The following guest post is written by my good friend, Mauricio Escobar.
I was born to a single mother on the small island province of San Andres, Colombia. My mother had been told she could not have children, so she was surprised when she found herself expecting. Prior to this, she had become disillusioned from her family’s culturally Roman Catholic faith, which she viewed as oppressive. Her beliefs about God were tested even further when unfortunate circumstances caused her to go into early labor. It was mid-July 1985 when my mother gave birth to me three months premature. I had a hole in my heart, and doctors said I had little chance of survival. She named me, and then called a priest to make preparations for my death. It was then that she turned to the God she had spurned and struck a bargain.
She said: “Let me borrow him and I will raise him for you.”
Miraculously, the physical hole in my heart healed. From birth, I have had a hole in my heart that only God could heal. I am a testament to his willingness to do so.
I was a happy, outgoing, and friendly kid living with my mom and grandparents in Colombia. When I was six years old, my mom married a Texan man she met through a friend. We left everything we knew and moved to Houston to start our new life. My step-father was the kind of man who left pornography out in the open, was abusive toward my mother, and harsh with me. It was a difficult time that resulted in both my mom and I needing therapy later in life. It was during this time that a neighbor invited my mom to church. Through their friendship, the gospel was presented to my mom. She knew this was the God she was yearning to know, accepted Christ and was saved from a life of despair. I soon followed, and was baptized. God took something destructive and used it to bring us into spiritual life.
Eventually, my stepfather threw us out to carry on an affair he was having. We ended up living in a small apartment with a family that had just moved from Colombia. Those days when we had nothing, and the church took care of us, were some of the sweetest times in life. My mom had time to get back on her feet and when she did, we got our own place. It was open to anyone that needed a place to stay. God had provided a family for us when we didn’t have one, and we wanted to do the same for others. Even so, I was not the same happy kid I had been before we moved to Texas.
Our hardships had left me angry, overly sensitive, and insecure. It was not easy for me to relate to people my own age. I became introspective, pessimistic, and reserved. I desperately wanted to be loved, but believed no one would. I was needy, clingy, and clueless as to how to fit in. Relationships were difficult. It was hard for me to trust people who actually did like me, which made me feel even more alone, even in a room full of people.
My mom never forced me to go to church. I chose to go every time the doors were open. I knew the gospel message, that Jesus died on the cross to forgive my sins. I knew that He got me in the door, but somewhere along the way, I caught the idea that I had to prove I was saved by how I behaved. It was His grace that got me in, but it was my effort that kept me safe.
I was a straight-laced guy due to my years of social awkwardness and emotional seclusion. I had mastered external appearances, but never felt like I was getting away with it. I knew I needed to read my Bible and pray, but was only motivated to do so after camps and retreats. Even so, my lack of Bible reading and prayer seemed small compared to my growing problem with pornography. I believed everyone was doing it, but I felt like the only guilty person. No one would talk about it. It was crushing me.
Looking back, I have more clarity on the appeal of pornography. It was control, it was pleasure, and it was emotion. There was no social awkwardness to overcome. Here was something a boy, who never felt in control of life, could control. Add to that the fact that all sin is pleasurable for a time and I was stuck.
Whatever the motivating factor, one question stood out: How could God possibly love me? “I don’t do what I know I should do, and the thing I should not do is what I find myself doing” (Romans 7:19). I felt hopeless and unlovable everywhere I turned. If it was true with people, it was certainly true with God. No matter how much people told me they loved me, or how much I heard about God’s love, I just could not believe it. Sure God loves you, but that’s just a general ‘you,’ I thought.
I could not get over my sin and I did not think God could love me, let alone like me, until I got better. If I wasn’t getting better as fast as I thought I should, then I must not really know God. I must not be saved. I even went so far as to get re-baptized because I thought the first time must not have been legitimate.
By the time I got to college I was done. My biggest fear was that I would spend my whole life learning about God, and completely miss Him. By this time I was tired of knowing I should be better, but not being able to do so. I considered Christianity to be an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation where everyone was pretending to see something that was not there.
My first year of college was a strange time. I jumped into an unhealthy relationship looking for validation. I fed my ravenous need for love, even though I denied its validity. I became a weird pseudo-Christian who was strict about moral areas I could control. Drinking, partying, drug use? I didn’t do those things, and was quick to judgment when my friends or girlfriend did. This is especially ironic in light of the self-justifying, term redefining, self-loathing, inappropriate behavior I was engaging in with my female friend.
I was a moralist through and through. I was good and judgmental where it was easy for me to be so, and wickedly self-justifying in the midst of my own sinful indulgences. I was without hope and burned out. My Christian background only made it worse. I knew enough to damn me, and feel even more unworthy and unlovable.
God is sovereign. He took me out of a bad situation, but it left me homeless at school. Some guys had offered to share an apartment with the intention of discipling and being discipled. I had previously turned down their offer, but moved in with them when I had nowhere else to go. That year put me on a different path. I saw guys who loved the Lord, Scripture, and each other. They were intense, but intense is what I needed then. I was still dealing with the ever-present pornography monster and other sin, which I considered the result of a lack of spiritual discipline. Nonetheless, for the next couple of years I actively sought to serve anywhere that needed men to serve. One ministry opportunity led to another, which eventually led me to meet my wife. We graduated and got married.
A couple of years into marriage, two things happened: I accepted a leadership role in our young married couples community group, and I was accepted into seminary. Suddenly, all my time was spent either studying, or leading group activities. God used this time to turn me upside down. I was in a steady, loving, nurturing relationship, and in a role where people were looking to me for leadership. I wanted to offer more than myself.
During my first semester, my heart was stirred by church history. As I read about how the church came to be, I saw a God who specialized in loving screwed up people. The history of the church is written through broken men whom God loves. God used this to strip away the things that had plagued me for so long: primarily the sense that He didn’t love me, the spiritual apathy toward His good things (although it is kind of cheating to pay a seminary for help with that), and being overwhelmed by pornography. I felt free for the first time in a long time. It didn’t come through my effort or striving to get better.
God gently moved me to a place of freedom. When God started to secure me in the fact that He loves me right now, and not an improved version of me, this is what set me free. I had spent my whole life feeling like I wasn’t loved because I couldn’t get better. I have come to see that getting better is trusting in the One who loves me, and the knowledge that He is faithful, and will continue to be faithful on my behalf.
When I am resting in that freedom, it is easier not to be a moralist. I spent a lot of time telling people how to live when I myself was in bondage to sin. Now I know that both my righteousness and sinfulness pale in comparison to Jesus and his love.