40 Years of Vanity and Pride

My Testimony, Part 1, At Calvary

I've always been a Christian. I was raised a Christian. My parents took my sister Barb and me to church faithfully every Sunday. I heard the Bible stories, learned the prayers, and followed the rules. 

My Mom and Dad praised me for being such a good girl. Everyone knew I was a Christian. 

What I didn't realize was that I was using the rules to build a wall inside myself. I needed that wall to protect myself from failure and to keep God from finding out the truth about me. I wasn't good enough to reach out for God, to talk to him. 

God lived somewhere between the altar and the stained glass windows of our church, and I couldn't go there. And why would almighty God, who lived in such glory and had so many other people worshiping him, care about one small person who didn't even read the Bible and pray every day?  

Goree Island, Senegal, Africa, 2008

Goree Island, Senegal, Africa, 2008

So I let others talk to God for me. Instead of reaching out, I held my hands at my sides. 

As I grew up, my little hands formed into tight fists. I figured out how to balance the strong-willed girl who lived inside me with the compliant child whom everyone liked. I learned I could make more friends by smiling and doing what I was told to do. But the tension inside me grew as I found out more about myself. 

I wasn't perfect. Who would ever love me the way I was?
    
High school was a time for new friendships and new discoveries. 

During my freshman year, I met Gene, a senior. In spite of the difference in our ages, we connected immediately, sharing some important common interests: writing and music. 

One Sunday he invited me to go with him to the evening service at his church. That night as we sat together on the back pew, I heard a song I'd never heard before — "At Calvary":  

            Years I spent in vanity and pride
            Caring not my Lord was crucified
            Knowing not it was for me he died
            At Calvary.

What a nice song, I thought. Too bad it didn't apply to me. 

Gene went on to college the following year, and I continued at our high school. I was active in our church youth group, attended the prayer group at school every morning, went to church every Sunday. 

During my sophomore year, I went steady with a guy who wanted to be a pastor. Many of our dates involved going to revivals and prayer services together with our Christian friends. 

I was sure everyone knew I was a Christian. How could they miss it?  
    
During those years, when I was with my friends at school and church, I was devoted to being religious. Doing the "right" things, hanging out with the Christian crowd. I wanted to fit into the Christian mold. 

At the same time I was disobedient and rebellious at home. I had no personal relationship with God. God and my parents were the rule-givers, and I was the rule-breaker. I was sneaky, just breaking the "little" rules, like "Honor thy father and mother," "Be in by midnight," and "Come straight home from school."  

When I broke the rules in my heart, mind, and actions at home, I thought I could at least hide my sins from God. 

When it would have been so easy to give up on me, my Mom and Dad stood by me. God was there, too, but he wasn't very close because I pushed him away. I was learning how to survive on my own, apart from all their rules. Or so I thought. 

I was really just building that wall inside me higher and higher. 

College brought some disappointments. A serious dating relationship that didn't work out. Confusion about what I wanted to do with my life. Fear that I couldn't make it on my own after I graduated. 

Still, I continued with my religious activities. Attending worship services, working on the church council, going to parties at the church. Everyone knew I was a Christian. Well, almost everyone. 

I couldn't fool my friend Gene. He knew something was missing. Whenever I talked with him on the phone, pouring out my troubles and wanting him to help me carry my burdens, I kept hearing that song, "At Calvary."  How I wished it applied to me!
    
Then I met a man who I was sure could save me, and I married him. Of course, we had a Christian wedding. My Mom and Dad, my sister Barb, and my friend Gene were there to give their support. After that, my husband and I settled down to real life. 

So what if my husband and I didn't attend church, pray, or study the Bible together? Everyone saw me drive to church every Sunday morning, serve on the church council, take Christian education classes, teach Sunday School, lead retreats. There was no doubt I was a Christian. 

But the reality was: Nothing in my life was working. My marriage was crumbling, and so was my heart. To protect myself, I put more bricks in the wall inside me. 

One day I realized I'd built a fortress around my heart, and no one ― not even God ― could get in. And I couldn't reach out.

That marriage ended, and I sealed myself inside my fortress. Of course, everyone knew I was still a Christian. I attended church most Sundays, sang in the choir, helped with caring ministries. 

But in the rest of my life, I was living a lie. No one was going to tell me what to do or how to do it. I didn't need help from anyone.

I couldn't love myself enough, so I looked for recognition and love everywhere except the one place I could have found it. I left behind everything that reminded me of my former life and carved out what I thought was a new life for myself. I worked hard at my job and did well. I filled my days with too many commitments, and then frantically tried to keep every one of them. 

All the time Gene was there, patiently listening, as I kept telling him what a mess everything was. I heard him humming that hymn to me in the background of my life, but I couldn't remember the words.

When my friend Sally died from a malignant brain tumor, nothing made sense to me anymore. 

"Dark Music," a painting by Sharon Ruane, artist and widow

"Dark Music," a painting by Sharon Ruane, artist and widow

Frightened and confused, I planned another restart. My life was still redeemable. I ended a close relationship with a man, moved across the country, changed careers. With love and help from my family, I found a job with a ministry organization, a new church, new Christian friends. I had a Bible on my desk, computer, dresser. I went to church every Sunday and served with Barb in Stephen Ministry. 

Everyone knew I was a Christian. But what they couldn't see was that wall inside me, higher and thicker than ever. I felt so alone, and I didn't understand why.

Living inside a fortress is true isolation. More than my loneliness or my work, the process of maintaining that fortress consumed me. No one was going to know me, touch me, or get close enough to see the real me. 

I had buried my most unforgivable sins. Or so I thought. In reality those sins were only crouching behind a wall already so high and thick, I could never get out.

God had a plan to break down my stronghold, to ground me on the solid rock that would never break down. God's plan started with my friend Gene. 

Always just a phone call away, he and I began to talk and correspond more and more. Instead of rehashing the mess my life was in and how it got that way, we talked about our faith, about tithing and witnessing. 

We studied the Bible together. In all the years we had known each other, we had never done that before. Gene asked me what the Scriptures said about me and my life. When I didn't have any idea, he gave me suggestions about where to look. Then he read with me and prayed with me. 

Gene watched as cracks developed in the wall I'd constructed. He saw them, even when I didn’t.

One April evening, God introduced me to my neighbor Terri. From a quiet conversation in the dark on adjoining front porches, we discovered a mutual desire to grow in the Lord. She cared for me in so many ways. She brought me together with other Christians to share our faith. 

When I was hungry for the Word, Terri made sure I got fed through singing and sermons. When I questioned and doubted, she helped me find answers. With love and concern, she challenged me to learn as much as I could about God. 

The Holy Spirit used Terri to unlock the Scriptures for me and make the Bible come alive. I still remember the wonderful realization I had in her kitchen one day: Every answer to every problem and question I have is in the Bible!  

As I began to know myself and the Lord better, I felt my sins scratching inside me. They wanted out, and I was too scared to admit or release them. I knew they were there, but I hoped God didn't. I tried to slide by God one more time to avoid being punished. 

Gene began to talk with me about having a personal relationship with Jesus. For the first time, I admitted to Gene and myself that I couldn't slide by anymore. Jesus was who was missing in my life. 

But how could I knock down the walls I'd spent 40 years building and let Jesus in? I was scared to lose my fortress that, I believed, had been protecting me.

Even though I didn't realize it, the demolition process had already begun. 

I was searching for forgiveness for what I had done to others, for what others had done to me. I'd made so many mistakes and hurt so many people: a failed marriage, abrupt endings to several close relationships. A "Christian" witness that wasn't Christian at all. The many times I'd stepped over the line and committed those "little" sins, living a lie instead of facing the truth. 

As Gene and I studied the Scriptures together, he talked with me about the forgiveness only God offers. But I still couldn't believe what happened "At Calvary" was meant for me. 

Centennial Chapel, Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Illinois

Centennial Chapel, Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Illinois

Then one night, Gene and I sat at my dining room table together. I looked at him and saw a person who had experienced the forgiveness I longed for. Gene had already let down all his walls and given God control of his life ― and survived. He held out the Bible to me, open to Colossians 2:

"When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross."
                                                                                                            Colossians 2:13-14

Suddenly the words leaped from the page into my heart. These words were for me! It was like a wrecking ball had hit me, shattering the wall inside me and sending bricks flying everywhere! It was about me! Jesus was offering the gift of salvation to me!  

            By God's Word at last my sin I learned
            Then I trembled at the law I'd spurned
            Till my guilty soul imploring turned
            To Calvary.

I wanted the opportunity, as an adult, to let God know how sure I was he was my Lord and Savior. I wanted to knowingly accept his forgiveness and experience his baptism by immersion in water. Gene told me there was a way I could do that.

On a quiet summer evening, just a few days later, I came to the water in a backyard swimming pool in Oklahoma. Gene was there to baptize me. All I had to do was confess my faith in Jesus and go under the water. It was that easy. I felt Gene holding me, the strong arms I trusted so much, and I felt the strong arms of Jesus holding both of us.

When I came up out of the water, I looked at my Christian friends gathered on the other side of the pool. As I stood shivering with the thrill of forgiveness and my new life with Christ, they sang to me:
        
            Now I've giv'n to Jesus everything
            Now I gladly own him as my King
            Now my raptured soul can only sing
            Of Calvary.
            . . .
            There my burdened soul found liberty
            At Calvary.

It was for me you died, Jesus. Thank you for that most precious gift. Thank you for my family and friends who never gave up on me. And thank you for never giving up on me either. 

Now everyone knows I'm a Christian. And I do, too. 

January 1996

If you're not familiar with the beautiful, meaningful hymn "At Calvary," here's the best presentation of it I've ever heard. My friend Amber Joy Leffel Olney sings it here with such meaning and passion. Let this bless you today.


Laura Warfel is a widow, writer, and follower of Jesus Christ. Her greatest joy is to bring others along with her on her faith journey. In 2015, because of the encouragement of the Launch Out Conference and Jon Acuff, she launched More Than A Widow on Facebook and Twitter. Today she blogs, tweets, and posts to help widows (and those who know them) find encouragement, hope, and resources for the journey. Her goal is to help all widows live beyond the label and live as more than a widow.
Copyright © 2017 by Laura Warfel