It's the reason I now have hope and joy and peace
You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my soul might sing praise to you without ceasing. O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks. –Psalm 30:12-13
Leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him. –Luke 5:28
The trouble with giving your “witness talk” is that it requires a lifetime of God’s work (and your resistance to it) to be distilled into 20 minutes. So details get blurred and extremes exaggerated to make for a more compelling narrative. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. To hear me give my testimony, you might think I was dealing crack on Saturday afternoon and getting fitted for a halo Sunday morning.
In fairness, hindsight casts light on where my life was headed before that fateful confirmation retreat in 1997; I don’t know what would have become of me but even seeing what might have happened is enough to cast a shadow over that time of my life. And I can honestly date every good thing in my life to that one confession when I was 13. It’s the reason I now have hope and joy and peace. It’s all because I met Jesus.
But it’s not as though there’s some obvious divide between my life before Jesus and after, as though I was wallowing in a pool of anguish and now my life is one long Hillsong United concert with no forays back into misery. It comes across that way, but reality is always more complex.
Here’s what is absolutely true: before I knew Jesus I felt that life was empty and meaningless; now I find joy and hope in being his. But it took years of surrender to get here, with a lot of regression along the way. And there are still days when I feel positively weighed down by sackcloth. Because Jesus isn’t a magic happy pill that you can pop with no side effects. He’s a person, and a person who demands everything.
The Apostles understood this. When Jesus called, Peter didn’t ask if he could keep a partner’s share in his fishing company. James and John didn’t even row their father home, just left him sitting in the boat. They left everything once they’d met Jesus.
Really, though, what were they leaving behind? Moldy nets and a mother-in-law? Good riddance.
For Levi, the Apostle today’s verse is referencing, it was a little more impressive than that. He was a rich man with a comfortable life. But he, too, left everything. And there’s no evidence that he’d even seen a miracle. The fishing apostles had witnessed at least two, but Levi? He simply heard a powerful voice say, “Follow me,” and he left everything behind and followed.
I imagine that his mourning mostly turned into dancing that very day. Because really, following is what makes the difference. It’s not simply knowing of Jesus that brings joy, or even knowing him personally. It’s that commitment, that willingness to leave everything behind, that sets you free from the pain of this world to live in the freedom of the next.
If I’m being honest, that’s the difference in my life. It’s not just “I met Jesus and now I’m happy!” It’s that I was desperate to find meaning and purpose in a finite and deeply unsatisfying world. Sometimes I still am. But the more I let go of this world as the center of my life, the more I seek to define myself by his love instead of by beauty or money or relationship status or success, the more joy and peace dwarf misery.
In times of suffering it’s harder. Or in the long stretches of dry prayer. But mostly I find that my unhappiness comes of clinging to this world instead of leaving everything behind to follow him. So again I get up and follow him and again I find peace walking beside him.
Maybe you haven’t seen miracles like Peter and John. Maybe you’ve just heard a gentle, “Follow me.” For Levi, that was enough. What will it take for you?