Like many other Christians today, I was brought up by my parents who are Christian. For nearly the first twelve years of my life, I thought this was what made me a Christian. I also thought being a Christian meant going to church every Sunday, devouring a lot of the stories in the Bible and showing off my knowledge at any opportune moment I had, and refusing to swear at all as it wasn't 'religious'.
However I often didn't like going to church as a young child. I remember when we moved churches when I was six years old. My first reaction when I stepped inside a significantly different building from the last one was, 'This isn't a church?!' I often found I had nothing in common with the children there, as I was extremely shy and conscious of the fact that they thought how I spoke was very posh.
This changed as we grew older and I became friends with them, but I still thought, despite the teaching we were given, that being a Christian still meant going to church every Sunday, showing off my Biblical knowledge and still refusing to swear when my friends at school swore.
I also didn't really know much about why Jesus died for us. Every Easter, the story was told to us in Children's Church that he rose again and came to life, but I thought, 'Well...so what?'
It was when I was almost twelve on my first youth group weekend away, that I learnt why Jesus died for us. I realised many things after our youth advocate spoke to us. I realised that because my parents followed God, it didn't for the first time automatically mean that I was a Christian; that I was steeped in sin; that I was completely and utterly imperfect and God was completely and utterly perfect; I felt ashamed of the stuff I'd done with the past; that going to church, having Biblical knowledge, not swearing, being 'religious' and doing 'good deeds' would never get me into Heaven.
At that time I had also started the school I'm still at now. For the first term I hated it. I was sick most mornings before school, found it hard to make friends (though I did make some in the end) and I just found it too stressful. I would cry almost every day and long for my junior school, where it was friendly and a heck of a lot smaller than this one.
I actually remember crying before our youth advocate did the talk, in front of everyone. I was so insecure, scared of life and depressed about myself as a person.
I can't remember what actual words he said to us, but I know it really had an impact on me, because I wanted to accept the grace Jesus had offered us all. I wanted to get rid of my sin and start again. I know it had an impact because that night at Carroty Wood, in October 2003, I actually prayed a prayer of confession, with the help of my youth leader Jo, for the first time and asked for forgiveness and a fresh start to how I was living my life. And that was when I became a Christian.
And letting God take control over your life and trusting Him is the best thing I've probably ever done. I've had slightly rocky times over the years, but how great is it having someone all powerful and perfect as your eternal father? You can tell him all your worries, when we do sin, (it's inevitable, we're still not perfect) we can ask for a clean slate every time and His help for obedience to what He says. There have been times when I've tried to go my own way, and I've failed when I haven't trusted in God... but the amazing thing is that no matter how many times I have deserted Him, He has never deserted me.
The parable of the Lost Son illustrates this perfectly. A man had two sons and one day one of them ordered his share of the inheritance and left home. But while he was there he squandered all his money and as there was a famine in the land and he had no income, he worked as a pig farmer. Finally he came to his senses and decided to return home.
'I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.' Luke 15v 18-24
Instead giving his son a lecture, the Father forgives his Son immediately, regardless of the fact he ran away from him and spent money that was probably saved up for many years. He is overjoyed…he runs (which was very undignified for a grown man at the time) to his son and is so glad to see he has returned he shows him how much he cares by embracing him. When we return to God, he does not lecture us on how we've sinned - he, like the Father, is overjoyed to see you and to welcome you back into his family. He wants to wipe everything you've done away, wipe the tears from your eyes and he rejoices, for you came back to him! He loves you, He loves me and He loves us all, more than we can ever imagine.
That's why Jesus died on the cross, so we can come back to him, so He can lead us in his perfect way in the one life we've got here on this Earth. And when we die we will have eternal life with Him in Heaven… forever.
I urge you now, if you think that being a Christian is what I thought before I actually received the grace God offered : going to church every Sunday, having Biblical knowledge, being 'religious' and doing 'good deeds' and not swearing etc I encourage you to think again. It is only by the grace of God we are saved, as it says in Ephesians 2 v 8-10 - 'For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.