“I was in this religious game for accolades and earning God’s favor,” said Graham Shelby. “I saw it as a divine exchange – I’ll do the ‘right things,’ and God will give me a good life. I completely missed the truth about who Jesus really was. “I grew up in a home with faithful parents and went to a Christian school. You might have thought I was a good kid because I combed my hair and begrudgingly took piano lessons longer than most of my friends. While my parents (wisely) don’t choose favorites, I thought God picked me because I didn’t cuss, drink, or cause big problems. But whether I vocalized it or not, I thought poorly of God. I viewed Him as a boring rule-maker who was withholding ‘real fun.’
“In middle school, I went to Kanakuk and heard the gospel presented in a way that reached me. While I had repeatedly heard that Jesus loves me, it hadn’t registered that I was undeserving of it. God graciously held up the x-ray of my heart under the light of His truth; I saw my total brokenness and recognized my need for a Savior, and that Jesus was the solution.
“The most noticeable change wasn’t my lifestyle, but my motivations behind it. No longer did I have to wear myself out for a divine prize; I could enjoy a divine gift instead. I was free to live in response to the gospel and make my life all about Jesus, rather than myself.
“That perspective reshaped the trajectory of my life. I was serious about following Christ and not just assuming my faith was a hand-me-down from my parents. When I got to high school, I wanted to be part of Student Ministries at Watermark, and I joined a small group led by Nigel Kelly and Jeremy Jaqua. They showed me what it was like to be vulnerable and authentic. It was tempting to manage my sin, in hopes that my struggles wouldn’t become part of my identity. But white-knuckling my way through life wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Surrendering to Christ and being fully known by others was the key to an abundant life in the Lord.
“Because of the equipping God provided through Student Ministries, my college experience didn’t follow the seemingly common narrative. I connected with other believers and learned how to trust in Christ when things didn’t go my way. Up to this point, I really hadn’t experienced much adversity. My family was loving, friends were plentiful, and grades had gone my way in high school. Looking at my circumstances, I never had a reason to question God’s goodness.
“But, in college I experienced rejection, which I used as grounds to question God’s goodness. More than just hearing ‘no’ from student organization applications, this was the first time my plan pointed in one direction and God’s pointed in another. I questioned whether the Lord had my best interest in mind. Fortunately, I learned that the Lord is not afraid of hard questions, nor does He make mistakes. The words of Proverbs 16:9 comforted me, as I remembered that ‘a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.’ It wouldn’t be the last time I learned that truth.
“A few years later, I moved up to Chicago for a school teaching job. My intended plan was to be there for two years. God’s sovereign plan was for one year in Chicago, and I came back to Dallas unintentionally, unexpectedly, and unemployed. But, I believed He brought me to Dallas for a reason, so I asked Him to help me be faithful right where I was. As I searched for a job, I also started serving at Watermark, first at The Porch and then in Student Ministries. I led a small group of middle school boys and enjoyed the opportunity to invest in kids the way that people in Watermark Student Ministries had poured into me. Being a Student Ministries leader was all about building a foundation of trust and showing the guys what faithfulness, transparency, and accountability looked like. What a privilege.
“I’ve been working in commercial real estate for more than two years now. As I’ve continued to mature in my faith and heeded the advice I’ve received from mentors and my community group, I’ve learned the value of being fully engaged exactly where God has me. That approach has allowed me to be completely focused on the mission God has before me rather than constantly ‘peering over the fence’ at the next life stage or things I don’t have. Peace comes from submitting my life and my plans to the Lord daily.
“Whether I’m talking to one of the guys in our small group or another young adult at The Porch, I want them to know that faith in Christ is more than just knowing information about Him, or following a list of rules. It’s about knowing the Lord intimately, trusting in His grace, and enjoying Him as the treasure of your heart. Christ has freed me from the shackles of depending on my own performance and given me an abundant life full of joy.”