by Kathy Gaulton
As God says in Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
The journey of growing up in a legalistic household holds many memories and experiences that molded and shaped my young adulthood in ways that I am not proud to share. My parents, George and Esther Suda, were Free Methodist church planters in Anaheim, California, helping my grandfather, Ernest I. Okamoto, who was the pastor. The entire Okamoto family worked together to build up the congregation of the Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church after World War II.
My parents were entrenched in the legalistic form of holiness, striving to please God and following the Free Methodist discipline. There weren’t any apparent issues with them as they grew up with the rules that formed their values. However, raising children to follow that lifestyle was a challenge for them. The tension grew as I, the firstborn, got older. Actually, it started when I was about 6. I recently had the privilege of writing a book, “Repurposed” that shares my testimony and life story. Here is an excerpt:
Our family values focused on trying to make our behavior exemplifying Christ and the Bible. We were Free Methodist, and there were many rules to follow. The rules included things like no smoking, no alcohol, no playing cards, no dancing and many others. My dad followed all the rules very strictly. It was his way of showing God how much he loved Him. For me, the most excruciating rule was the one that said, “No shopping on Sundays.”
One Sunday, my parents took us to visit their friends who lived on a chicken farm and sold eggs. I loved that place. As kids we had so much fun playing in the giant farmhouse and looking at all the chickens. There was also a tiny little neighborhood store near their house. On this particular Sunday I had some money with me, so all of us kids went to the little store. We looked around and I found a super-fun squirt ring with a flower on it. When someone smelled the flower, you could squirt him or her in the face with water — surprise! When my dad found out that I had made a purchase on Sunday, boy, was I in a world of trouble. He punished me severely and told me that it was a sin to buy unneeded things on Sunday. But why? Why was this a sin? Sunday is the Sabbath, I understood that, but why was shopping displeasing to the Lord? That one incident bothered me for many years to come. This rule amongst Free Methodists changed many years later, and Sunday finally became a shopping day for me. To this day, one of my favorite activities is to go to lunch and then shop on Sundays after church.
The legalistic approach to religion was a true hindrance to my understanding the deep love of God.
As I grew up and went to high school, my values were that of my parents, but I showed definite signs of rebellion — not understanding the “whys” behind the legalistic rules that guided our lives. I asked a pastor at a church camp seminar the “why” behind the “no dancing” rule. His response was that we should avoid close contact with the opposite sex, because being too close would lead to intimacy. I thought that was unacceptable due to the proximity of most dancing at my age, which was fast dancing that kept you literally far apart. The pastor’s answer did not satisfy me. I also discuss dancing in my book:
As a teenager, one of the most disputed rules was the one of “no dancing.” I wasn’t attractive but still wanted to attend high school dances. I argued with my father about this rule, and he did submit to me, saying, “I’ll leave the conviction to go to the dance or not up to you.” I did not have any conviction about the “no dancing” rule, so he permitted me to go. The legalism that prevailed in those days was like a noose around my neck.
What I was learning was the concept of conviction. The idea of a person completely believing they are right about something was instilled by my father. Instead of him arguing or fighting with me, he decided to leave it up to me. In my heart, that was an amazing realization of deciding right from wrong. I wanted to please God based on the legalistic form of holiness. This was a hard thing to do on my own.
My family suffered a huge emotional downturn when my grandfather committed suicide. This was the beginning of the time period when I started to draw away from the church and from religion as I knew it. About a decade passed with my heart belonging to Jesus but drawing away from the church. When you separate yourself from the church, you pretty much live a life on your own. Even though I experienced many successes in business, I suffered in some areas in which I needed to draw near to God and fulfill His purpose for my life.
Many life lessons were learned, and I turned to God — mostly in my distress and failures. God has had His hands on my life in so many situations. My parents were so faithful to the church and served endless hours. Their testimony was silent but strong. They were quiet when it came to my involvement with the church, and they accepted the situation.
When I turned 30, I had a large disappointment in my career. After 13 years with Six Flags, I had learned so much and experienced an enormous number of successes, but I found myself feeling empty and dried up spiritually. I decided to quit my job without any plans. After some time, I decided to go back to church, where my heart felt like it was broken. I cried and cried until I had no more tears. God was speaking to me, the church people were so welcoming to me, the newer contemporary music filled me with each word, and I felt different than I had in the past. I was experiencing the true love of God, a “born again” feeling throughout my entire being. I began attending a Sunday school class every week. I developed a new love for reading the Bible and had a new spirit within me. My dried-up feeling started to disappear, and newness began to spring up in my heart.
I realized God’s call to holiness was not to be a burden but a joy that takes a burden’s place. Life-giving holiness is the gift that is given to us as sin starts to make its way out of our lives. The transformation of my life was beginning to happen as I accepted the Holy Spirit into it. I began to realize that the legalistic form of holiness is not holiness at all. God puts into us the desire to leave the life of sin behind, and He instills the desire to obey and follow Him. The desire to please God is increased as the love of God increases. My heart’s desire is to follow Him in all that I do and to be in His presence.
The life-giving holiness that I have experienced and found has brought true fulfillment and many answered prayers. The legalism fell away, and the desire to keep my life God-pleasing became a natural part of life. My main prayer in my life’s journey has been answered with exceeding joy. As my book states:
I had given my heart totally to Jesus Christ and determined to follow Him. I wanted my children to have the same amazing walk with Him! … I pleaded with God to make Himself the center of my kids’ hearts, and to make them His people. Then, in the street-lit stillness of late-night L.A. County, I heard God give a big, reassuring “YES.” From that day on, I felt the power and peace of that promise.
When you desire to do whatever God calls you to do, you must obey Him just as you are. He changes you to be as He wants, step by step. This journey has taken me through raising my family, an extensive career, becoming a pastor’s wife, founding Heavenly Treasures, becoming a missionary and writing “Repurposed: My Journey from Global Merchandising to Global Ministry.”
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).