So, you’re sitting there one day. Maybe you’re alone. Maybe someone you don’t know too well is talking you through it, or maybe your favorite aunt has just finished telling the story, explaining the mystery for what might be the sixth time, and, finally, you get it. The light goes on. It makes sense. The needle inside of you that measures all the facts, evidence, logic, and intuition of your life tips past the fifty percent line, and you can honestly say that Jesus Christ is your savior for the first time.
This can be a really exciting moment. Sometimes it is accompanied by a rush of emotion and awareness that is overwhelming. If you found yourself crying, you’re not alone. I did. The people around you can be as shocked as you are. I always wondered why that was. I think there is something quite supernatural about seeing Christ clearly for the first time and it can even flow over to those near by.
[bctt tweet=”I think there is something quite supernatural about seeing Christ clearly for the first time.”]
But sometimes that moment is unemotional, almost purely cerebral. Some of the great Christian voices of our time confess that no supernatural effects accompanied their conversion. The event of their accepting Christ was one where they finally admitted to themselves that the evidence was overwhelming, and it would be foolish, and, in a sense, dishonest for them to remain uncommitted.
Finally, there are many in the church that believe that the conversion experience is not so much about adding up evidence as it is about responding to God’s work in the heart of the individual. The experience of conversion is probably as unique as our individual relationship with God, and it would be as much of a mistake to try to categorize the conversion experience as it would be to attempt to quantify it.
However that moment happens in the life of a follower of Christ, and however celebratory or plain the events immediately following ones confession are, when the dust settles, the most common question is “What now?” When we consider committing ourselves to something, it is prudent to get everything on the table before we decide. Before I sign a contract, for example, I want to know what is going to happen the second I set the pen down. Before I go to work for somebody, I want to have as clear an idea as possible about what that first day of work will look like. But when we come to Christ, it often doesn’t happen that way. That decision can have more the feel of a discovery. Once we accept the fact that the world is not flat, we immediately wonder what the consequences of a round world will be. Once I realized how I was saved and the amazing personality of the one who did that for me, I wondered what life was going to look like from now on.
When long time Christians get together and talk about what they experienced during the first few years after their conversion, they tell many of the same stories. They tell of friends they had who had long pledged their friendship without reservation or qualification – “We’ll always be friends no matter what!” – but who could not, it turned out, be friends with a Christian. They tell of friends they lost by using their new Christianity to beat up those they loved. We Christians can be rather judgmental. In those early years I lost friends by both means.
[bctt tweet=”We Christians can be rather judgmental.”]
Despite the commonality of our testimonies, it really is impossible to know just how the Christian walk is going to develop for the individual. That is because the one really common element for all of us is that upon conversion (and for all I know, long before that), Christ ardently works for our good. And when we say he works for our good, we mean it in the same way our folks meant that this or that would be for our own good. That is, we are being refined, purified (if you like), made better than we were by whatever means he deems necessary. Consequently, the Christian walk is not about things going easy, any more than the grueling two-a-day summer workouts are about going easy on the aspiring high school football player, though they are for his own good. Those workouts are about making him stronger, however painful they may feel at the time. The best coach will know when to rest his young athletes and when to push them so that they can be what it is they were meant to be. Even this training example is far too simplistic when it comes to summing up the way God intends to prepare us and what he intends to prepare us for. The Christian not only has a relationship with their family, their community, and to other Christians, but to the Church at large, to a place and a purpose in God’s kingdom, and to be in specific relationship, sometime referred to as a “union’” with Christ. It is beyond the scope of this article and the size of my brain to be able to present a very clear idea of how all those spheres of relationship and involvement overlap with each other and just what they will mean as we develop our relationship to Christ. Let’s just say that his plans for us far exceed what we could have imagined for ourselves. Not only that, the work he does on us is custom tailored.
We are all uniquely made. And as much as “We are all special” is a cliché, there really is something completely accurate about that. There is one who perceives us not only as we are, but as we could and should be. He imagined us into existence.
That unique thing about us hovers far back in our conscious like someone calling from far away, a distant voice we can almost hear. The core, the true self, has been covered by layers of sin over the years to the extent that what we believe to be our true self, that thing that makes us special, is often quite different from the individual Christ sees. It may be that we pride ourselves on our patience when in fact our patience really is cowardice. It may be that our professed love of the learning process is truly a desire to not have to finally make a decision and act. Even our insistence on not being a bother, can truly be an attempt to gain attention. C.S. Lewis brilliantly unravels the ways sin infects our personalities in both The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce. These books had a great impact on changing my perspective about some of those traits that I had been proud to brag about in the past.
Since we are different, and since what we are meant to be is probably not clear to us, though it is to him, we should expect that our walk, our process, our adventure, will be unique and surprising. There is, however, a common element that reaches into the Christian walk for all of us. The one common thread is that the attention that we get from Christ when we invite him into our lives and continue to invite him into our lives is immense. I could never have guessed how much work I needed. I’m sure I have no idea even now. And it is not just that I’m broken and need healing, it’s that he wants me to run and be victorious. He is not grooming me to survive, but to win.
I must quickly say that what I used to think victory was is far from what I think it is today. Today the victory I seek is a truer, more robust, and more victorious victory where there is no finish line but a constant expectancy of joy, vigor, and approval. Also, it is not a victory over someone else (though it may be over something else like sin). It may be participating in bringing more justice or peace into the world, something Christ would have done. It is not a victory that sets me above others, but is no less of a victory. As Christians, we are all connected, whether we understand it or perform it very well or not, Christ sees us in union, as a coordinated group. Our place in that group is critical. Victory here is as the victory of an army. All for one and one for all. I think it is something like this that Christ has in store for us.
“Fortunately, it is Christ who saves the world. Not me. He uses the world to start the testing, training, and purification process in my life.”
Anyway, the point is that this relationship to Christ must be personal and intimate. He wants to be as close to you as you will let him. He knocks on the door and will not come in unless you open the door. Insofar as you allow him, he becomes the one next to you at all moments of the day and night. Everything that happens to you should be viewed in light of what it might be that he is trying to show you. And every action you take should likewise be viewed in light of whether it seems he is urging you toward it or not. Again, he will communicate with you by any means he deems appropriate, whether it be through those around you in the church, your grouchy siblings, or your strange neighbors. Look for his encouragement and council everywhere.
[bctt tweet=”Jesus wants to be as close to you as you will let him.”]
When I say stuff like this, I immediately want to un-say it. I imagine the gullible reader taking this in and then listening to his crazy uncle say something like, “God wants you to give all your money to some small church in Africa, and then live on the street.” Could he want you to do that? He is sovereign. It is possible. In my experience God asks us to do those things that are within reach – that we could actually succeed at – and are in context to our lives. Especially in the beginning of our relationship to him, the biggest steps we can take with success are often times related to our own daily behavior. God’s more likely early demand of me would be to perhaps treat my mother with more respect, to abandon the notion that a white lie is any other color than a black lie, or to step up and pay for the gas when it is my turn. In all truthfulness these demands never go away. It is the daily small behaviors of the Christian that form the foundation of all great Christian acts. If you can be faithful with these small things, it may be that Christ will ask something greater of you, but you will quickly find that these small behaviors are anything but easy to clean up. You can succeed at them, but not without a lot of pain and repentance. And you will find them everywhere.
Imagine the world as new and unpredictable. Imagine that you are forging a path through a foreign land. You are a Samari, or a Ninja, or a Knight, at once going forth in the name of the King, while yourself being tested and purified. What’s going to happen? Who knows. The fact is we never know how things are going to go, but we think we do. We imagine a scenario we’d like to see play out and then move in that direction. “I think I’ll get married when I’m in my late twenties. Three kids, I think. And I’ll have a career in something creative. Yes, that’s it.” Having a plan is a good thing. But when Christ is walking you through the adventure of your life, remember that how the adventure unfolds, by definition, is not something you can anticipate. It’s how you move through it that makes all the difference.
There are probably two easy errors of action Christians fall into. The first is that once we are saved, we are inclined to feel we are somehow qualified and ordained to save the world. This is the judgmental Christian, shoving Jesus down everybody’s throat. This can be particularly annoying to those around us who remember that just a week ago we were enthusiastically involved in something we are now quick to condemn. By the way, Christ did not introduce the world to morality when he came to earth. Many non-Christians have a pretty clear sense of right and wrong. When I suddenly became a Christian and just as suddenly appointment myself as an authority in all matters of morality and justice, I did not win many listeners. Fortunately, it is Christ who saves the world. Not me. He uses the world to start the testing, training, and purification process in my life. Young Christians find the world working on them more than they find themselves working on the world. Old Christians do too.
This is why going to church is so important. Scripture is very clear that we Christians need to be around each other every bit as much as we need to be out there in the world. The church is called the body of Christ, and as a Christian, new or old, you are part of that. It may seem uncomfortable to step into a place where (depending on the church) people are very inclined to walk right up to you and start a conversation. But that is partly the point. Apart from the obvious benefits of being in a society of people who are invested in the same savior you are, Christ has no intention of letting you lay back and become a wall flower. He wants us to be bumping up against each other. Taking action and taking responsibility. It is this interaction, combined with prayer and the Scriptures, that produces the mature men and women of God. We have to get out there and mix it up.
With all of that, we will find that sometimes our efforts do not produce the result we were hoping for and it will seem that we have failed. We may work really hard with some good friends who were on the verge of divorcing only to see them go through with it. We may encourage a friend or child toward something we believe fits them perfectly only to see them take another road. We may try desperately to help a friend avoid substance abuse only to see them fail. We have to keep in mind that we can work hard for what is good, with good intentions, but we do not have the power to make people do things, nor should we want that power. That is between them and God. Furthermore, events take place for reasons we do not understand. Terminal diseases crop up, cars crash, people leave for reasons we do not understand. The world is often a heartbreaking place and it does not break less when we are Christians. We must remember that God is sovereign. This is his world. He will make it right, and ultimately he will explain these tragedies to us.
It is from here that the phrase “everything happens for a reason” originates and is very helpful. The feeling that we do not have the control that we would like, and that our efforts are not guaranteed to succeed no matter how well performed, lead many Christians to the second of our two errors, the error of inaction.
And it is here that our phrase “everything happens for a reason” takes on another much less productive meaning. When this phrase is over applied, it loses the antiseptic effect of soothing the effects of tragedy, and becomes more of an opiate. Soon it is said for any mishap or unwanted turn of events. Finally it is uttered on the mere occasion when things happen that we do not like. We say it when we do not get the job, when we are late for an appointment, when our team loses the big game, and when our friend is left standing at the altar. When this phrase has been spun and degraded to this level of application, it is best seen as the expression of a lazy spirituality. For while all room must be given to the mystery of God’s sovereignty – his absolute power to allow tragic events to unfold at his will, a notion deeply tangled with humanity’s free will and God’s insistence on being the one solely responsible for the victory of history (if that is not a too-quick and far too-incomplete analysis of what God’s sovereignty is, I don’t know what is) – he leaves us free to present an inferior resume, sleep past our alarm, root for a team that gives a second rate performance, and fall in love with someone who is not good for us. In my experience, “everything happens for a reason” is most often used today in this degraded sense, as a cop out for our own responsibility to act and act well.
We can see this notion applied in other ways. I feel that we as Christians are in danger of shirking our duty as followers of Christ when we turn our eyes from someone in need and say to ourselves “I hope God helps that guy,” or “if God wants that guy to have money, he’ll make it happen.” Now there may be good reasons why you do not want to give money to the guy at the freeway off-ramp. I’m not arguing whether you should or should not. What I am saying is that we must be very clear that our action or inaction impacts him. If we do not give him money, he will not eat (or drink). We cannot be content to say “if God wants him to eat, he’ll feed him,” just as we cannot say about a failure due to a weak performance that “everything happens for a reason.” Unless by that you mean to finish the sentence by “and the reason is that I blew it.”
The first error, that of over-action, is most common to the young Christian, while the second, of in-action, to the seasoned Christian. The novice of anything is typically loud and clumsy, while the the veteran is typically fatigued.
It would be best to be energetic, thoughtful, and precise. Let’s put ourselves into the shoes of the person we are about to judge. And let’s remain ready to, and at least sometimes look forward to, bumping shoulders with our family members, church members, neighbors, and fellow townspeople, however unpredictable it may be. Clumsy or not, Christ will work on us, and maybe even on them, in those interchanges.
Being thoughtful and being infused with the energy for an adventure requires an intimate prayer life with Christ. We have to keep it in front of us that he is with us at all times and desires to lead us and encourage us. He desires to pick us up and brush us off when we fall, comfort us when we need rest, and send us back into battle again, encouraged and confident. Without his help we will fail to act well when we do act, and fail to act at all when we are timid or tired. Talk to him all the time. He is listening and wants you to understand.
And read the Bible. It’s the miracle book, a book written by the hand of men, but inspired by the Spirit of God. I know it can be hard to understand in places (many places). It is a statement by the Maker of the Universe about who he is, about what he wishes to say publicly to the human race, about what he did for the human race, and about how we should live. It is told in the form of direct discourse, history, stories, songs, poems, parables, facts, and figures – all the ways we communicate in writing. We should expect it to be rather deep. If I read the Bible and felt after having done so that there was nothing in it that was beyond me, I frankly wouldn’t believe it was the Bible. If the Bible was not an endless source of revelation and supernatural truth – that is, truth that could not have come from people – then it must be a fraud. But when you read it you find that it is not like any other book. And that is why no other book written has had the impact this book has. It is the miracle book. Read it. Meditate on it. Ask your brothers and sisters in Christ about it, and pray about it. Jesus will help you.
Living out your adventure will not be about your career or having the perfect family. It cannot be about anything you have anticipated. You will represent Jesus, sometimes poorly. The moments you represent him best may be the moments you are least self-conscious about it. You will see deeper into things. You will know people better than you ever thought you could. Life will be rich in the sense of that traveller who goes in search of gold but instead finds wisdom and the meaning of life. And as you go, the meaning of your life will begin to take the form of a now familiar face.