Running in the Dark

Nov 20, 2003 |Liza Dreski

Small steps to big mistakes.

I used to be a runner. I ran a three-mile route with a friend daily — hard work, but rewarding. I had the shoes, the ponytail, the cool-and-smooth attitude. I liked thinking of myself as "a runner." It was great to get into a good pace, think deep thoughts, and know that I was doing something good for my body. I found myself eating less junk food and drinking more water. Running was a key element in a healthy lifestyle.

Over time, however, my lifestyle changed. I'm not naturally disciplined; inevitably, I allowed myself to give my free time to other things — working late, going out, relaxing at home. I ran less often and ate less healthy. Meanwhile, I still thought of myself as a runner — even when my evenings consisted of watching "Friends" reruns and eating Hamburger Helper! In a form of denial, I considered each unhealthy choice an exception — one that would show that I was balanced and not too obsessively health-conscious. "Yeah, I'm a runner," I would think to myself, with the guilt-ridden caveat " ... I just haven't gone running in a while!" Meanwhile, my stamina and strength decreased. Once, I tried to go for a run after eating way too much chocolate. I can still remember the cramp in my side, and the frustration with myself when I had to let my partner go on without me.

A similar thing happened in my spiritual life one fateful summer.

After making a commitment to Christ at the age of 14, I went to a Christian high school where I memorized dozens of Bible verses. I went through a "mountaintop" time at a Christian college — I read through the whole Bible and I was truly in awe of Christ as a result. I knew that I was not saved by my deeds, but from my "Christian" experiences I had a sense of security, even invincibility.

My college was strict enough to ban alcohol on campus, but loose enough to have "open dorms" twice a week. The professors were believers who challenged us students to find good explanations and solid reasons for the Sunday-school answers we had been trained to spout off. My roommates and many of my classmates were Christians. They came from many different denominations, but we all shared an essential core of beliefs, and we could always build great intellectual and spiritual conversations on that foundation. It was the ideal place for me, and I grew tremendously during those four years. Spiritually, I was a runner!

The decline started when I left the Christian college environment. After graduating, I moved to a big city where I had an internship. There were several Christians my age there, so things were good for a while. The problem was that I had much more freedom, but (as I discovered) little self-control. After work, I didn't have to study — what would I do until bedtime? I had to grocery shop and cook for myself — what would I serve? These were questions that my professors had not asked, and they seemed insignificant. Looking back, though, my answers to simple questions like these affected my course.

A task-oriented person, I soon found that I was ruled by the "tyranny of the urgent." I worked long hours at my job, never quite getting ahead. At home, I always found chores to keep me busy. I got extra sleep in the morning, because I seldom got to bed on time. I didn't carve out regular times for Bible study or prayer.

Little things like these led to big changes over time. I kept trying to "get my life in order," but could never get on top of everything at once. I took various steps forward, but by the end of each year I was probably one step further back.

A big mistake I made (and repeated) was striving for the approval of others. You can't please everyone, but I sure tried hard. I probably managed to impress a lot of folks who didn't know me that well, but Sam was an exception. He was amazing — sensitive, smart, amiable, good-looking, hard-working. He started out respecting me deeply, but after a couple of years of semi-dating, he gave up. I felt that I had failed, since I couldn't impress him enough or be just what he needed.

So, the third summer after college graduation, there I was in the big city, resenting the loss of a significant relationship, feeling like a failure, using food to distract myself and avoid facing any emotional pain, and distancing myself from my Christian roommate. (I didn't want her to ask too many questions, or challenge me with the truth. This is one way that the Body of Christ builds itself up, but I wanted to avoid the pain of admitting I needed help!) I was working as an independent contractor, which meant I had a bit more time of my own, but by this time I didn't like to sit still with my own thoughts; I wanted to find comforting and affirming experiences. This was when I started hanging out with a non-Christian guy.

Dave and I started out just talking, then we took harmless liberties like going to movies in the middle of the day when we "should" have been working on our respective projects. I liked that he listened to me, found my jokes hilarious, and paid for my meals. He also let me drive his car. I knew that he didn't understand the gospel — at least, not enough to receive it — and I brought him to church a few times. I rotated between Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches — or I just spent Sunday morning at Starbucks reading the Post with Dave.

I was not trying to win him for Christ. I was trying to find a simpler life for myself, without the complications of trying harder but never getting ahead, without the fear of being judged by other Christians who might see that I was not as spiritual as I had once been. (Of course, true followers of Christ were not out to judge me, but I couldn't see that from where I was. My high school church had tended toward the legalistic side, and I had witnessed first-hand how adept Christians can become at judging sin in others. There, I learned the "importance" of keeping up a good appearance.)

Frankly, life seemed so much simpler for Dave. Perhaps because he did not have the Law of Christ to convict him, he could enjoy "little" vices. Instead of praying that God would show Dave his need for Christ, I tried to join Dave in being oblivious.

Within months of our first date, I spent the night at his apartment — on his couch.

What was my plan? I had none. I had made up my mind years earlier that I would never have sex before I was married. In my foolhardy confidence in myself, I thought, "Why should I get up and drive myself home?"

The problem was, I was trying to live according to a strength that I no longer had. In my pride — and fear of being shamed — I tried to focus on my strengths and ignore my weakness. However I thought of myself, though, I was not spiritually fit.

The amazing thing is that God still pursued me, even though I wasn't pursuing Him. That still small voice kept prodding me, even while I chose to ignore it. One day, I had a brief moment of clarity: I realized I was headed down a slippery slope. Worse, I didn't care enough to attempt turning around.

The Big Question was: If I didn't stop myself, what would happen? Somewhere deep inside, I cried out for help. When I thought about it, I really did miss God's presence. For a moment, I admitted that things would not be better for me until I got into the uncomfortable position of weakness and humility. I admitted — briefly — that I could not prove myself strong, and I certainly could not save myself.

Then, I went on as I had been before. I made lame attempts to get out of my relationship with Dave, but I did not humble myself before God. Several weeks later, I was pregnant. (I'll spare you details, but take it from me: Conception does not require love, candlelight, or even pleasure.)

I am pregnant. What will Dave say? What will my mother say? How will I provide for my child? A million questions whirled around my mind the instant I found out.

Somehow, this jarring reality brought spiritual relief. Sometimes, it takes so much more energy to believe a lie, to keep up a false front, than it does to surrender to the truth. The truth had just confronted me, and there was no escape. I would soon be sporting a big belly and no wedding ring, and everyone would know what I had done. I was no runner. I was out of shape, unhealthy, and tired.

It was time to face the light.

PART 2: Facing the Light »

Copyright 2003 Liza Dreski. All rights reserved.

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