March 8, 2022

God Kicked Over My Sandcastles

Editor’s note: We occasionally invite friends of 20schemes who are also working in poor communities around the world to tell their story. Mez recently met with Kevin and invited him to share his testimony with us.

The year my life fell apart, God decided to give it a soundtrack. To add insult to injury, He had it written by Coldplay. In early 2009, Viva La Vida was all over the radio and it felt like it was written about me.

One of the verses says:

“I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
"Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!"

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand”

Viva La Vida—Coldplay

The song very aptly and hauntingly summed up the reality of my life and the truth of what I had built. You see, a few months before my 30th birthday, I laid sobbing on the floor of a stunning home that used to be mine—before the bank foreclosed on it. I was faced with the sobering reality that my two-year-old daughter and I now had nowhere to live (although someone told me about a nearby campground where I could put up a tent).

My situation wasn’t ideal: I was selling off all our furniture, we had no food, all my money was gone, I had to move my truck to a new location every night to keep the bank from repossessing it, my career was over, my reputation destroyed, and little did I know the DA was slowly building a case against me for multiple felonies—ranging from larceny to social security fraud. On top of all this, I had crushing opiate, alcohol, and porn addiction that made it extremely difficult to process any of this with a clear head.

My life was a dumpster fire. Actually, that’s not being fair to dumpster fires. My life was a porta-potty fire on a windy day and anyone close to it was not enjoying themselves. The wake of destruction took its toll—not only on me, my finances, and my career, but also on countless people I loved. People who believed me when I told them they were close and valuable friends; people who believed me when I said I respected them as a co-worker and they could trust me; people who believed me when I told them they were the only one sharing my bed at night.

The sad truth was that these people were nothing but commodities in my eyes. I wove a web of lies and manipulation around those in my life so that I could use them for satisfying personal pleasures and advancing personal success (and sometimes I did it just to see if I could). When I finally fell and the pathetic little kingdom I built crumbled, it didn’t just fall on top of me. It also fell on top of all these people, who responded like a stirred up hornets’ nest.

How I Got There

Some people get to where I was due to horrible parents or a messed-up childhood. I can’t claim that. While my dad had no interest in faith, he worked hard and was decent man. My mother raised us to be nominally Christian, meaning we went to a church on Sundays, but in the home there was no outward appearance of faith or continued teachings on it. Now, I’m not sure of the number, but if I had to guess I would say I was “saved” about 47 times before I became a teen. This was due in large part to the fact that I watched a lot of 1980’s televangelists—I was convinced that if I raised my hand like they said and prayed the words on the screen, then I wouldn’t go to hell. Nominal Christianity in the home and false assurances of salvation from sweaty men in leisure suits allowed me to live blissfully ignorant to the true condition of my soul.

I wasn’t a horrible child or teen; I’m sure I wasn’t pleasant, but I wasn’t the worst. The fact that I was molested repeatedly by a grown man from age 12 to 17 probably caused me to act out more than the average child—a trauma that would resurface throughout my adult life. I enlisted in the military when I turned 17 and spent the next 12 years serving my country on foreign and domestic soil as a Chaplain Assistant.

I spent over a decade working with the people of God, concerned with the business of God, and surrounded by the things of God. And yet I remained ignorant to God. After my last deployment, I found myself assigned to recruiting duty with the task of talking teenagers into joining the military during a time of war while the wounds of said war were still fresh in my mind. To cope with the daily lies and moral compromises and to keep myself from dealing with the past, I turned to the three most effective coping mechanisms I could find: drinking, drugs, and sex.

My life spiraled out of control over the next few years as my addictions got worse and my ability to hide them got better. I had it all: the big house, nice cars, status, money, career success, and women. Outwardly, it looked like the American dream. But privately I was a functional alcoholic hiding gin in a coffee thermos at work, popping oxy as soon as I got home and spending my evenings staring at porn. My kingdom needed to fall, my darkness needed to be exposed, and God in an act of grace and mercy did just that.

God Met and Called Me

Lying on the floor that day, my swollen eyes couldn’t blink away the tears fast enough—they came like a flood. But my eyes weren’t filled with tears over what was happening to me, rather they were flowing because my heart was changing. By the grace of God, my mind was finally clear: I could see that my biggest crimes were not the ones I committed against the federal government that ended my career. They were the ones I committed against the Creator. It was that moment, alone, broken, and submissive, that God met me, redeemed me, saved me.

As I was praying (in between sobs) I asked God not to fix my life and put it back together—that was the last thing I desired—but to use it for something worthwhile. I didn’t want power or status again, I didn’t want money or anything that came with my old life, I simply wanted God to use my life for anything that brought Him pleasure and furthered His Kingdom.

Looking back, I can pinpoint that this was the moment God called me into full-time ministry, which I promptly interpreted as a call to be a church janitor (I still lacked discernment). The problem wasn’t that the call was unclear, the problem was my lack of faith. I looked at myself as the world looks at people like me—unusable, unredeemable, and unfit for service. I didn’t doubt the call to serve full-time within the Kingdom, rather I doubted that God would call a broken, unskilled person to lead a church within the Kingdom.

A New Life and Calling

As I sit here reflecting on the state of my life 10 years after encountering the living God, it is with tears of exceeding joy that I find myself boasting not in what I have done, (by the grace of God those days are behind me) but boasting in Him and what He has done. I find myself boasting in the One who saved me from myself and, in doing so, sovereignly choose not to discard me, not to cast me aside, but rather to use me for His glory and pleasure. See, as I reflect on the things He took from me, I am confronted with the things He has now entrusted me with, and as I do this I’m both overwhelmed and perplexed.

See, I cannot begin to justify why He would appoint me as a shepherd over a young church that continues to grow despite my lack of formal education and lack of experience. I cannot think of a plausible answer to the question of how he brought me into ownership of a bodybuilding gym that ministers the gospel of grace despite my lack of business sense. And I cannot fathom how he arranged for me to find a mission field within the outlaw motorcycle world where I am accepted despite my allegiance to a greater Kingdom.

If I had to describe this new life in one word it would be unexpected. I didn’t come to the cross expecting anything but grace and mercy—all these extra blessings have been wildly unexpected. But the most unexpected blessing in my life came in the form of Samantha, my wife of 11 years. I knew that I wasn’t a catch. I was aware my dating pool was draining: 30-year-old single dad—that took me from an ocean to a lake. Former addict and alcoholic with a couple months of sobriety—lake to a pond. Homeless and broke—pond to a kiddy pool. Currently under federal felony investigation—kiddy pool to a few inches of dirty bathtub water. Yet God in His grace saw fit to bring the first God-fearing woman into my life; one who saw what me and the world couldn’t see: A man whose life was already changed.

The Greater Story

This is who I was, this is how God graciously saved me, and this is what He has sovereignly called me to. The story itself is incredible and this only scratches the surface of a story He is still providentially writing. But if you walk away after reading this simply focused on me and these stories, you’ve missed it. See, while God is redeeming and rewriting a story in my life, He is also proclaiming a greater story through it. When I reflect on His work in my life, I see it as the story of God’s impartiality and His desire to glorify Himself through foolish things.

Pastors: Some of you reading this are pastors who are faithfully laboring in fields others walked away from—fields that others said were too weedy, too rocky, or too hard to work. Yet you have felt called to these hard places and to these hard people—people with a past that the world says has already precluded them from amounting to anything worthwhile. Brother pastor, as you see your God graciously and miraculously bring forth fruit out of these fields, do not let things like their lack of formal education, their lack of church upbringing, or even their criminal past speak louder than the voice of God over their lives. God is raising up pastors, missionaries, evangelists and elders from unexpected places, and the church needs more men willing to embrace these redeemed and called saints. Not only that, but these individuals need men and women of God willing to invest in them, disciple them, and come along side them in their calling.

I was rejected by many in ministry for years, and it caused me to stay immature for too long. It wrought seeds of bitterness and cynicism in me that I am still, by the grace of God, working though. Brothers, love the rough and redeemed well, shepherd them with patience, and when it comes time to send them out, encourage them, comfort them, and let them know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Christians: Others of you may not be pastors, but you are faithfully serving in God’s Kingdom in hard places, and you have grown weary. I understand this—I labored for the soul of one man for seven years. He was one of the largest drug dealers in the area and was also my tattoo artist. His depravity was so deep I often thought he was beyond the grace of God. But one night about 11:00 p.m. he called me while I was in bed and asked me to come and teach Him how to receive the Holy Spirit. Seven hours and one new head tattoo later, at 6:00 a.m. in a small room above his shop, I prayed with my new brother in Christ and wept over God’s goodness to save and redeem the least of these.

I say this to comfort you: ministry in hard places takes time, and it may not yield fruit for many seasons. Friends, you’re laboring with people like me—people who have given in to the deepest depths of depravity and are rejoicing in it. You must remember that ministry in hard places will take time. And it will, at times, be discouraging. You will be tempted to think your labor is in vain.

But when God chooses to save one of these men or women out of this mire, it is one of the most beautiful acts of grace to be witnessed this side of glory. Do not think my tattoo artist’s story (or mine) is unique—there are many others whom God is calling out of these very same places. So remember: fruit will come from these fields, but it may take you more time to see a harvest than those who are working other fields.

Rough-Redeemed: Maybe you’re reading this today and you identify with my story on a personal level. Maybe your story is one that should have ended in tragedy: death or jail. But rather than your addictions consuming you, your pride destroying you, or your past condemning you, God was at work redeeming you. You already know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). You already know that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). You already know that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). You already know that God shows no partiality and accepts all who fear Him and do what is right (Acts 10:34–35, Romans 2:11). But often there is a disconnect between theology known and theology applied, meaning often there is a disconnect between our head and our heart. We know God can use us, but then we look around our churches and see men dressed in the “right” clothes, who came from the “right” neighborhoods, that graduated from the “right” seminaries, and possess the “right” degrees, and they always seem to say the “right” thing. We know one thing to be true, but we see another thing in front of us and we doubt.

Friends, praise God for those men! Praise God for His grace to protect some from the things we endured! Praise God that they are just as much testaments to God’s grace as we are! But hear my story of God’s work and have assurance that what you know to be true is in fact true. If God calls you, He will equip you and He will use you for His glory and for His purposes. All praise to Him!

  • Kevin Niebuhr

    Kevin Niebuhr serves as the pastor of The Forge Church in Jefferson, Wisconsin. He is also the owner/operator of Metroflex Gym Wisco, a parachurch ministry serving Southern Wisconsin. He is married to Samantha, and has 5 children. You can follow him on Instagram.

    Read All by Kevin Niebuhr ›

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