on a rainy street corner as the camera pulls back and the violin-drenched soundtrack swells.

It would seem that we just can’t get enough of those moments when the thin facade of respectability is completely torn away from a character and he is left with no recourse and no place to hide. In a well-written story, multiple seemingly-random events will finally intersect to precipitate a lifelong change that is both genuine and far-reaching.

Of course, it’s good and right for us to cheer whenever someone (real or fictitious) turns aside from wickedness and wrongdoing and steps into the light of day. In movies and in novels, one effective means of heightening the drama of a character’s conversion is to dwell for a bit on how relentlessly evil and utterly without remorse they were prior to the climactic event that finally triggered their about-face. The nastier the villain, the more astonishing it is when they ultimately repent.

Because we are all storytellers at heart, and because we have all had this pattern of dramatic redemption seared into our subconscious by countless films, plays and novels, it’s tempting at times to “heighten” the drama in our own stories. I first noticed this as I began attending recovery group meetings in the mid-1990s. Whether I was meeting in a Bible study setting with a small group of men or attending an AA meeting, I more than once found the redemptive language of popular films creeping into the real-life addiction testimonies of others. Worse, on more than one occasion the group started trying to “out-deprave” one another, seeking to assert that their backstory was far worse than that of the person who had just finished speaking.

Believe me, I very well understand the necessity of purging past sins and depravity, getting it all out into the open so we can get past it all and, by God’s grace, shut the door on that sad chapter in our lives. As a matter of fact, the Bible commands us to confess our sins to one another and then pray for one another that we might be healed (James 5:16). So one thing I am most certainly not saying is that people should “hold back” when they are asked to share their story. Not at all.

What I am saying is that just as an author can heighten the dramatic nature of a character’s repentance by throwing a spotlight on earlier, horrific behavior, we – as real people with actual backstories – can perhaps inadvertently damage others by dwelling on the depth of our depravity prior to conversion. Certainly, the very worst thing we can do is point, almost with a twinkle in our eye, to outrageous moments “back in the day” when we were engaged in all sorts of sinful, degrading, soul-killing behavior.

Confess? Yes, absolutely. Fall into any sort of twisted “nostalgia” for the days when our friends and family members had to pick us up off the front lawn or bail us out? Probably not helpful.

In fact, the tendency to in any way “romanticize” our former failings is (I believe) deadly. It can have the unintended side-effect of teaching others that they actually need something “a little more colorful” in their own backstory before Jesus can adequately rescue them from their sins. Romanticizing egregious sins in any way also tends to minimize the seriousness of “respectable sins,” the less-noticeable affronts to God that we commit each and every day. There are plenty of people who survive addiction and yet remain unconverted at a heart level…thereby holding on to their sobriety with white knuckles as they plunge headlong into hell.

To my way of thinking, there is no greater, more dramatic conversion story than that of the Apostle Paul, who was smacked silly and struck blind by the risen Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-9); perhaps – not surprisingly – one of my favorite parts of the New Testament. Saul of Tarsus, as he was formerly known, was so zealous in his defense of what he mistakenly thought to be God’s will that he jailed, persecuted and murdered other Christians. Pretty hard to beat that for a sinful backstory…and please don’t try! Thus, it was not false modesty for Paul to refer to himself as chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Today, it chills my blood to think of Paul, one of the primary authors of the Bible, smiling while he holds the coats of other Jews so that they would be better able to brutally stone Stephen to death without wrinkling their garments (Acts 7:58). Small wonder it took the first-century church elders at least a day or two to welcome Paul into their fellowship.

And I have to believe that in his later years, perhaps as he was writing his letters to Timothy or the churches in Ephesus, Corinth, etc. that Paul himself desperately wished that his own life had been a bit more boring, haunted as he must have been by the bloody, violent deaths of Stephen and other early church martyrs. Even though Paul very clearly knew better than most that he had been completely forgiven in Christ, I have to think that he still saw clearly in his mind’s eye the terrified faces of his victims.

Regrettably, my own life of faith does have a dramatic backstory. Christ was exceedingly merciful to me, and by His grace I also have a sudden, undeniable conversion event that I can point to. Volunteering in various ministries, I also now know plenty of other people with horrible, absolutely depraved backstories, some of whom have yet to open their hearts and receive that same grace and mercy that was shown to me…and are therefore much in need of our prayers.

Just in the last week, though, I had the privilege to sit across the table from not one, but two young men; different days, different cities, with zero connection to each other other than a mutual trust in Jesus. Both of them could not remember ever having not been a follower of Christ and, in the context of our conversations, it was right and good for me to tell them how richly and deeply blessed they both were. Interestingly, both of these young men mentioned that their lives to date had been “kinda plain, ordinary” with “not much to tell,” and right at that moment God gave me a great opportunity to speak of His great mercy and kindness to them in providing them with “an uninteresting backstory.”

Biologically speaking, I am the father of two. In my heart of hearts, though, there are seven kids walking around Columbia today that I claim as my own in one way or another, and who can (if they want to!) claim me as father. My urgent, everyday prayer for all seven is that Christ would be rich toward them in mercy, pouring out His Holy Spirit in their hearts and minds and giving them, if it be His will, an absolutely boring, sleep-inducing backstory. True, sparing seven souls the lifelong effects of sin, folly and rebellion might not make them promising candidates for a reality TV show or a six-figure book deal. Speaking, though, as one who has been forgiven much, I can confidently say that while scars almost always have an interesting backstory attached to them, acquiring them was never unaccompanied by a great deal of pain.

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