I have been thinking lately about God’s work in my life and the great grace that He has shown me over the years. It is common to look back on your life after the fact to see God’s hand at work in different ways that you didn’t realize before. It’s often the case that we don’t understand our lives as we experience them, but looking back at experiences along the way that we are able to make sense of things.
This is going to be a unique post which tells my story of God’s grace in my life rather than covering some theological issue as I have done in previous posts. It is one of those posts where I will be looking back at my experience of God’s grace in becoming a Christian and seeking to make sense of it in the present as I believe God has given me more wisdom and understanding as of late about His work in my life and I’d like to share it with you, if you would be so kind as to listen…
I was born in northern New York, but my parents moved when I was young to Winfield, KS, a small town in south central Kansas. Eventually, my parents divorced when I was younger and began living in different places which eventually became different cities. Having French-Irish heritage, my family were devout Roman Catholics when I was young. I was born into Catholicism. I did my First Communion and went to CCD classes (Catholic doctrine classes) and even went through Confirmation classes, however, I never went through Confirmation as a Catholic. My dad met a Presbyterian woman who shared the Gospel of Jesus with my dad, and my dad converted to become a Protestant. I began to notice changes in my dad that seemed unusual, like we began listening to different music and he would try to hold back when the occasion to curse came. It seemed strange to me. One day, he explained the change to me and shared the Gospel in a basic way I could understand. I had learned that being a Christian was following all the steps the Catholic church required and going through with the sacraments and generally trying to live good life beyond that.
I learned, however, that I was wrong. Being a Christian wasn’t about doing all that the church required or being a good person, being a Christian was about repenting of your life of sin and believing in the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel – that God sent His Son Jesus into the world to live a life perfectly obedient to the Law (Law of Moses), innocently died the death that all of us as sinners justly deserve willingly going to the cross, and having defeated the power of sin Himself and rising having overcome death provided reconciliation between God and man once separated (relationally and physically) because of sin now brought back into relationship with God and having sin forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ. In summary, as Christians we call this the Gospel which is first and foremost about Jesus Christ but includes all of those who put their faith in Jesus Christ who then enjoy the benefits which Christ has earned on our behalf.
I was 7 years old when I began to seriously consider what it meant to be a Christian rather than believing simply going to church and being good were all that were required, and while I didn’t understand all the ins and outs of Christian theology at the moment I understood the Gospel after my dad shared with me and I attended his Presbyterian church and reading the Bible. When I was 7, I knelt down next to my bed one night and confessed my sins for the first time to God and professed faith in the Gospel. I went on attending my mother’s Catholic church since she had custody of me and out of respect for living under her roof, but I considered myself initially a Presbyterian and then eventually a Baptist as my dad moved and began attending a Baptist church. I became very involved in youth group activities at my dad’s church whenever I could visit him and attended Christian camps in the summer and began listening to Christian music and even went on to help lead Fellowship of Christian Athletes in school.
This was my testimony for many years. I became a very good kid by most adults and many of my peers’ standards. However, despite my being a very good kid I learned that I could live two lives, not unlike Neo from the movie The Matrix. In one life I was this good, Christian kid who was obedient to parents and was a good student athlete in school, and in the other life I found that I could act entirely different from this going to parties, listening to horrible music, drinking, and swearing. I became a hypocrite.
It only got worse when my neck was broken during a wrestling practice during my sophomore year of high school which effectively put an end to any and all aspirations of football which was my passion, and I fell into depression. The parties and drinking only happened later in high school after the neck injury. My brokenness as a human being was only loosely bandaged by my hypocritical guise of Christian “goodness.” That is how I have told this story to myself and others before. However, it was more complex than a simple fake good kid and rebel on the weekends story for me, in reality, looking back I was genuinely asking questions in youth group and Sunday school, genuinely striving to help others and serve, and genuinely interested in Christianity. The problem wasn’t so much that I was living one life and the other life was fake, but rather that I believed I could live two lives together while also striving to put forth a false “goodie-two-shoes Christianity” before others. I learned how to behave and act like a Christian in church, and became very good at doing precisely that.
Things began to spiral out of control when I went to college and continued my drinking and partying habits without parental supervision. I had begun to study biology in high school and decided to pursue a career in biological science, preferably working with marine mammals, after the neck injury and finding that I could no longer play football. I continued my studies in college and enjoyed the sciences. I had always been one to ask deep questions about life and felt that science provided a natural place to ask those questions. I never found a solid church to attend at my first college as the Baptist church was unusual with the pastor playing random musical instruments during the service and nobody talked to me when I visited, and I had a number of friends who attended the Catholic church but I was no longer Catholic. I partied hard in college and was made friends with everybody, however, not unlike high school I was friends with everyone and close friends with no one. Whether it was puking on the side of the road after binge drinking or just observing behavior at the parties or both, I began to learn that a life spent partying and drinking was an empty life, unfulfilling, hollow.
I wasn’t getting answers to questions I had in my science classes and was asking deep questions about various theories that nobody else was asking and people seemed to pretend I wasn’t bringing up hard questions or just outright ignore my questions altogether and go on believing. I enjoyed science and the straight forward process to observing life and how with math you often have a simple, straight-forward solution to a problem. However, I began to discover blind obedience in science that was startling considering it was my peers and professors behind this blind obedience who had thrown the same “blind obedience” stones at religion.
So, I began to spend time in prayer and ask God for clarity with my life and what I ought to do. I enjoyed science, but felt unfulfilled. It was a clear fit in regards to my interests and skills, but it wasn’t satisfying. I began to pray before classes, then I began to pray in between classes, and then even after classes. I began to spend a great deal of time in prayer and I even bought my own Bible, an NIV duo-tone compact Bible, at a Barnes & Noble in the city. Shortly after I met some transfer students and other students on campus who invited me to a weekly Bible study near the city. I began to go and enjoyed it, but in truth enjoyed even more my new friends. In my time of prayer, I felt like God was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I went on a Spring break trip to Buena Vista, CO, to Mt. Princeton with the Bible study group and many other Christians from various colleges in Kansas. They all went to ski and snowboard on the colder mountains. I didn’t want to try that with my neck injury, so I just stayed on the warmer mountain alone and walked in the woods on Mt. Princeton and prayed. While walking in the woods, I found a large, flat boulder with a shade tree arched over the side with beams of light falling upon the boulder through the shade tree. I immediately felt that I should pray there and knelt down and prayed. I alternated between there and an Adirondack chair for a time praying.
I had bought a blank notebook before the trip and felt the need to write my prayers down in a sort of prayer diary, and I began writing in the notebook. In prayer and reading my Bible, I read Ephesians 2 and learned I had never heard about nor understood the concept of grace throughout my church experience. In discovering this, I found I had never really understood the Gospel and felt that God was calling me to truly confess my sins and believe the Gospel. Simultaneously, I felt that God was calling me to surrender my life to Him in some form of vocational ministry. I had felt a similar call to ministry before but dismissed it as irrational with my scientific way of looking at life. There on that mountain, my guard came down to God and I felt that I was totally exposed for the fraud that was, but rather than condemn me and judge me I felt that God was embracing me and calling me near to Him. Leaving that mountain, for the first time or at least the first time in a long time I felt fully alive and free from all the shame and guilt from all the horrible things I had done in the past.
I left from there and went onto a new college to study the Bible and theology, and then onto graduate school/seminary to study even more. I began to serve in ministry at my second college upon my return from that mountain and continued serving in seminary in various ministries and eventually was called to be a pastor and ordained. While in college my desire to know God more and the Bible only grew. I read the Bible as much as I could and asked as many questions as I could in classes. My theology was growing as I was learning so much both from my studies and from my friends and professors. At my Christian college I attended, my second college was a Christian liberal arts college, scholars such as N.T. Wright were superstars in the biblical studies department and on campus while more Reformed figures such as John Piper were viewed with suspicion and discouraged. So, I read all the N.T. Wright that I could in college. In seminary, it was the opposite, N.T. Wright was viewed with suspicion and discouraged while John Piper and Tim Keller were viewed as theological superstars.
I learned more about Reformed theology in seminary and had some vigorous debates with seminary friends about Calvinism and Arminianism. I began to learn more about the Bible in my classes and more about God than my arrogant, college mind would have ever thought. I learned about the history of redemption, that all of the Bible is a continuous story of God redeeming humanity rather than two separate testaments pitted against one another (a view that many Baptist churches teach whether knowingly or not, that borders on Marcionism). I also learned Reformed theology and to a great extent believed it was the best framework with which to understand life and the Bible, despite my reservations and observations of staunch legalism among Reformed adherents, I became Reformed myself to a great extent while still remaining a Baptist.
Now, I had referred to my testimony over the years as my becoming a Christian when I was 7 only to please my father and be like my dad, and becoming a cultural Christian rather than a genuine Christian which didn’t take place until my sophomore year in high school on that mountain in Colorado. However, I have been thinking about this for some time and this past Sunday I feel that God revealed more of His work in my life to me which has caused me to go back and revise how I formerly understood my testimony of coming to know Christ which I have written just above.
I was listening to a message in a church service on Mark 8 where Jesus foretold His going to Jerusalem and being killed and Peter rebuking Jesus, and then Jesus’ response to Peter’s rebuke was ringing in my head, “… But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. (Mark 8:33)”
Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die on the cross willingly for the sins of the world, that was His purpose in coming into the world and yet, Peter, thinking that His purpose was to establish some lesser Jewish kingdom on earth and liberate the Jewish people from the Romans wanted to prevent Jesus from going to certain death while ignoring His previous words about His purpose in going to Jerusalem to begin with and coming into the world to die for sins and rise again. Jesus was sacrificing Himself for humanity while Peter wanted to preserve Jesus and preserve his own idea of what God’s kingdom was to be. Peter didn’t realize that what he was asking would prevent God’s kingdom from coming about in the first place and also the salvation that humanity needed from sin. Peter was simply thinking that it would be better not to die and for Jesus not to die, however, he wasn’t thinking about dying for sins and rising from the dead but rather that Jesus would die, period.
Now, what does this have to do with my testimony of God’s grace in my life? I’ll tell you.
I was setting my mind on the things of man, not the things of God in my life. Having gone to seminary and become Reformed Baptist, I began to look back at my experience on the mountain not as an experience of God’s grace in my life but rather tried to fit my story within my newly found Reformed framework for understanding life and the Bible. The problem was that it didn’t quite fit so well.
For example, how could I within a Reformed framework which questions how one could go to God in prayer without having become a genuine Christian or how one could read the Bible and become convicted by it without having become a Christian? Further, how could someone who was not a Christian turn to God and prayer in every event of hardship from the neck injury in school to the challenges of recovering afterward to questioning what to do with my life in college? How could I claim that God redeemed me from depression after my neck injury, which He did, without truly knowing God at the time?
The answer I had before was that I had become familiar with Christian culture and things, so it was natural for me to turn to Christianity for help in such times while not actually being a genuine Christian until college. My becoming a genuine Christian on that mountain in Colorado seemed all the more real with the immense growth in my faith which occurred afterward. The process of sanctification was evident in the days and months and years after that experience on the mountain, but I would have argued that it wasn’t evident before.
My best way to make sense of my experience on the mountain with the seemingly great jump in sanctification immediately afterward was to understand my experience through a Reformed lens and invalidate my former experience of Christianity altogether for a more genuine experience of Christianity that made better sense according to my own theology. I was setting my mind on the things of man in regard to trying to cast a clearcut, clean, theological understanding over my life that satisfied my desire to appear all the more thoroughly Reformed and have a Reformed understanding of sanctification and salvation applied to my life. I was viewing my life of sanctification as a line graph where my growth in grace was steadily rising, never falling, when in reality it was more complicated than that. I was just like Peter who was theologically hot one minute in proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ and a massive failure the next in seeking to prevent Jesus from going to the cross.
What’s further? I was making the theologically error of making a distinction between making Jesus Lord of my life and making Jesus Savior of my life, as if salvation involves two separate subjective experiences on the part of the believer as opposed to the objective reality of Jesus dying for sins and rising from the dead (See Keswick theology or Lordship Salvation controversy). It is not that Jesus cannot be Savior without being Lord of our lives as is commonly held with this errant view of salvation, but rather they are interchangeable. Jesus is Savior and Lord, and our experience of Jesus doesn’t eliminate Jesus from being one or the other, but our faith in the Gospel means placing our faith in the objective truth about Jesus rather than on our subjective understanding of that truth. My understanding of these two experiences, when I was 7 years old and when I was a sophomore in college, was dangerously close to falling prey to this false dichotomy of Jesus as Savior and Lord, as if one could believe in Jesus without believing in Him as Lord or vice versa.
In summary, I believe my story of God’s grace, my understanding of it rather even, has been tainted by my desire to boast all the more in myself in having a solid Reformed understanding of my life rather than boasting of Christ and glorifying God and setting my mind on the things of God.
My testimony, revised, is this…
After being a nominal Catholic I became a genuine Christian when I was 7 years old. I didn’t understand the deep ins and outs of theology as I do now, even though I have much to learn, but I understood that I was a sinner and I believed that Jesus was the Christ, the God-man, and that professing faith in Him and claiming His sacrifice on the cross and resurrection not only as true but as necessary for me was the only means of finding forgiveness for my sins and being reconciled to God. I didn’t know the history of redemption until much later. I didn’t understand Reformed theology until much later. However, before becoming a theologian and before becoming a Baptist and before becoming Reformed, God chose and called me to be His child as the ignorant fool of a child and flawed sinner that I was.
Does ignorant fool and flawed sinner sound extreme? It’s not. I was ignorant, not being able to articulate the history of redemption, Reformed theology, the 5 Solas of the Reformation, the details of the Gospel. I was a flawed sinner because although I would say my life changed, it wasn’t night and day different as my experience on the mountain seemed to be. It was gradual. It took time. It took a lot of failing and falling flat on my face in regards to pursuing Christ as a Christian.
This meant that I was a Christian growing up living those two lives, and one life was a facade and the other was empty and hollow. The reality was that growing up I knew the Lord, but believed wrongly that I should be this very, very good person superficially by my own efforts rather than trusting in God to transform me into the person He has called me to be. I believed wrongly that I could pursue a rebellious lifestyle on the side of my good, Christian life and had to learn the hard way of my mistake and of the emptiness of that lifestyle pursuing the false promises of the world in parties.
“For the word of the cross is follow to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…”
1 Corinthians 1:18-21
My thoughts about God’s work in my life have been clouded by the wisdom of the world, the things of man, and not the wisdom of God. It was the wisdom of God to allow me to experience the various trials and challenges I faced growing up after having become a Christian when I was 7. It was the wisdom of God to permit my neck to be broken during a wrestling practice my sophomore year of high school and to be plunged into depression after in order to carry me through it for His glory. I felt that everyone abandoned me during that time and the only solace I felt were people telling me to just move past football and get over it. It was at that time that God picked me up and carried me through one of the darkest seasons of my life connecting the dots of my life by His sovereign hand from football to injury to trusting in Him to being bitter about my injury and turning to partying to science to brokenness and to trusting Him and leaning upon His grace all the more upon that mountainside. I had wrongly viewed God’s grace working in my life as a steadily rising line on a graph when in reality it is more like a jagged mountain range with peaks and valleys and lots of blurry in-betweens that are difficult to understand. God’s grace, unmerited favor, to me was far greater than I could have imagined.
How do we make sense of that experience of God’s grace on the mountain in Colorado? If I didn’t become a Christian then but was already, than what do we make of the immense growth in grace that took place after?
Jared Wilson wrote a book called Gospel Wakefulness some years ago where he describes how we as Christians come through seasons of our lives where we feel somewhat numb to the Gospel and disconnected from the joy we once experienced in Christ, but then God brings us to a place of brokenness and awe where we come to cherish and savor the Gospel anew and even more restoring our joy and awakening our faith. Wilson defines this ‘gospel wakefulness’ as,
“… treasuring Christ more greatly and savoring His power more sweetly than before...”
Jared Wilson, Gospel Wakefulness
I had read Wilson’s book in part a few years ago when it was published and while I have some reservations about it in regards to the possible distinction between tiers of Christians as being “Gospel wakened” and regular Christians, it gave me pause about my own life and experience of God’s grace. I found that I was putting too much emphasis on my experience of God’s grace and not enough emphasis on God’s power to save those who confess sins and profess faith in the Gospel. Despite my experience when I was 7 years old, I confessed my sins to God and professed faith in the Gospel. It wasn’t a mountaintop experience literally like what I experienced in Colorado, but it wasn’t about my experience of salvation. It was about God’s power to redeem and save me “just as I am.”
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive with Christ…”
I had experienced brokenness when my neck was broken and brokenness when puking on the side of the road in college and not finding fulfillment in science, God was leading me through these things in life in order to bring greater glory to Himself by helping me to treasure and savor Him all the more as He carried me through those times. The experience of God’s grace on the mountain in Colorado isn’t insignificant to me just because it wasn’t my conversion, but it was still my calling to pursue a life of ministry and was still a time of gospel wakefulness where God helped me to see and experience grace in a way I never had before and helped me to lean on Him for grace for all my flaws and foolishness. The shackles of sin holding me captive in my life had been cut by the Gospel when I was 7 years old, but I didn’t realize I was free to leave the prison until I was on that mountain in Colorado as a sophomore in college. That is perhaps the best way I can explain my experience of God’s grace in my life. I believe God is glorified even more as God wasn’t absent during those seasons of my life growing up but carried me through them and the various things that would seem to the world foolishness such as my becoming injured and not being able to play football is part of God’s wisdom in bringing me to a greater place of brokenness in order to experience all the more HIs saving grace and what more? To be able to share that grace with others through serving as the hands and feet of Christ in ministry as the flawed and foolish vessel that I am.
God’s grace to me shows that God can use someone as foolish and flawed as me to greater reveal His glory to both the world and even myself.