Don’t Ever Give Up: Confessions of a Pastor with a Past


JAMES LEE     |     APR 1, 2018     |     8 MIN READ


But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

People tell me that I look like a pastor. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but maybe it’s because I have the standard gelled-and-parted hair, a face framed by thick-rimmed Ray-Ban’s, and a warm, harmless smile.

In fact, I am a pastor and my life now is pretty much in line with what people expect from a pastor. I’m happily married to an amazing woman who loves Jesus. I’m a father to the most beautiful little girl (she would say a big girl). I come from a big pastor’s family, which spells spiritual inheritance, and had a good relationship with my parents. I work at an established church that provides generously for what I need. I pastor a wonderful group of students with a faithful staff.

But no one ever guesses what actually happened in the years before I entered the ministry. I often wonder whether I would still be who I am and if what I looked like was a true reflection of my story. Or, I should say, God’s story in my life – the story of God who refused to give up when I did.

The Past

On January 13, 2008, I tried to kill myself. At 5’ 9”, I weighed less than 110 pounds, stick skinny from doing the type of illegal drugs that make people stay awake and not eat for days.

I had been addicted to different substances for about 10 years by then. I had lost all my friends thanks to my destructive behaviors. I had severed my relationships with my family. I had been fired because I crashed a company car while texting and driving.

I had no money, no purpose, no community. I was depressed. I saw no point in life. But here I was, still wanting to do more drugs to satisfy my habit.

After staring at myself for a while, I tried to end my pain with a knife. But I couldn’t do it fully because I was scared.

No longer having the courage either to die or to face life, I felt literally stuck between life and death. I felt desperate.

I muttered a prayer of some sort to God, the very idea I hated at that time. I was a Marxist, believing that religion is a man-made scheme that makes money by exploiting the mentally weak.

“God, I don’t even believe in you. I hate you. But I need help. I’ve made a mess out of my life. No one else is willing to help me.”

I cried uncontrollably in my room throughout the night. I then felt some peace that I chalked up to a result of releasing pent-up emotion.

The Change

The next day was a Sunday, and I asked my parents to take me to church. Confused and nervous, they were hesitant. But they ended up taking me, and I met my previous youth pastor there. I’m sure he saw that I was a mess. But he still connected me to his friend who ran a tutoring business so I could get a part-time job to start doing something constructive without too much stress.

I also met two guys who were new to the church, which I had attended in the past for a long time. It turned out that these guys were out partying the night before and had only come to church they crashed on the couch of a childhood friend of mine who still attending my home church. Able to relate to their stories, I quickly gravitated towards them and they became my best friends for the next several years.

I also met the English Ministry pastor. I hated pastors. They were the religious leaders who carried out the exploitative scheme. They were either fake, boring, or both.

When this pastor heard my story though, he broke down. He cried and thanked me that I shared with him.

I was startled. I had told him my struggles thinking I was going to get judged. I had been looking for an excuse to leave the church as soon as I had returned. But he listened. He empathized. And I felt accepted.

Since then, I have made a full recovery in every major aspect of my life. I have been sober for the entire time, never looking back for more than 10 years. My youth pastor and I got to rekindle our relationship. I’m still friends with those two guys. My pastor who embraced me became a mentor who still influences me. I have reconciled with my family and some others whom I have hurt. I became a Christian.

I had given up. I had given up on my life. I had lost everything and didn’t think that I was going to make it. My friends and my family had given up on me too. But God never give up. God simply kept giving.

The Peace

God has not, does not, and will not give up on me. Ever.

I believe God gave the small inclination in my heart that led me to mutter that plea for help on January 13, 2008. I believe that the peace I experienced was the Holy Spirit touching my heart. I believe meeting my youth pastor, my two friends, and my mentor pastor was all divinely ordained. Indeed, there are countless experiences, things, relationships, and nudges in the heart that God gave between returning to church and my supposedly ideal pastor life that I now live.

I say “supposedly” because I still have struggles. I’m a sinner saved by grace. I was a sinner back then, and I am still a sinner now. My life may look fine on the outside, but I am very much a wretched being on the inside, constantly tempted and wavering. Still, the biggest difference is that I have come to believe and see that God has not, does not, and will not give up on me. Ever.

God did not give up on me back when my life on the outside looked catastrophic. He just kept giving, working on my heart. God is still not giving up on me and continues to work on my heart for He sees me for who I am rather than what I look like.

The Hope

I want to urge you to not give up. Are you going through some trouble in life? Don’t give up. Are you beating yourself up because you have brought some unfortunate consequences to yourself or others? Stop and find hope in Jesus. Has your loved one been hurting himself or herself? Are you tired of dealing with it? Find rest in God who never gives up.

Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Don’t give up because God does not give up on you. He only gives. He is working on the heart even as the appearance you see may not look like it.

God has rejected Eliab and selected David because He sees the heart and not the appearance. Don’t give up. Our God is working in ways we do not see in this very moment.

James Lee is a pastor at Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. He loves reading theology and listening to rap.