If you’ve ever read “Dante’s Inferno“, you are familiar with the phrase levels in hell. I had never heard of Dante’s Inferno until I was a junior in high school, but I was all too familiar with levels in hell at a fairly young age. The parochial school I attended had Bible class each day and Chapel each Wednesday. Mr. Van Tol*, my junior high Bible teacher, was good as far as teachers go. Looking back, my instinct is that he was (and is) a good man, but he had some really messed up theology and passed his religious dysfunction on to his students. One of the most prominent memories I have of Mr. Van Tol are his words: “There are levels in hell, and the hottest levels in hell are for Netherlands Reformed boys and girls…because you know the truth, but you won’t listen.” Just another affirmation that I was damned to eternity in hell…a neverending existence of agony and gnashing of teeth. If I ever bump into Mr. Van Tol again, I think I will ask him if he still feels this way. Maybe–20+ years later–he has experienced grace as I have. If he has not, I think I will share my story with him…I will tell him this:
By the time I was 17, I had developed an eating disorder that, over the years, bounced back and forth among anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating. Misery, depression, and hopelessness plagued me. Even though I felt damned to hell, I prayed often and went through spurts of Bible reading with the hopes of being miraculously saved by God. The hope was faint as I was convinced that I was too evil to be saved, and I kept trying to fix myself up, so God would find me worthy of saving. The depression hit an all-time low, and I spoke to my 12-step sponsor. “Have you given it to God?” he asked. Of course, the phrase “let go and let God” is thrown around quite a bit in 12-step circles, so I this was not an unforeseen statement. “I’ve tried,” I said, “but I just can’t seem to stop holding onto whatever it is that’s hurting me.” He responded, “Go home. Get on your knees, and ask Him to take it from you.” I did. I went home and physically got onto my knees. I wept and begged God to take it from me since I couldn’t seem to give it away completely. Suddenly, I felt a physical load lifted from my body, and calmness overcame me along with a fullness and warmth. I felt these thoughts pressed vividly into my mind: “He is not who I thought He was!” My image of God was transformed from a God of wrath, damnation, and scorn to a God of grace, love, and compassion. The next realization that overcame me still brings tears into my eyes: “And He wants me.” There was no reason for me to have this revelation–not a book or a conversation that caused me to change my view of the Lord. I know now that it was the Holy Spirit who revealed the true God to me.
John 14: 16-17, 26-27 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
Grace. Yup. It really does exist.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of people in this blog.