I’ve had some great talks the last few nights with my fellow intern buddy, Brandon West. We’ve just been talking about the world, the way things are, the way things should be, why God matters, what it means to know Him, what it should mean if we truly say we know Him, and who knows what else.
Tonight we were talking about how, if there is no God, there would be no real hope or purpose to life. All that would be left is my own desires and my own purposes. There would be no reason to actually seek to do good because, if we’re consistent in our belief, there would be no such thing as goodness. Nothing would be morally right, and nothing would be morally wrong. If there is no objective standard apart from ourselves then we have no reason to suggest that anything is right or wrong. If truly we were formed through a barbaric process composed of the strong killing the weak, then why should the strong give up their strength out of compassion—a compassion that would only seek to hinder the natural process of advancement of our species? No, there would only be nihilism left. No purpose, no morality, no goodness—just existence, and a meaningless existence at that.
No one actually lives that kind of life. Well, perhaps some people do. But, by and large, everyone seems to live as if there is some sort of a purpose, whether or not their worldview actually allows them to coherently believe that there is—and make no mistake: atheism does not allow for one to have intellectual integrity and intellectual coherence if they simultaneously believe that there is a purpose or that there is intrinsic good in anything. It’s a truly unlivable worldview. The only adequate response is wanton disregard for anything that would hinder your own personal pursuits of pleasure or suicide.
And I’m not going to argue for God’s existence in this post. The existence of God is self-evident to all people at all times, whether they acknowledge that reality or not (Rom. 1). What I wonder, though, is what the hell are we doing if we believe in God?
I was telling Brandon about a guy I know who worked for YWAM San Francisco. He has the most incredible testimony. His mom was addicted to heroin when he was born, and he was put into foster care as soon as the government could get their hands on him. Tragically, every family he was placed in abused him horrifically. He was beaten regularly. He told us about how, when he was about 12 years old, he lived with a family that locked him and his foster sister in their garage. Their only interaction with their foster “parents” was when they brought them food, beat them, or forced them to have sex with one another for their abusers perverse and wicked enjoyment. He hated himself, believed that no one could love him because of course no one ever demonstrated any kind of love for him.
He eventually was put into some sort of a juvenile facility that was more of a military type boot camp where he experienced more mistreatment. Because of his rebellious nature and defiance, he was regularly put into solitary confinement. His dignity was taken stolen from him from when he was old enough to understand anything. And when parents would visit their children on the weekend, he would go into the bathroom and cry for hours because he knew that no one loved him and that no one was every coming for him.
He eventually was released when he was 18, lived by stealing food and other things to sell and make money. He would sneak into peoples’ houses and steal things while they were sleeping in their beds right next to him. It was the only way he knew how to survive.
Soon he stole a car with a friend and drove to San Francisco. He was separated from his friend after they arrived and was reconnected about a week later when his friend introduced him to crystal meth. For 8 years, he lived on the streets of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, addicted to crystal meth, stealing to make a living, and inflicting greater and greater harm on himself and those around him. He told us that there were times when, so overcome by his need for drugs, he would bash his head into walls to the point of bleeding. He said he was insane. Completely filled with hate and anger and suffering and grief and sadness. He knew he was worthless… that’s all he ever heard from everyone in his life.
He met a group of people volunteering with YWAM as they were passing out hot chocolate, which they commonly do throughout the week. He wanted nothing to do with the Jesus they told him about—he couldn’t believe that God was love. But he got to know them a bit. And over the next few months and years he kept seeing them, and they kept loving him. There was no judgment, just love and the Gospel. He kept encountering the Gospel, but he couldn’t believe it.
Eventually he was put into prison, and something incredible happened. The YWAM workers came to visit him. When he had never known love and always knew that no one wanted to see him or care for him when he was in that juvenile facility, a group of Christians who he hardly knew came to see him because they loved him—not a love based on his works, but on God’s goodness and Christ’s sacrifice.
When he got out, he immediately went to his drug dealer’s house to get drugs. He didn’t have money but said that he would simply steal something and sell it to pay him back if he would hook him up. And while he was waiting in the rain for his dealer to get back, he heard God speak to Him. Whether it was audible or not, the voice of God filled his mind and said, “You have always been that abused little boy, but now you are the only one who had the power to abuse that little boy any longer. Is this what you are going to settle for?”
He turned and ran, crying as he frantically rushed throughout the streets of San Francisco. Rain was pouring down and he had no idea where he was going. Eventually he came to his senses and realized that he was near the YWAM base on Ellis Street. He banged on the door, hoping that someone would answer even if it was the weekend when most people were gone. They opened the door and invited him in. At that very moment they had been sitting in a circle praying for him. And he gave his life to Christ. And he eventually became one of the main leaders of the YWAM base in San Francisco until very recently.
What’s my point? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m just pouring my heart out. My youth group went to the Tenderloin to serve the homeless, the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the sinners, the “tax collectors,” the forgotten. We saw the most horrific suffering I have ever encountered. We saw people shooting up heroin in the streets, 70+ year old women in wheel chairs digging through the cracks in the street looking for rock cocaine that may have fallen from someone’s hands during a deal. Bars are on every corner, prostitutes are everywhere, massage parlors filled with young girls kidnapped from their families and sold into sexual slavery are throughout the entire district. It is the darkest place I’ve ever been.
And the first night, after getting back from our first trip out of the base, I just sat on my bed holding my pillow sobbing. I asked God where the heck was He? Why was He letting these things happen? How could He say that He loved these people when these things were happening? Where the hell is this incredible love of Jesus that I preach about on these streets?
I didn’t know what to do. But what I found blew me away. Jesus was no stranger to these people. Jesus was not somehow absent from these streets. His name was proclaimed as passionately on those streets as it is in any Christian church. And so many of the people we sought to minister to ended up teaching us more about the love and grace of God than we had any clue about. It was truly incredible.
One night on the 15th, we went out of the base to give hot chocolate to people and talk to them. We didn’t realize, but that was the day when everyone received their government aid. Because of that, the drug dealers were out en masse. The streets were packed. People were high, drunk, prostitutes were all around, and it was shocking. We didn’t actually know what was going on, but we went out anyway. My group, fortunately, had an amazing time that night when so many other groups faced a lot of scary situations.
One man that we talked to, I believe his name was John, asked for hot chocolate as soon as he saw us. We asked him what he was up to that night, and he told us that we didn’t want to know. We asked if we could pray for him, but he declined. And with wary eyes, he began to tell us about how he was raised in the church. He knew the Gospel. He had heard of Jesus. But through some hard times, he lost his wife and daughter and became addicted to drugs. He had been homeless since 1998 (so, at that point, about 13 years). He told us that he had become a drug dealer, he became his best customer, he had pimped out women, he had done everything that no one should do. And he couldn’t believe that God had any love for him. Not when he had done so many horrible things.
We told him that the whole point of the Gospel is that God’s love isn’t based on what we do, but on what Christ has done for us. No matter what sins we commit, God’s pursuit of sinners is far greater than any of that. And eventually he let us pray for him. And we prayed that God would show His goodness to Him in that moment, that He would show him that God’s grace is greater than anything we could imagine and that His love was unconditional. And a miracle happened.
A young girl, probably about 20 years old, with blond hair, beautiful blue eyes, a grey beanie, and a white shirt that seemed to glow under the street lights came up to us. She walked right into the center of our circle as we were praying, and she walked straight to John, cupped his face in her hands, smiled at him, and kissed both of his cheeks. She smiled at him once more and then walked away. And as she walked away, my friend Jake watched her walk down the street and, after a man walked in between his line of sight, she disappeared. We had never seen her before. He had never seen her before. And we all freaked out.
He asked us if we knew her and we told him that we had no idea. I don’t know if she was an angel. Perhaps she was. What I know is this: I have never seen such undiluted, unconditional love in anyone’s eyes and, when we prayed that God would show His goodness, some random beautiful young woman—angel or not—came and kissed a homeless drug dealer.
Most people will not even look at these people, let alone touch them. Yet, as we prayed, this young woman came and kissed this man and gave him a smile that could shatter the hardest of hearts. I still can’t get her face out of my mind. And I pray to God that I never will.
I have no idea what happened with John. I don’t know where he is right now. I don’t know if, because of this experience, he turned his life around. What I know is this: God doesn’t do anything for no reason, and God doesn’t fail in saving the people He pursues.
And as I was telling Brandon these stories, of the YWAM leader and this man John, I just felt my heart break anew for the suffering that people experience. And I’m sitting here right now recounting it all to you who are reading this as I’m overcome with grief.
What is it that leads someone to abuse innocent children, beating them and forcing them to have sex? What is it that has led to all the depravity and suffering that is in this world? Why are people addicted to drugs? Why do people commit adultery? Why are people homeless, alone on the streets, subject to the cold and the rain, searching for drugs in the cracks of the concrete? Why are young women kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery? Why does my own heart so often seek the sin that promises instant gratification rather than the God that promises eternal satisfaction?
What is wrong? Why is this happening? And what the hell do we do about it? What power do I possibly have that could free anyone from the sin and suffering they experience when I find myself so often overcome with temptations that I ought to flee from? I can’t do it. I can’t do anything. I’m incapable. And so are you.
But that’s not the end of the story. Our inability isn’t the end of the story. Because, in the midst of our weakness and the most horrific suffering I could ever imagine, our God—the one who made the heavens and the earth—sends angels to kiss homeless drug addicts when we ask Him to. I am weak, but He is strong. I am sinful, but He is righteous. I am unworthy, but He is unrelenting. I am unlovable, but He is compassionate. I am sick, but He’s the great Physician. I am broken, but Jesus says that He makes all things new. I was born in sin, but He has created me anew. I am full of doubt, but He is faithful. I don’t love the people closest to me the way I should, but He died for His enemies. I am overcome with the impossibility of everything, but He promises to do more than I could even ask or imagine according to His power in me. I am the creature, but He has filled me with His Spirit. I’ve got the living God inside of me, teaching me, leading me, loving me, encouraging me, breaking me, forgiving me, protecting me, letting me fall, picking me back up, and drawing me unto Himself, making me more like Jesus every day.
I don’t know how to deal with all the suffering and the pain. I don’t have an explanation for why God lets it happen. I just know that it’s evil, and it’s not what God wants. It’s not what He desires. He hates it. And He intends to destroy it all.
This suffering will not last. It will not last forever. He is going to succeed. He is going to be victorious. Eventually the “it is finished” of Christ is going to tangibly and completely transform every aspect of our world and our hearts. This world will be renewed because Jesus Christ has all authority in Heaven and in earth to get it done. He hasn’t abandoned this world. He hasn’t abandoned us. And our weakness is never enough to stop His power from accomplishing all that He desires.
It’s good news. It means that abused kids who grow up to be drug addicts can be freed from their addiction and brought into relationship with Jesus. It means that the angels will answer our prayers for grace and mercy. It means that God will stop at nothing to show us His love and to rescue us.
And our hearts need to break. Don’t hold it together any more. Weep and cry for the suffering, the lost, the broken, the wretched, the weak, the poor, the widow, the abused, and the orphan. Feel the burden deep in your heart, and cry out to God to make you into His servant. He will hear you, for His heart breaks far more than ours do. And that is good news.