Obedience spawns holiness and, as a result, we produce the fruit of the Spirit. Even in the midst of disaster, trials and troubles, the full life of being loving, kind, patient, joyful, gentle and all the other aspects of abiding can be ours.
Never had I experienced anything so tough. I could hardly eat, had trouble sleeping and continually battled nausea. I felt at the absolute end of myself.
It was the summer of 2009, the low point in the most challenging and difficult year of my life. Thankfully, at the end of June, as we always did, our family left home to go on vacation for a couple of weeks. Never had I needed it more.
Just a few months earlier, I was riding high. The church we planted in 2003—New City Church, located just outside of my hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.—merged with the well-known Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church 12 miles down the road. The merger process took many grueling months to finalize, but in March 2009, the elders from New City and Coral Ridge agreed unanimously on the merger plan that a joint team had drafted. After a congregational vote to approve the merger, the two churches became one new church on Easter 2009.
Though we all expected some tough times as two very different congregations merged into one, I had no idea how messy it would become.
Crescendo of Pain
With the merger and the leadership transition, a small but vocal group of long-time members immediately began voicing opposition to practically any and every change we initiated. Blogs were posted, letters were circulated—some anonymously—with false accusations about me. Just three months after I arrived, a vigorous petition drive was started to get me removed. Battle lines were drawn, rumors raced. There was a crescendo of misunderstandings, frustration and pain.
The virulence of opposition was more than I could bear. I was undergoing the shelling of my life and was ready to quit and escape elsewhere. It would be so easy just to walk away and never look back. Mercifully, vacation time rolled around in June.
On our first morning away, still saturated with the misery that had been intensifying for so many weeks, I opened up my Bible. In the reading plan I was following, that day’s passages included the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
Desperate for help from God, I read those verses and my eyes were opened to see the incredible sufficiency of Jesus with greater clarity than I had ever experienced.
In Full Color
In my misery, I told God that I wanted my old life back. The answer that I sensed from God that morning through Colossians was simple, but sobering: “It’s not your old life you want back; it’s your old idols you want back, and I love you too much to give them back to you.”
I never realized how dependent I’d become on the endorsement of others to validate me—to make me feel like I mattered—until it was taken away. Now, for the first time, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being deeply disliked and distrusted. In and of themselves, human approval and acceptance are not bad things. They are, in fact, gifts from God. But I had turned them into idols by making them my primary source of meaning, value, worth and significance, so that without them I was miserable and depressed.
God began rescuing me from my slavery by forcing me to more fully understand exactly what I already had in Christ. His Good News met me in my dark place, at my deepest need. His liberating Word was transforming and refreshing me.
The verses that set me free, specifically, were Colossians 1:9-14. In that passage, the Apostle Paul says, in summary: You will grow in your understanding of God’s will, be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, increase in your knowledge of God, and be strengthened with God’s power, which will produce joy-filled patience and endurance as you come to a greater realization that you’ve already been qualified, delivered, transferred, redeemed and forgiven.
What those verses liberatingly taught me was that because of Jesus’ finished work for me, I already had the justification, approval, acceptance, security, freedom, affection, cleansing, new beginning, righteousness and rescue I was longing for. I started to see the multifaceted dimensions of the Gospel in a more rich and vibrant way. The now-power of the Gospel doesn’t simply rescue us from the past and rescue us for the future, it also rescues us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement and insignificance.
Learning Anew the Power of the Gospel
That June morning was when Jesus plus nothing equals everything became for me more than a preachable tagline. It became my functional lifeline!
It was rediscovering the Gospel that enabled me to see that:
Because Jesus is strong for me, I am free to be weak;
Because Jesus wins for me, I am free to lose;
Because Jesus is Someone, I am free to be no one;
Because Jesus is extraordinary, I am free to be ordinary;
Because Jesus succeeds for me, I am free to fail.
On Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009, as a result of the petition drive to force my ouster from our church, a congregational vote was being taken after the service. I was there to preach before that vote was to take place. To say the least, it was an awkward environment. Pockets of people were there to take me down. They stared at me with looks that could kill.
I preached my guts out—it was the freest I’ve ever been in the pulpit. Drawing my text from Matthew 5:11-12—the tail end of the Beatitudes about persecution—I wanted our congregation to understand and to grasp what a Gospel-defined life looks like. At that moment, no one in the room could take away anything I had received from Jesus, which was everything. I was completely free!
The congregational vote that day was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping me as the church’s pastor. And since that time, God has launched a “Gospel riot” at Coral Ridge. The everything of God’s Gospel is setting people free, creating great joy and reaching our needy city.
But what was far more important that day than any “victory at the polls” was the ever-freeing, presently empowering dynamics of the Gospel I had rediscovered through the Book of Colossians.
©2011 Tullian Tchividjian
Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, is pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He is speaking Oct. 31-Nov. 2 at The Cove on “Jesus + Nothing = Everything,” which is the title of his latest book.