When I was a senior at Plant City high school, I was parking cars at the Strawberry Festival when I was asked a question that completely caught me off guard. “To what do you owe your success?” The person asking was a former coach of mine and someone I looked up to, which only made me more puzzled as to what I might have done to warrant such a question. That I was fumbling over my answer was, I am sure, obvious to him. Twenty-five years later, I can’t remember anything I said. What I can tell you is how many times I have thought about what I should have said.
While I cannot be so presumptuous to think most will view my life as a success, I also feel it would be deceptive to let people give me the credit when the credit is not mine. Like many of us, I could never have accomplished most of what I have without my parents’ guidance. The most important thing they ever taught me is that the purpose of life is to have a relationship with God through His son Jesus. When you get this priority right, all other successes will follow. (Matt 6:33) My father always said that God doesn’t have grandchildren, only children. So while I hope my own experiences will help you find God, remember no one can have a relationship with God for you.
My journey toward a relationship with God began with the question, were my parents right? Like most teenagers, I had a lot of questions about life and God. One question I remember asking myself was, what is the worst mistake I could make with regard to God? What if there is no God? What if I play the fool by believing in God when there is none? Am I worse off than those who do not believe? On the other hand, what if I go through my life pretending there is no God when there really is a God who has expectations of me. What happens then? I also came to the conclusion that if there is no God, then there is no purpose to life. If there is no God, then there is no good or evil and nothing anyone does really matters. There is no future for any of us because we are all just random particles that have collided in such a way as to somehow become conscious of ourselves. Because of how inescapable these conclusions were for me, I decided that searching for God was my only hope!
Now I am not going to say that power, possessions, money, sex, fame, fine wine or having an elevated social status does not appeal to me. But when I compare them to the kind of love, loyalty, faithfulness, gentleness, kindness, peace, giving and abundance offered to everyone in Gods’ kingdom, the latter just seem to be on an altogether higher plane. These ideals “make me want to be a better man,” where the former just seem to spell out the obvious inclinations of all human beings including mine. Nowhere was this principle made clearer to me than after attending my 20th high school reunion. In fact, the story I will be telling my son goes exactly like the story my father told me. The choices I made during high school that left me on the outside looking in on one too many parties or social circles were the right ones by a mile!! Do not be fooled. The popular crowd, the media and the latest trends are not your friends and they are not looking out for your best interests. God is and He knows what is best!
Another thing I struggled with is that modern scientists and evolutionists are at odds with God. Even I have to admit that none of my five senses can detect the presence or absence of God. It is also disconcerting that no one can prove or disprove the presence of God no matter what they say. Later on I realized that proving God through my limited senses was more about my own control issues than about any real search to know God. I was a “doubting Thomas” because I hated the idea that faith was necessary. At least until I found out that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) There is a substance to faith and there are evidences for faith even though the One in whom we have faith in is completely unseen. The bible says that the only way to find faith is by asking, seeking and knocking on doors. (Matt 7:7)
If you are going to ask the right questions and look in the right places, then you have to be willing to look for more than just what is offered in the world of science. However, one scientist I know found God by asking the following question. “If there is a God, what can we tell about Him by what He has created?” This is what he discovered. First of all, human beings are hands down the most sophisticated things within the creation. What is it that makes humans so different than any of the other creations? The answer is the capacity of the word. Human beings use 100’s to 1000’s of times more words than any other animal. Words are used primarily for communication and we communicate in order to have relationships. In other words, you are the crowning achievement of what God has created and you have a capacity to have relationship with God like nothing else He has created. How can any of us have a relationship with God? We can’t even find Him or prove that He exists. The only way we will know there is a God is if God chooses to reveal himself to the world. The invisible God must make himself visible if we are ever to get to know Him. We also know that we cannot have a relationship with God unless we can find His words.
After studying the worlds’ major religions for a revelation from God this is some of what I have discovered. Buddhism has never claimed to be a way to God. Buddhism is a life philosophy and one I have difficulty accepting. For example, the Yin / Yang principle that says there is no good or evil only the appearance thereof. I am sorry, but there are more than a few times in my life when things have certainly been more that just an appearance of good or evil. On the other hand, Hinduism has tens of thousands of gods. Hindu gods are so caught up in their own soap opera that there is no reason to think that they are interested in a relationship with their creation.
Incredibly, there are only three religions that believe in one singular God that is interested in His creation, and those would be the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. The Koran, the holy book of the Muslims, was inspired entirely by one man, Mohammed. Incidentally, Mohammed did not read or write and the Koran was actually written over 500 years after his death. Most importantly, no place in the Quran does it ever claim to be the words of God spoken in first person. Nor does Allah ever express a desire to have a personal relationship with his creation. For myself, I do not find the life of Mohammed one I can emulate.
Unfortunately, today being Jewish is really more about your ancestral decent than having any real faith. However, the only real difference between the faith of Christianity and Judaism is that Christians believe Jesus is the messiah, while the Jews are still looking for Him. These two faiths are intractably bound together so much so that they are commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is the foundation of our society. For both faiths, the primary source of revelation and inspiration is the Holy Bible. What surprised me is that the Bible is the only Holy book that claims to be the words of God spoken in first person. Over 40 different men wrote the cohesive message of the bible over a period of about 1600 years dating from 1500 BC to about 25-30 years after Christ. However, you only have to read the very first story in the Bible to hear that God loves His creation and how He walked and talked with them everyday in the Garden of Eden. You will also hear how God created mankind in His perfect image and gave them choices. Terrible choices have caused the fall of mankind and kept us separated from God. Every good relationship has rules and the closer the relationship, the more rules there must be. Breaking these rules is called sin and the penalty is separation from a Holy God. The good news is that even during the fall of mankind, the Bible talks about a Messiah that would come to save His people. God has always wanted to restore our relationship with Him so we can all walk and talk with Him once more.
The identity of that Messiah is Jesus. In fact, there are well over 100 Old Testament prophecies that were written between 400-1000 years before Jesus was born that prove He is the Messiah beyond a shadow of a doubt. The life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus are compelling beyond any other man in history. The passion of the cross and the brutality of His death are heartbreaking. However, none of what happened would be talked about today if the empty tomb of Jesus were not a historical fact. How you explain it is up to you. What must not be overlooked is that it was not just Jesus who changed the world. It was also His disciples, which were the men that Jesus spent the most of His time with. If there was anyone who knew Jesus, it was those men because they were all eyewitnesses to His life and testament. All, except for two, died a horrible death for the cause of Christ. Lastly, if the certainty of death is the ultimate problem of mankind, then it is Jesus above all the other religious leaders that conquered the grave. In all of these matters Jesus stands alone in history and that is why we divide history before and after Christ.
The audacious claims of Jesus also set Him apart from every other religious leader in history. While most people regard Jesus to be a moral man, great teacher and perfect example of how we should live, we cannot forget that Jesus claimed to be God. The identity of the Messiah has long been foretold. He was to be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” No matter how many miracles or great sermons Jesus performed, the result is the same, Jesus died on the cross. Why did they kill Him? (John 10:33) The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone you, but for blasphemy; and because you, being a man, make yourself out to be God.” This is why He healed on the Sabbath day, forgave peoples’ sin and spoke of God as “my Father” and not just “our Father.” Given the claims of Jesus, one is left with only a few options. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic or He was Lord of all. The most foolish thing one can say about Jesus is that He was a teacher if He was not telling us the truth or was confused about His own identity.
Another distinguishing feature of Christianity is that all other religions of the world are based on the works of the person to earn their own salvation. Christianity is based on what Jesus did. You cannot earn your salvation. It is a free gift and pride is the main reason people cannot accept the gift even if the gift came at great cost. What offends many non-Christians the most is that anyone would have to die for them. At some level, most other religions are simply an attempt for the subscriber to be good enough to have a relationship with God one day, but only God is good enough and powerful enough to deliver us from evil. Understanding this fundamental truth of the Christian faith also leads one to understand that all Christians are hypocrites! “There is no one righteous, no not even one.” (Psalms 14:3) You should also know that you will not become perfect after becoming a Christian. This is why we are not supposed to follow our leaders. We are supposed to follow Jesus.
Why didn’t God do all of this a different way? Why does God allow evil? Why doesn’t God just show his power instead of leaving us with doubt? The Bible says that life is a test. (Psalms 26:2) Why is God testing us? For myself, I think the answer came while listening to the radio one morning. The story was about how a multimillionaire was having trouble dating. Then he came up with a solution. He rented a small apartment and bought a Ford Taurus. From then on, he used the car and apartment for all of his dates. Why did he do that? The answer is obvious, because people will want you for the wrong reasons. If a millionaire has this problem, I can’t only imagine how bad it must be when you are the source of all that is good in the universe. One thing is certain, God will reveal himself in good time and when that happens “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” (Rom 14:11) Seeing will be believing. Until then, the world God made has choices and because of that we will be tested. Some will choose evil and you may be their victim. Those are the most intense tests. Will you return evil upon them? This is where “what would Jesus do” is the only light you may see. “For though he was reviled, yet he opened not his mouth.” (Isa 53:7) So would you like to know your first test? What are you going to do with the gift of life you have been given? Will you or can you believe in a God you cannot see?
How can you begin this relationship with God? The simplest plan of salvation I can find in the bible actually happened while Jesus was hanging on the cross. (See Luke 23:39-43) The first criminal hanging beside Jesus scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself and us, too, while you’re at it!” Does that sound like something anyone might say? But the second criminal had a different response. “Don’t you even fear God when you are dying? We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man hasn’t done one thing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in Paradise. This is a solemn promise.” In this story there were three things that happened for this sinner to be saved. 1) The criminal recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and that Jesus did not deserve to be crucified. 2) He recognized that he was guilty and that he deserved what he was getting. 3) He called out to Jesus to save him. Immediately Jesus was there! In fact, the Bible claims, “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Rom 10:13) The day you call upon God is the day you start a love relationship with Him by putting Him in His rightful place as Lord or your life. This is the day your true faith is born and you became saved. From here, your relationship with God will never end and it will only grow as your faith produces works and you begin to change.
What are some realistic expectations of the Christian life? Reality #1: if you really have become a Christian, then you need to accept that real faith produces real changes in your life. Real faith is more than some mental consent, wishful thinking or fantasyland we enter by repeating some prayer just in case there is a fire. The second reality is this. While the changes in you life prove that your faith is not dead and that your faith has substance (James 2:26), at no point in time will you ever become perfect or become saved by your works (Phil 3:13, Eph 2:8). In fact, it may surprise you how many times I have re-prayed that same sinner’s prayer because I have completely blown it and have to start all over again. Confession will be a routine part of an honest Christian life. Confession is where God meets you where you are, forgives you and promises to walk along side you as you try and try again. (1 John 1:9) There will be a lot of trying let me tell you. Sometimes the only substance you will have to your faith is that you keep on confessing and that you keep on trying. This is just reality, at least for now. It will take years for some victories to come, so you may as well relax. God is in control and He never stops working. (Phil 2:13)
Why is the church important to Christians? The church is where the friends of Jesus meet and grow. It is a hospital for those who admit they are sick and who want to get better. The church is not a building or an organization, it is just people. The church is also part of your spiritual family. Does anyone you know have a perfect family? Good, because that won’t happen in church either. You won’t like all the people there, but you will grow to love many of them. You may have to visit around some to find the right church for you, but if you work at it, you will be better for it. My church friends are one of my greatest sources or encouragement and joy.
While I have spent quite some time explaining the substance of my faith, no intellectual arguments will ever take the place of God proving Himself to you. Of the pages and pages of personal experiences I have had with God, this story is one of my most intense. In my mid-thirties, I remember hitting the wall. Reaching the wall is coming to a place where you end and it is something you cannot see past. I was successful by most people’s standards, except my own. My life was empty and not at all where I wanted it to be. I was at the end of my rope. In desperation, I remember thinking that if I was truly lost, then I should try and go back to the last place I remember being in the center of God’s will. So I took a few days off and went back to Atlanta where I went to professional school. Most significantly, Atlanta was where I lived at the Young Life house and was very involved in youth ministries. By now many of my core friends had moved on, but this was a trip I felt I had to make. I needed to rekindle some old relationships that inspired me, but most of all I needed a word from God that was fresh and true. I needed to trust God again because I was beaten down. On the way up to Atlanta, I was strongly impressed to climb a mountain and be alone with God for a day. After being there a few days I headed off to climb the highest peak in Georgia. Unfortunately, just after I started climbing, I reached a sign that said the trail was closed. I cannot tell you the disappointment I felt at being denied a chance to get some answers from God. I felt like the trip was wasted.
On the long drive back to Atlanta, I realized I just had to climb another mountain instead. I decided that Stone Mountain would substitute nicely. The next day I grabbed my bible and started climbing the mountain. The farther I went up the mountain the heavier and sadder I became. When I hit the top of the mountain I remember the wave of grief that came over me and the deep loss I felt from all that I had wanted my life to be. Sobbing I told God my beef with Him. That took a while. Then I closed my eyes and opened up my bible and put my finger down on a verse. (2 Kings 20:5&6) “This is what the LORD says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you; I will defend you; I will deliver you.” I knew these quotes well. This is what God told King Hezekiah when he was sick, about to die and he cried out to the Lord for mercy. Hezekiah also asked for a sign that this would come true. The sign was that the shadow of the sun on the steps would go backward ten steps. God rolled back time for Hezekiah and I immediately felt that would happen for me! I believe that this word from God is exactly why my life has turned around dramatically since then. It is a miracle and I am walking in it every day. I know it down deeper than anything I can ever explain!
In the end, my life has not been perfect. I still make mistakes everyday. I still struggle with some very bad habits. I have had my heart broken and I have been betrayed. I have disappointed some and angered others. I have climbed some mountains and fallen into some valleys. Through all of this, Christ has made the difference in my life. All to Him I owe! Each time I have chosen to follow God the decision was hard, but the blessings have been amazing! When I do not follow God, God is still there letting me know He loves me even though there have been some difficult consequences because of my disobedience. When evil has overtaken me, He has healed my wounds and set courage back into my heart. I can truly love without fear because God has shown me that nothing can ultimately hurt me when my life is hidden in Him. I have learned to love myself even though I know exactly how imperfect I am. I am still learning to do the same for those around me. I have had many opportunities to minister to youth, singles and couples through church and Young Life. I have seen first hand the power of God to change people. I have never felt more excitement in my life than when I have been used by God. I have learned it is truly better to give than to receive. The greatest blessings I have ever received in my life are my two boys. Becoming a father has drastically altered my life. The day they were born, God changed me in an instant and gave me His love for both my sons. It is an unfathomable and unconditional love! As my life comes full circle, I understand Gods love for me and for you!
Herein lies the making of real faith, because there is real a substance to faith and evidence upon evidence of an unseen power resisting the pull of gravity. Where will Faith begin for you? Surrender! Surrender is what happened to me on the top of Stone Mountain. This will be the first, middle and last thing you will struggle with in your walk with God because God does not just want to save you. He wants to make every area of your life that you turn over to Him more abundant. I hope my story will let you know you can trust Him with your life, your death and everything in between. My life is proof that God gives second chances and that He can still bring sight to the blind and heal the broken hearted. Looking back over my life, the only worthwhile thing I see is Jesus and He has been good the whole time. Jesus is the pearl of great price that we look for our whole life. He alone holds the secret to your success.