I was born in late 1957, so from that you know I grew up in the ‘60’s, and was a teenager in the ‘70’s. You would also know something of the influences on me from the fact that I was an army brat. My father was in the military until after I had left for college. I went to 12 different schools, and we moved more often than that. We lived overseas twice and all over the US.
Relevant to my coming to Christ, the most important influence on me (besides God, of course) was my family. I would have said when I was growing up that we were a Christian family, but we weren’t. I suppose we were what you would call nominal Christians. My parents believed in God and had vague ideas about what was in the Bible, but there wasn’t a deep commitment to faith. It was more a commitment to behaving well and making a nod toward church. We went to church but not at all consistently. If we liked the church (or more likely, the military chapel) at a particular place, we went more often. Sometimes for stretches of weeks or months we would not go at all. For my generation it was possible to consider oneself a Christian but not really be committed to it, and that’s how my family was.
I was fairly studious, and I have a bent toward thinking about things analytically and in some depth. And so I didn’t blithely go along thinking I was a Christian. I knew on some level that there was more to it. When I was 9 and 10 years old we were in a phase in which we went to church more frequently. We lived on Yangmingshan, Taiwan, and there was a Baptist church down the mountain from us. I was getting old enough to go places on my own sometimes, and I was allowed to go to church by myself, so I did. It was a good church. I was baptized there.
I should say something about being baptized. This was in a Baptist church, so the doctrine was not for infant baptism. Instead, you went for immersion baptism at a time when you were old enough to make a credible profession of faith. It ought to be the big event to mark the crossing over from death to life, just as the ceremony signifies. The truth about that event in my case, however, was that it had more to do with my desire to grow up and be independent. That was a strong motivator to me all through my childhood and youth, sometimes to ill effect. I was motivated to get baptized in part because I found out a little girl I liked had been baptized. Of course, she had been baptized as an infant, because she was Catholic, but I didn’t understand that.
I wasn’t sure at the time about the effect of my baptism. On the one hand, I didn’t understand the turning from self-dependence to God-dependence that it should have entailed. I was nothing if not self-dependent, and always have been. My behavior in later years certainly didn’t mark me out as someone who knew Christ. On the other hand, at the time I did pray and I did mean it sincerely, as much as an independent-minded 10-year-old can. I sometimes wonder whether the tendency we have, to say we crossed over to God on such-and-such a date, or upon such-and-such an event, really makes sense. God certainly knows who He has called to Himself, before they make a profession of faith. The “record” in my case is unusually murky as to when, during my life, I would say that I was a Christian. I never denied or repudiated God outright. But I ignored Him a lot.
In high school I was into friends and sports and girls and not into things of God at all. For a while I was somewhat active in a church youth organization, but at the same time I was behaving in ways that had no markings of someone committed to Christ. In college I never went to church, and I was more distant from any thinking about the importance of cultivating a relationship with Christ than at any time before. I went to a big southern college, so I ran into Christians or Christian groups sometimes. I was attracted to them, but did not join. It seemed like too much of a commitment, and I didn’t think it was necessary to being a Christian anyway. At most I might have admitted that I wasn’t acting much like a Christian, but I wanted to party and have fun, and I ran with people who felt similarly. I felt like associating with such a group would limit me. Getting involved in a Christian organization and reading the Bible a lot and praying felt to me, at the time, to be too restrictive.
Working after college was a jolt. My ego told me that I would instantly be recognized as the genius I was, and rocket to the top of the corporate ladder. But I wasn’t a genius, and I wasn’t rocketing anywhere. I hated my boring, tedious job, and felt that I didn’t fit in. I decided I needed to go back to school, so when I could afford it, a few years later, I did. I was very intense about it. In those years I did not read my Bible, or pray, or go to church, or hang around people who did. It was not on my radar screen.
I graduated with a law degree when I was 29. Then I went to work at something that was more interesting. I felt like I finally had my life on track. I knew that I was finished with school at last, and felt like I was finally starting life. What seemed to go along with that attitude was to go to church, because that’s what grown-ups do, I felt. I began attending, and I joined, and I wanted it to be real, not the kind of haphazard experience I’d had all my life to that point. But I found it kind of frustrating. Partly because I didn’t really understand much about what the Bible really taught. Partly because the teaching wasn’t great. It was kind of shallow, and it seemed that there was a lot of going-through-the-motions among the people around me. It felt inauthentic, and it was.
At this point in my life I was more competent generally in my thinking, and not interested in wasting time in fakey awkward religious practice if there wasn’t anything to it. I felt that there must be more to genuine faith than what I was experiencing. Even at this point I completely believed there was a God, and I don’t think I really doubted that the Jesus story was true. But that’s not to say it had an impact on me, other than to prompt me to inquire. I needed to study it and to study competing beliefs, to either make it my own or determine that something else was true. I began a period of study that really has been going on ever since, but was especially intense for that first 2 or 3 years following law school. I read voraciously on apologetics and philosophy and history. I began to have some understanding of basic Christian theology. I knew that if I was to be a man of faith, it could not rest on a flimsy understanding of how it stood the test of reason. Or to say it the other way around, if I couldn’t articulate why it made more sense than anything else, then I should not adopt it as true.
After a period of time at this, I began to pray more regularly, and I prayed several times what I thought the Bible was telling me to pray. At first it was just the standard “sinner’s prayer,” after which I would look up and wonder if it really took. There was no bolt of lightning. I knew it wouldn’t really happen that way, but I also wondered how one could know, when he had genuinely crossed over. Gradually I came to an understanding that the experience of God is different for different people; that my personality had caused me to hold God at arm’s length; that I would probably never be the kind of person who would unreservedly make the leap and never look back. I suppose you might say my walk with God was kind of cautious. I would have said that I trusted God; just not myself. I just can’t seem to get past myself. I can’t get over the urgent, insistent need to be completely independent of any one or any thing. But looking back, maybe the problem was that I didn’t fully trust God, after all. I want to be in control. I resist the idea that God has more to say about the direction of my life than I do. But I know intellectually that’s foolish.
I say this in the present tense because it’s still true, though I believe I crossed over to a living faith in Christ sometime during that period of study. I think the prayers were effective. I see fruit in my life, in that I am closer to God now, and I know that I am a better person than I would otherwise have been at this point. I have made a study of what it really means to be a follower of Christ, and I have tried to do the things I think I’m supposed to do, but I always relapse and realize that trying to do things the standard way I approach everything else in life just doesn’t work. The spirit can work in me, and has, but I am in the way all the time.
This experience has led me to the understanding that we’re pretty much a lot worse than we think we are. Moving over to reformed faith, as taught in my current church, has meant a quantum leap in my understanding. Much of my relationship to Christ makes more sense now. I understand that the depravity of human beings, including me, is not much fun to think about, but happens to be true. It is a brokenness that is pervasive and unfix-able by me. Christ resurrects me, or I die. I can’t salute Christ and then do it on my own.
I have slowly come to an understanding that belief is something more than just acknowledging that there is a God, and that the Jesus story is true, and that somehow what He did back then restores me. I can accept that much of it, intellectually. It has taken some work to grasp the substitution of Christ for me, and how He atones for me. But I’ve gotten there. The more difficult part for me is the element of fellowship with Christ. We pray to a God who doesn’t (immediately) answer us back. We’re told to read the Bible; that’s His answer. But that’s different than a conversation. We suffer the silence of God, but we realize that Jesus did too: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It may be intuitive for some people, but not so much for me. If faith means belief plus relationship, how do I carry on this relationship with an unseen God? My effort–and I think it’s perfectly ok that it feels like a matter of effort rather than something that I just fall into—is in having relationship with Christ, wherein He is the vine, and I am a branch of the vine. It’s not natural for me, but then I know that’s my natural self in the way. I am in relationship with Christ because I pray, and I pray telling myself the truth: that He is real, and He is listening, and He cares, and He will do for me what is best for me in the long (the very long) run.
I want to have faith, but my faith is often weak. I want to believe, but I have to work at it. I’m the man in Mark 9 who says “I believe; forgive my unbelief.” I know intellectually that it has to be true. I used to think of faith as some sort of mystical thing, and then I read Hebrews 11:1 which starts out “now faith is . . .” Well there it is. It can’t be too mysterious—it’s right there in black and white. And what it says is not that there is some sort of inner experience that takes over and gives you something that your reason can’t. Instead it talks about continuing to believe in that which is unseen. That doesn’t mean belief in something with no evidence to support it. It means we should accept the truths accessible to our reason, and not be limited to what we can know solely through our sense impressions. It means that material reality; the things we see, hear, and touch, is not all there is.
I think we are called to Christ if we believe plus have relationship with Christ. And that calling does not fail just because we continue to see sin in our life. Paul said, after many years with Christ, that he was the chief of sinners. He wasn’t just talking about his pre-conversion self. He was talking about the greater sensitivity that he had to his own sin as a result of belief plus relationship with Christ. I am disappointed with myself, frankly. I’m not the man I think I ought to be. I’m not the strong independent self-made reliable person I always thought I saw in the mirror. I am improving in this one way, though: I am less inclined to look at the darkness inside myself and think I must not be one of His. Instead, it’s a reminder to me of my need for Christ.
That said, it’s ok to strive to behave well. Following Christ is not solely a matter of praying and asking for God to make me morally better. It’s also about doing things (or refraining from doing things), because from my perspective, that’s how it feels. It’s not a failure of the Gospel story that we make an effort to conduct ourselves well, “to make our calling and election sure.”
Christianity is sometimes summarized, rather simplistically, as being about “grace and mercy.” Grace and mercy are not necessary if we’re basically ok. We’re not basically ok, we incline to evil. That’s why we should have a sense of mercy and grace toward other people—like the Orlando shooter and the people in a gay lifestyle who were his victims. We’re sinners, too, and we are all in need of redemption. A clear understanding of Christianity I think starts with an understanding that we do not start off reconciled to God, because He is pure and we assuredly are not. We cannot be with God and we cannot even look upon God because He is righteous and we are not. We are condemned because of our sin. The Bible doesn’t say that if we don’t accept Jesus, we are condemned. It says we are condemned already (e.g., John 3:36). The escape from that condemnation is an undeserved gift from God.
So what is happening here is that God is providing us a means of reconciliation to Himself. I feel like we’re all in a big boat drifting along on a scenic river oblivious to the waterfall that’s up ahead. Except some of us know intellectually it’s there, and also have a shadowy glimpse at how to escape it, and not only escape it, but escape to something utterly foreign to our world and unimaginably wonderful. But we see “as in a glass but darkly,” because we have a hard time understanding how the way of escape can be a person, and in addition, the One who made the scenic river and the waterfall in the first place.