A Conversion Story

Introduction

I admit to selfish motives in penning this piece.  How one comes to allegiance and obedience to Christ is an intensely personal story.  And, others may likely find nothing in it to identify with from their own experience.
But for me, at this point in my life, it is important for me to describe how my life was turned inside out if only for the benefit of my progeny if no one else.  This is that story.

Life as a Youth

I was a normal kid, in most respects.  I was somewhat rebellious as a teen, but I don’t think more so than others.  Yes, it is true that I had my run-in for a teen prank with the local police and, with my extremely put-out and no doubt embarrassed father at my side, had to endure their sentence of six months probation and weekly reports on my activities.

But I also, as a result of my parents’ involvement in our church (music ministry), was a regular attendee of my local church, as it turns out, a Congregational church, rather plain vanilla in witness and outreach.  But, nonetheless, as I grew up I heard all of our pastor’s messages.  And some of those, at least, convinced me that what he was saying was true.  Heck; I even became president of the church’s youth group.

I do recall one telling event from this period in my life.  One evening, while sitting in the car outside the High School waiting for my Dad to come out (where he taught band), I remember formalizing in my mind that my allegiances were; first to God, second to family, and third to country.  So at this point in my life, I would guess you could call me a Diest.  I believed there was God.  But I didn’t yet have any firm commitments to Christ.

Family and Career

After marriage, I don’t believe I attended church for perhaps four years or so.  Early on I was working so much that going to church really never entered my mind, let alone spending time in prayer and meditation outside of a church environment.

After our first child and a move, we decided that it would be best “for the kid(s)” to expose them to Christian beliefs and ethics.  So we began regularly attending a local church where we encountered an extremely gifted teacher and pastor who began the long task of opening my eyes to Christ.

In way of confession, though I ended up serving as a deacon of that church, I was no more a Christ-follower than the man-in-the-moon.  I had no relationship with Christ.  Yes, I was learning.  But I was simply, still, going through the religious motions.

Career Life

After we moved to Southern California (where I spent the balance of my career, and now my retirement), we began attending a new church plant.  During that season, I gradually began seeing more and more of Christ and began, admittedly on a very low level, taking steps to get to know Him better.

During this time I became exposed to Chuck Swindoll who at that time was pastoring a church in Orange County (First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton) and broadcasting messages on the radio that I listened to.  In him, I could sense Christ, and so I paid particular attention to his words and his heart.

Somewhat later, our local pastor retired, and so we hired a series of interim pastors.  One of them was truly a disciple of Christ and so thoroughly in love with Jesus that I couldn’t help but be attracted to him.  I remember one message he gave in which he was relating a story about being in a bar, and his feelings of sympathy for those he observed sitting at the bar (in the morning, as I recall).  And in delivering this recollection, he began to break down.  He was so profoundly moved concerning those souls that were living in complete ignorance of their Lord that loved them and wanted them for Himself, that his emotion just burst out.  I think that’s when I first glimpsed what “love your neighbor as yourself” actually looked like.

But this period wasn’t all positive.  After we selected a permanent pastor to lead our church, the church, almost immediately, tore itself apart over him – those in favor of him vs those not.  And in this time, as its secular leader, I got to see up close and personally how people who called themselves “Christian” actually behaved and thought.  It was at this point that I came to understand that there are self-professed Christians, and then there are disciples of Christ, like our emotional interim pastor mentioned above.

Later Life

So as I approached and entered retirement, I was a Christ-seeker.  It was then I encountered Dallas Willard who transformed my understanding of the meaning of much of the New Testament.  I watched all of his videos and bought and read all of his books and learned from him what God’s grace was (and is), and how its purpose is to enable the sincere Christ-follower to overcome every impediment.

Then I got involved in a Christian development charity whose purpose was to sponsor church planting in Ethiopia, as well as other economic development ministries.  On one of my mission trips there, we were evangelizing in a rural village.  We had stopped in the hut of a woman whose husband was still out working in the fields.  We waited some time for him to return but he didn’t.  So we stood to pray for the woman and her household before leaving, all holding hands within the circular hut.  As we prayed God’s love and provision on her and her family, I had a God experience.  While praying I “heard” a voice saying: “You think that’s love?  This is love.”

At that point, I experienced a sensation of power and overwhelming love that really can’t be described.  It felt like some kind of energy being transmitted throughout those of us in the prayer circle with a presence of intense light[i] enveloping us.

I’ll be the first to admit several things here. First, it’s not every Christian for whom it takes 60+ years to finally find Christ.  Second, not everyone gets to experience such a thing, much less in a stick and mud hut in the Ethiopian backcountry.  So clearly, some of us (myself) are slower learners than others – by a lot.  Perhaps “learning” isn’t the right image in the first place.  Perhaps it is more the Biblical model of “a heart of flesh” vs “a heart of stone”.  For some of us, our hearts take longer to soften than others.

Revelation

So following this experience I knew two things: first, that Christ was everything the Bible said He was, and; second, that I had a lot of work to do to learn everything I possibly could about God/Christ so that I could live in obedience to Him.

And that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.  Lots of books (particularly those describing spiritual maturation).  Lots of online video messages and workshops and classes.  And as much writing as I was comfortable sharing as I learn.

Transformation

Now you may ask: “How do you truly know you’ve been changed by God?”  Paul describes the regeneration of the newly-minted Christian in these ways (among others):

[1] There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom 8)

[17] Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5)

[22] to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, [23] and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, [24] and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4)

I experienced several dramatic changes following my experience.  As indicated by the Romans verse, I no longer felt guilty for my former separation from God as my conscience had placed in me previously.  I felt at peace, as I yet do.  It’s as if I no longer have a displeased disciplinarian inspecting my life, but a Father who is merciful and patient.

Most profoundly, virtually all my motivations changed (as announced in the 2 Cor 5 verse).  My interests used to include entertaining things on TV, movies, an occasional fiction book.  Afterward, I lost interest in these things almost completely, and rather developed a kind of compulsion to study and understand the Bible.  That’s my overriding interest to this day (some 10 or so years on).  Interestingly, if anything, the compulsion seems to be increasing.  (I estimate I spend now about 16 hours a week on  Bible study – either independent study or through formal coursework.)

And, as for “put off your old self” (Ephesians 4), this is a constant vocation.  Even with the Spirit of God living inside of you, you don’t change who you were for 60+ years without a struggle.  Issues of anger, selfishness, and the like are tough adversaries and they claw at you to maintain their control on you.  These adversaries need to be resisted daily.

AW Tozer, in “The Pursuit of God”. puts it like this:

The ancient curse will not go out painlessly; the tough, old miser within us will not lie down and die obedient to our command. He must be torn out of your heart like a plant from the soil; he must be extracted in agony and blood like a tooth from the jaw. He must be expelled from our soul by violence as Christ expelled the moneychangers from the temple. And we shall need to steel ourselves against his piteous begging, and to recognize it as springing out of self-pity, one of the most reprehensible sins of the human heart.

The good news is that the more I resist, the easier it gets.

Confession

But I have this as a confession.  Despite the indwelling of God’s Spirit in me, and all that I know about His work and my mission as a Christ-follower, I have not yet succeeded in loving my neighbor as myself.  For this, I have no excuse.  I just know that this is my reality.

It’s easy for me to be indignant, even (righteously?) angry at those who oppose God (which we are, sadly, reminded of increasingly every day on the news).  But it’s virtually impossible for me to love them in any reasonable sense of the word (agápē).

As a self-diagnosis, it is in all probability a result of my persistent resistance of the work of the Holy Spirit in me (Eph 4:30).  Clearly, the work of the Spirit in sanctification is far, far from complete in me.

The Way Forward

Despite my current immaturity in the Lord, I have complete and utter confidence that “he who began a good word in you will bring it to completion” (Phil 1:6).

The process of becoming a Christ-follower is a process of relentless abdication of personal possession.  And while I understand this principle completely, and agree with it whole-heartedly, I, for one, have not completed the abandonment of my “possessions” – my time, my treasure, my willingness to not hide from the needs around me but to do what I can for them, no matter how inadequately.  At least I know that for many (as represented by my experience), it is not a one-time flash of sanctification.  It is a life-long vocation.  If your experience is similar, you should not be dismayed but thankful that you are indeed in the process of passing through the narrow gate (Mt 7:13-14).


[i] I have only recently come to understand that the Eastern Orthodox are familiar with this phenomenon and call it the “uncreated light”, “divine light” or “Tabor light”, after the mountain in the Galilee on which Peter, James, and John observed Jesus’ glorified transfiguration.