Here’s a story about me blowing it.
For nearly ten years of my life, I was a key leader in my home church’s worship ministry. Having discovered what I thought to be my “one thing,” I invested much of my time and energy into growing as a musician and playing in various worship bands. By the time I reached college I was starting to learn how to get paid as a hired-gun guitarist in Austin. I was leading worship consistently at my home church and at other churches around town. I was part of a worship band that played camps, conferences, and festivals. We cut two EPs. I was talented, I had peoples’ attention, and they were trusting me with positions of influence and leadership. Leading worship and playing music became the biggest parts of my identity. I, like so many worship leaders and musicians, had fallen into the insidious trap of using worship music as an avenue to live out all my rock star fantasies. It was great.
And then I had a moral failure. Yes, that kind of moral failure.
Maybe a more accurate way to describe it was that I had a string of moral failures that culminated in a gigantic moral failure. I had sins in my life that I was “managing.” As you can imagine, that got out of hand pretty quickly. The disparity between who I was and who others thought I was grew greater by the day, and I was running out of ways to cope with it. I’d started drinking very heavily, essentially living as a functional alcoholic as a junior in Bible College. My grades suffered. My relationships suffered. My body suffered. My soul suffered. The weight of my dishonesty became too much for me to shoulder.
I came clean. I told my closest friends and my ministry leaders about what was going on in my life.
When people tell these kinds of stories, this is usually the part where everything gets better. For me, everything didn’t get better. Owning up to catastrophic failure and turning on lightbulbs in dark corners of your life is dreadfully painful. In no tangible way did anything get “better.” In fact, it felt a hell of a lot like everything got worse. I lost friendships. I lost my ministry. I lost the things I’d placed my identity in. It felt like I lost myself. I was angry at myself for the way my choices had negatively affected my life and the lives of people around me. I was bitter, after friends paid me lip service about grace, mercy, and forgiveness, only to write me off and use me as a punch line behind my back. I was humiliated to have become a ministry cautionary tale cliché. I was lonely, as people gave up on me when I didn’t grow or “get better” immediately. Things weren’t getting better. That’s the dirty little secret about these sorts of situations. Things don’t always get better.
At the end of it all, I had one friend who wasn’t afraid to step all the way into the chaos of my life. He was a voice of hope to me when I had none. He saw me for who I could become, not just for who I was. He was a fountain of grace in the months that followed. And as I started to take my first steps in a new relationship based on total transparency, he started to repeat the same mantra over and over and over to me:
“God cares far more about who you are and who you’re becoming than what you can do. You can’t rely on your talent to take you where you want to go if you don’t have the character to go along with it. Don’t let your talent pull you out further than your character can sustain you.”
It was like coming up for air. All at once it seemed I stopped caring about trying to impress people, or getting people to think I was “better” or “improving” or “growing.” I stopped caring what I looked like to others. I turned my back on any kind of performance or pretense. And for the first time in my life I met a Jesus who was full of grace and truth. I met a Jesus who wasn’t scared of getting His hands dirty with me. And wouldn’t you know it, I started to grow. Not quickly. Anyone who tells you that spiritual growth happens quickly is selling something. And it wasn’t that things were getting better. It’s that I was getting better.
It’s been three years and a month since the night my whole world came crashing down. I never went back to playing in that worship band. I did get to come back to the college ministry I was helping to lead. And I got to come back with mud on my face and feel totally free to be who I was. I never got most of those lost friendships back. But I started new friendships and quickly found out that I didn’t have to hide behind my talent for people to like me. I graduated from college, went on staff at my home church, and left after fifteen months on great terms to follow a dream I have of graduating from Dallas Seminary. And I care way more about who I will become in my life than I do about what I will do in my life.
It took a literally life-shattering catastrophe of character for me to stop relying on my talent to take me places in life and to start caring about the state of my heart. It took losing (seemingly) everything that was important to me for my character to finally become a matter of first importance. And three years later, I’ve learned that there’s a whole world of difference between a person with talent and a person who can be trusted with talent. And there’s just about nothing I want more than to be the latter.