by Rene Lopez1
For some, a radical life change is "Mission: Impossible," especially if their track record reads like a grocery list. Mine certainly did. In only five years, from 1986 to 1991, I was arrested almost forty times for criminal activity ranging from burglary, grand theft and armed robbery to cocaine possession and battery of a police officer.
During this time, I became a master at deceiving myself. I grew up without a father, and my mother raised me in a party environment. Both parents drank and my friends drank and used drugs.
When I was nineteen, my mom packed my bags and told me to leave home. As a result, bitterness ruled my life and drugs became my ally. At one point I was homeless and dealing drugs in Miami Beach. I filled my head with all sorts of excuses for why I had turned out that way. Yet a nagging thought pulled at me: If I am smart enough to figure out reasons to fail, can I not also figure reasons to change? Down deep, I realized I had no excuse; but I still did not change.
A prison sentence of three-and-a-half years gave me enough time to think. Although I had grown up with some disadvantages, I knew that all families were dysfunctional to some degree. Eventually, I ran out of excuses. No matter what excuse I came up with, I could think of other people who had similar excuses, but had overcome them.
But what about the bad role models I had grown up with? My parents had been terrible examples, and without even a father figure at home, my mother and friends were my role models. Although my family lived by basic ethical principles-do not lie, cheat, or steal-if someone called and my mom didn't want to talk, it was okay to say, "She's not here." Having free cable from a bootleg box was considered okay since the cable companies are thieves by charging ridiculous prices. If items didn't get charged at the register, when we discovered it later we considered the amount a bonus. "It was the cashier's fault" we rationalized.
Although I knew I had no excuse for the way I lived, I didn't have a role model to follow. I had nobody to show me how to live. It was then that I was introduced to the man who left the biggest imprint in history: Jesus Christ. Could he be my perfect model? Even religious people had let me down. Only when I read the bumper sticker, "Christians are not perfect just forgiven," did I realize Jesus Christ was the only perfect example (1 Pet 2:21-22). No matter how good people are, they are imperfect, but Jesus Christ is perfect. It is then that I believed in Him for eternal life.
But my life didn't change in a day. Having spent most of my early life drugging, drinking, and engaging in immoral acts, I had some tough experiences to overcome. Yet a friend once encouraged me by saying, "If it took you six years to walk into a forest, do not expect to leave in a week." Thus I began my journey out of the woods.
I quickly learned three key elements to overcoming addictive experiences: parting from the past, having patience, and having purpose in life. Some define insanity as "repeating the same thing and expecting different results." I had to quit doing the "same thing." I needed to make a clean break. At first it seemed hard, but time and patience helped. In the beginning, memories of "good" experiences tugged at me. I reminded myself that sometimes the mind works in its own defense by blocking out negative experiences. This encouraged me to be patient.
But having Jesus Christ as the purpose in life was the ultimate key. True, some people change apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ. But they don't change radically without Him.
Now that I had purpose through my relationship with Christ, my "refrigerator list" began to change-and radically. I earned a B.A. with high honors from Trinity International University where I served as an adjunct faculty member for two years. I then went on to earn a Th.M. with honors from Dallas Theological Seminary, where I am currently enrolled as a Ph.D. student. I was on the National Dean's List and given the Outstanding Young Man of America award for professional achievement, superior ability and exceptional community service. I also earned the J. Dwight Pentecost Ph.D. scholarship for Excellence in Bible Exposition. I have been a pastor for the past six years, during which time God blessed me with the opportunity of getting a commentary on Romans published.
All these things-wonderful as they are-are garbage compared to the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, who changed me. I share them to show the contrast of what I was before and what God has made me now. The radical change began when I simply believed in Christ's promise that I could receive eternal life (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-27).
Perhaps you're thinking, "I am not nearly as bad as you were." That is precisely the point. If Jesus can take a person worse than you and change him, how much more can He do with your life?1 Adapted from an article in Grace in Focus available here. Since this article was originally published, Rene has completed his Ph.D. at Dallas Theological Seminary and is currently serving as the director of Scriptures Unlocked Ministries.