Several years ago I met a young man who was homeless and drunk. He taught me more about the heart of God than many sermons I have heard.
Michael was sitting on a bench drinking alcohol when I approached him. He looked me up and down and then fired a question at me. “Are you a Christian, buddy?” he slurred over his bottle.
I stalled, not sure how to answer a man who appeared to be experiencing difficulties in his life, but hesitantly I told him I was. I prepared myself, from prior experience, for a barrage of abuse about how a God could abandon him and allow his life to fall into such a downward spiral – but I was wrong. His broke into a big smile and threw his arms around me. “Don’t ya just love Jesus?” he yelled out for the world to hear, “Isn’t he the greatest?”
I was taken by surprise. Michael’s clothes were dirty, he smelt like he hadn’t washed for a long time and I don’t think he knew where his next meal was coming from. My first thought was, “How could YOU be happy with God?” But he most certainly was.
He invited me to sit down and he shared his story. His childhood had been one of violence and misery. “I became a bad dude”, he said as he put down his drink. “Look at what I done to meself”. He rolled up his trousers to reveal a tattoo of a large devil-like face on his thigh. “And my body is covered with pentagrams too. I was really bad, ya know”.
Michael’s life had drifted from sad little boy to crime and drugs and then to the practice of ritualistic satanic activity. Eventually he found himself serving time in jail and things became worse when he had to spend ten months in solitary confinement. In his dark and lonely cell he became engulfed by the hopelessness and despair he had been running from all his life. With nowhere to go or no one to turn to he picked up a book that had been left.
It was a spiritual book and on its first page it made a promise that if the reader prayed to God and then randomly opened the book, they would find the answer they were looking for. “You’re making some big claims”, he desperately yelled skyward, “Let’s see how good you are.” He paused and opened the book to discover these words, “You believe that you are a wicked man and could never be loved by anyone. Know this, I love you and I have forgiven you for all you have done”.
Michael recalled the tears that began to stream down his face. He said he could not even begin to describe the love that embraced him that night. He felt cleansed and renewed. The remainder of his time in confinement was spent reading the Bible from cover to cover.
“I still do wrong things”, he said, as he nodded at his drink, “But now Jesus is with me. Every morning when I wake up, I see him standing at my feet with his arms open. He loves me, ya know, even when I mess up. Can ya think of a better way to start the day? He gives me a hug and I know I’m gunna get through.”
I realised then that Michael had a far deeper and truer understanding of the heart and nature of God than I did. I attend Church regularly and in the eyes of the world I seem to be living out my Christian duties, but underneath I do not know God with the intimacy that Michael does. I am like the dutiful brother in the story of the Prodigal son, whereas Michael is the brother who has discovered the authentic love of his Father and has allowed himself to be embraced by it.
I live with a false understanding I have to earn God’s love through my actions whereas Michael knows he will not always get it right, but he also knows His Father’s love is not conditional.
He has embraced the truth in his heart that no matter what he does or doesn’t do he can never live outside of God’s love. And because he understood the intimacy of this love, he desired to embrace it more deeply and allow it to gradually transform him from within.
I never did see Michael again, but I pray I will never forget the glimpse he gave me of God’s merciful and loving heart.