“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation
and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
~Henry David Thoreau, 1854
The headline grabbed my attention like an electric shock. A Tennessee minister’s wife admitted that she had shot her husband in the back with a shotgun, killing him, and then fled with their three small daughters. Matthew and Mary Winkler had seemed to have the ideal family. He was the popular, charismatic pastor of a conservative evangelical church, and his wife appeared to be the perfect wife and mother, with sweet, affectionate children. There were no outward signs of discord in the family. Their grieving congregation was baffled as to why this quiet, kind woman would do such a thing. Her quiet desperation found a lethal voice to express itself.
Somehow, although I had no personal connection to this tragedy, it deeply affected me. I was short of breath, and my stomach seemed to be tied in knots. I, too, had once been a pastor with a faithful wife and three small daughters. I could not imagine my wife having done such a thing, and I shuddered to think of the devastation it would have caused in the souls of my precious children.
Surely, there had been something deep in the hearts of Matthew and Mary Winkler toward one another when they were married. Surely, they believed that God was putting them together, and that He would help them to have a happy marriage and raise godly offspring. Yet ten years later, their marriage and his life came to such a dreadful end. Why? The fatal flaw of the human race took its deadly toll.
I don’t pretend to know what caused Mary Winkler to become so desperate that she would kill her husband, but I am well acquainted with how the fatal flaw of humanity has worked in my life, and threatened to destroy my own marriage and family. My wife and I were married almost 26 years ago, with the zealous expectation of being urban missionaries to bring the good news to the Boston inner city. Ten years later, we were adrift in the godless world of high-tech professionals traveling the world in search of something to distract us from the disappointments of our life. The “quick charge” of seminary had quickly been drained by a religious system that was disconnected from the source of divine power to overcome the fatal flaw of the human race.
Church after church, the players were different, but the play was essentially the same, always ending in division, heartache, hard feelings, and disillusionment. We did not understand why good-hearted people who all believed in Jesus and claimed to be following Him, could not get along with each other, or why they seemed to have such a shallow interest in the Word of God, or why the perverse pleasures of the world kept creeping into the church. Burnt out, we bailed out of church work, and took the opportunity of some lucrative consulting jobs in Switzerland to get a change of scenery. Not wanting to be heathen, we kept going to church, but our zeal had run out. We joined the ranks of the passive pew-sitters we had always despised.
Truth be known, we were just as fallen and needy as anyone else, even though our upbringing had equipped us with the stability and sophistication to maintain a good outward appearance. We were both leading lives of quiet desperation, superficial in our communication with each other, each tormented by our own besetting sins, inadvertently hurting each other through our inherited tendencies, and becoming hopeless and bitter over the unrealized expectations of our marriage.
Oh, don’t get me wrong; we weren’t thinking murderous thoughts about each other. We loved each other, but somehow we were powerless to overcome the fatal flaw that hindered us from seeing past our own “rights” and selfish desires. So each hurtful or insensitive word, action, or inaction pushed our souls further apart, though we continued to live together in a semblance of peace. Why hadn’t our Savior given us the power to live the victorious Christian life we had read so much about?
In June of 1990, a shocking thought occurred to me. Perhaps I was not truly saved. In the 14 years I had been a Christian, I had never doubted my salvation. After all, I had said the sinner’s prayer, asked Jesus into my heart, and become a zealous Christian leader. I had left my immoral life behind. I had abandoned my former career aspirations and gone to seminary to become an inner-city missionary, Bible teacher, and house-church pastor. But finally, the painful truth overtook me. When I looked myself squarely in the eyes, I knew that I didn’t have the power to overcome the fatal flaw that afflicts all of humanity. No matter how many times I repented and rededicated my life to Christ, or how much I prayed, or how many Christian books I read, I was still a prisoner to the power of sin.
This realization left me in utter despair, for there was absolutely nothing I could do about my condition. How much more “saved” could I get? I had believed all the right things, I had said all the right words in total sincerity, but there was a “disconnect” somewhere. I could not reach His saving power. How much longer could I go on in my quiet desperation? From the depths of my soul I cried out to the God I hoped was really there, to have mercy on me and show me His salvation.
A few weeks later, we were back in Boston trying frantically to sell our old house so that we could settle down in Switzerland. About a week before we were due to fly back, a man came with his fiancée to look at our house. He had heard about it from an old friend of mine, and thought it might suit him and his wife-to-be after they were married. But alas, it was too much house for him. I stood on the front porch watching them leave, my heart sinking as the hope dwindled of being free of this burden that represented our past ten years of bitter disappointment. Just as they were about to get in their car and drive off, the man noticed the anxiety in my eyes. He walked back to where I was standing and said, “If you really need someone to take care of your house, you should talk to those people at that community just a few blocks from here — you know, the Twelve Tribes. They’re really nice, and they might be interested in your house.”
A peculiar sense of destiny settled over me as I watched them drive off. I had never met anyone from this community before, but I had passed by their house many times, and wondered what they were about. In fact, only a few days earlier, I had noticed one of their pleasant women, with characteristic long hair and modest apparel, at the little market where we got our fruit and vegetables. So the next morning found me knocking on their door, which opened to reveal a clean and simply furnished house with a penetrating aura of wholesomeness and peace. Somehow I had the feeling that I had come home. With a warm smile, the woman who answered the door excused herself to look for a man about my age whom she said would be happy to talk with me.
Over the course of the next week, my wife and I spent a lot of time talking with these gentle and unpretentious people, and reading the “freepapers” they gave us. We had so many questions, which they patiently answered, and at the end of that week, we happily handed them the keys to our house, confident that they would take good care of it while we were in Switzerland. They urged us to visit their sister community in the southwest corner of France, and we were very much inclined to do so.
There was something fresh and exciting about the way these people understood the Scriptures and God’s plan in redemption. They called the Son of God by His Hebrew name, Yahshua, and said they had all literally given up everything to follow Him. They lived together, worked together, worshiped together — they were always together. They said that was the normal life of a disciple, the result of obeying the gospel, and the fulfillment of all that the prophets had spoken about the New Covenant.
Over the next few weeks, after putting our children to bed at night, we read aloud through the gospels and the Book of Acts together in the light of all we had just seen and heard. We were amazed and disturbed by how the Savior’s words had been ignored, trivialized, or explained away by Christians, robbing them of their power. We saw how the gospel had been reduced from a radical call to utterly abandon one’s former life and possessions to little more than an offer of a free ticket to heaven. No wonder that gospel had no power to save us from the fatal flaw that afflicts all of humanity!
We took the first opportunity to visit the Community in Sus, France, staying a week with them in October 1990. What we experienced there changed the course of our life forever. It was a large community of about 150 people of all ages, races, and many nationalities, living together in unity. They gathered every morning and evening to sing and express whatever was in their hearts, pray, and share a meal together. Between these gathering times, they would work together at their various occupations, whether farming, building, teaching children, cooking, baking bread, cleaning, washing clothes, sewing, fixing vehicles, or selling their wares in the village markets. All were laboring joyfully, not for themselves, but to serve their brothers and sisters, which was to them serving their King, Yahshua the Messiah. On Friday evening, they gathered at sunset to celebrate the Sabbath with music, Israeli-style folk dancing, and a festive meal, followed by a day of rest. The peace and harmony of it all was overwhelming.
By midweek, I was undone. The words of truth I’d heard and the contrast between my selfish, independent life and this selfless life of love and unity humbled me to the point that I could no longer maintain my composure. I remember sitting on the bed in the simple but comfortable quarters of a large family that had gladly moved into an old bus to make room for our visit. I opened my Bible and my eyes fell on this passage:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
I began to weep uncontrollably as I recognized myself in those words. They described not my former life, but my current life perfectly. I was still dead in my trespasses and sins in which I currently walked according to the course of this world. I was still under the power of the prince of this world, living in the lusts of my flesh, indulging its desires, a self-deceived son of disobedience. There was no denying it, and I could no longer excuse it because I had encountered a people who were not walking according to the course of this world. They were actually being delivered from the fatal flaw of the human race. Obviously, they had come to know the true Savior.
Returning reluctantly to Switzerland, I resigned my job and we settled our affairs as quickly as possible, bidding farewell to our shocked friends. A small delegation from the Community in Sus came up to help us, and on November 25, 1990, my faithful wife and I surrendered our lives in the icy waters of Lake Geneva, crying out to Yahshua to save us, not just from our past sins, but from the power of sin. Our quiet desperation had found a voice, and our desperate cry was heard in heaven.
Perhaps you will expect me to end this story with, “And we all lived happily ever after.” Indeed, we are happy, though it is such a shallow word to describe our life. Joy is a much better word, for it transcends the ups and downs of our flighty emotions. It was said of our Master Yahshua,
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of joy above Your fellows. (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9)
Ours is a life of learning to love righteousness and hate wickedness, and our joy is proportional to our progress along the way of our Master. We walk on this way together, and the grace to overcome the fatal flaw inherent in our fallen humanity comes to us through our brothers and sisters, whom we live with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is because the love of God has truly been poured into our hearts, which is the Holy Spirit, the Helper, whom the world does not know. His love causes us to gently penetrate the walls of defensiveness and pretense we all tend to put up, and speak the truth to each other about the hurtful ways in our lives. And our love for Him causes us to receive the ministry of His Spirit through our brothers, confessing and repenting of our sins. The covenant we are in together, to never leave or forsake each other, gives us the security to be real, knowing we will not be rejected. Love and forgiveness are healing us.
I shudder to think where I and my family would be today if our Father had not heard our cry and shown us His Salvation. Rather than the destruction that awaited us because of the fatal flaw, we have experienced the lovingkindness of our Father through His people. Our lives are full of purpose and we are surrounded by faithful friends. Our daughters are growing up to be godly young women who love the way of our Master Yahshua and have joined us in this covenant. And my wife and I have a deepening friendship and a confident hope for the future. We are eternally grateful that we could trade in our lives of quiet desperation for the abundant life of our Master Yahshua.
This abundant life reveals a secret that has been hidden for almost two thousand years, and like many best-kept secrets, it has been hidden in plain sight — in everyone’s favorite verse of the New Testament:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
The key is in the word believes and how it is connected to the word life, for…
All who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
Indeed, whoever truly believes the gospel that our Master and His apostles preached will have eternal life, and that life is described in Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-35, where it says definitively what all who believe will do. Eternal life doesn’t begin in heaven after you die. It begins now, here on earth, as soon as you believe as the first disciples believed. That kind of belief produces the abundant life of true salvation.
There is another kind of belief that does not produce this life:
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs that He was doing. But Jesus on His part did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew all men… (John 2:23-24)
This is the way we had “believed” all those years, but Yahshua could not entrust Himself to us until we truly entrusted ourselves to Him by abandoning our life in this world and surrendering our lives into the hands of His Body, the community where He lives in His people. Only there could we serve Him — where He is.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there will My servant be also… (John 12:25-26)
With all of our hearts, we desire to extend this real salvation to you. Please come and visit us.