When I think about talking to my former self, it honestly scares me. In high school, I was a proud, obsessed, broken, scared young man. I had all these dreams about life, leading me to project a certain lifestyle that I thought would impress people around me. I lied to so many people and I lived in constant shame about who I was, always chasing a life that would never satisfy me.
Want to know what Zach was like in high school? I think I could help you see him by sharing what I would tell him if could talk with him now.
Dear Younger Me, Stop Idolizing a Life That Could Come
At a young age, I would fantasize about what life will be like one day. I had big dreams. My hashtag on my MySpace page was #NFLBound. I would lay down every night contemplating what could happen one day. I would love to say that football was all I cared about, but I don’t even think it was football that I was idolizing. While I loved—and still love—the sport of football, I think it was the football lifestyle I really idolized.
What happened when that dream lifestyle didn’t pan out? I was crushed.
Due to injuries, lack of ability, and lack of opportunities, I didn’t become a football star. I barely became a football player. I can remember being in the doctor’s office the day he recommended I quit playing football due to the number of injuries I’d endured. I was crushed. The image I had built was now torn down. My idol was gone.
What I’m learning now is that this sense of failure deeply affected my life. I am terrified of failure. I am terrified of being a failure in ministry and life. I worry about blowing it. Why do I worry about that? Because I have this wound of failure that I caused in myself when I was younger.
So, I would tell my younger self to dream and to have goals, but to ultimately live life as God grants it. I’d tell my younger self: Treat life and all that you have as a precious gift from God. Don’t believe that you are owed anything and don’t set your heart on things that will crush you if they aren’t fully realized. God is the only one who satisfies you fully. Think about this; relationship with God is the greatest thing we will ever have, and it is the only thing we will never be cut off from.
Dear Younger Me, Kill Your Sin
Seventeenth-century theologian, John Owen, famously says that we ought to be killing sin or sin will be killing us. As a teenager, I didn’t take this seriously. I figured: “Jesus paid for all of my sins, so why should I worry about them? In my mind, following Jesus was not being a horrible person. So that’s what I tried to do. But that only led to a life of constant shame. Why? Because I claimed a faith in the gospel that calls us to be like Christ, but I wasn’t living like Christ.
In my heart, I was also incredibly hypocritical. I was quick to call out others in their sin, but I was doing nothing about my own. This was so harming to others, and it isn’t how God calls us to live.
So, I would tell my younger self to take sin seriously. I’d tell him to make any relational sacrifices, life decisions, and friendship decisions that would further his walk with Christ. Choices that would help him take sin seriously. I’d tell him: Don’t play around with sin. It will cause more harm to you than you realize.
Dear Younger Me, Follow Someone as They Follow Jesus
One of the greatest gifts to me in following Jesus is the people in my life who are more mature in their faith and choose to speak into my life, showing me what it means to follow Jesus. Over the years, these people have invited me into their homes, opened their Bibles with me, and lovingly called me out on my shortcomings. They have shaped my life and were essential to who I am today.
When it comes to relationships, I would tell my younger self to cling to those people and not let go. I’d tell myself: These people will change your life. At some point, you will look back on these days as formational. So, step into those relationships. It might seem uncomfortable at times, but it is worth it.
Dear Younger Me, Your Past Doesn’t Define You
Young Zach had a lot of issues and a lot of sin, but God has done an amazing work in and through me since those high school and college days. He didn’t wait till I got my act together to meet me. He never wagged his finger in disappointment at me. He never stiff-armed me. He showed me grace every day—and still does—in spite of my shortcoming.
Though I can’t go back and share this wisdom with my younger self, I can take comfort in knowing that my past doesn’t determine my life, God’s mercy and grace does. That’s the beauty of every story redeemed by the gospel.