Many teenagers get pimples all over; I just got a couple. And many youth have the wildest, most rebellious mischief of their lives during these years, and others go through this difficult transformation inwardly, somehow keeping a good performance on the outside. Born a son of a pastor, with two grandfathers as pastors to boot, fate seemed to have paved for me a road to walk on that only a revolt would let me off. I could either become a preacher or a pot-smokin', beer-drinkin', Harley-ridin' rebel. Don't ask me how, but I avoided both callings. And don't ask me what I became instead. I was somewhere in between, wanting neither what appeared to be all-out good nor what appeared to be all-out bad.
During ninth grade, the simple Sunday school answers I had learned as a boy no longer satisfied me. One forbidden question came to my mind with frequent visits. I wanted to know, "Is there really a God?" I wasn't asking because I wanted to be rebellious. I just wanted to know whether He was real, or whether Christianity was just a made-up religion.
In the midst of my dilemma, my parents announced that I was to start confirmation class. This meant several months of pointless classes, but even worse, it meant that after it all, I would have to stand in front of the whole church to pledge my life to God. That pledge I was not ready to make, nor could I talk about my true thoughts with anyone. What was I to do — disappoint my parents with my struggle, or make an insincere vow? The moment I was dreading finally came. We three pupils stood there on display, waiting for the big question. I knew the other boy, John, was smoking dope and reading dirty magazines, but who was I to judge? Plus, when the time came, I was really glad John was there next to me. When the pastor finally asked, "Will-you-vow-to-serve-God-for-the-rest-of-your-life-if-so-answer-I-will?" he was there to boldly answer, "Yes, I will," while I just mumbled and moved my mouth without speaking. No one noticed. I had gotten away with it; I had escaped the ritual without telling a lie.
Later, my grandmother gave me a religious book that actually helped me. After considering the options as best as I could as a 15-year-old, I came to the logical conclusion that there is a God. Now what? Summer camp came that year, and I gave my life. We sang songs around the campfire; there were girls crying emotionally; the call came to give your life to Jesus. Then there I was, standing at the campfire's edge. We all broke a stick and threw it in the fire. The deed was done — Jesus was now in my heart, I guess. The next morning, I felt very different, happy in some way. It must have worked! Now what?
Everyone else seemed to have such a heart-wrenching story of how wretched they had been, or how hard their life had been before the Lord saved them. I felt deprived that I could not truthfully muster up such an exciting testimony of God's grace in my life. I wondered whether I should go out and sin a good bunch so that I would have more to praise the Lord for. Fortunately, I met two brothers at the same camp who would become my two best friends as we helped each other through high school.
We all went back and worked at this camp every summer for years. The camp staff lived together, ate together, and worked together. The constant fellowship, the deep friendships, and the sense of common purpose produced the closest thing I had experienced to the life of the early church in Acts 2 and 4. I worked my way up the corporate echelon — from assistant dishwasher to lifeguard to song leader. No, it wasn't for money or for a career. We all loved being there, working crazy hours for low pay. You wished it could last forever and you'd never go home. But as the summer came to a close, the leaves always lost their green color and fell off the trees. One by one, everyone left the camp and went home for another year.
If you have ever been to summer camp, you know that the kids come for one week, and the goal is usually to get them saved by the time they go home. In the middle of the week, there is the commitment campfire, and one of the staff gets the opportunity of speaking to try to get the kids to give their life to Jesus. This year, the lot fell to me. I really wanted to be prepared. Early that summer, I set aside a whole week to study my Bible, about salvation. After my week, I had more questions than answers, but I did see that the early disciples were baptized when they believed, not just praying a prayer or throwing a stick in the fire. Even more, those who became disciples stayed with the ones who told them about Jesus. How was that supposed to work at camp where all the parents show up and take the youth home? And how would these parents feel if we baptized their minors?
To make it even worse, there were still unanswered questions for me. Who was I to promise anyone eternal life? Eternal Life?! I did not have the confidence to promise somebody that. Well, we did things a little different at the campfire that summer. Somebody somewhere won't like it, but I am happy to say, no children were converted that summer.
I believe every religious person or preacher gets to this same hour of decision at least once during his life. In the presence of real doubts or a bad conscience, do you continue the show and push past your conscience to say something that you really do not believe? Or do you just admit the truth and accept the consequences? Two choices: "shine God on," or be real. The choices a person makes in these crucial moments will greatly influence his eternal destiny, if he falsely promises eternal life to someone.
In college I was fortunate to find seven other Christian friends who shared the same interests as I. I loved to read the Bible just as much as I loved to talk about the controversial questions in life. We called ourselves the "Round Table" where any topic was fair game and all opinions were welcomed and challenged. From predestination to politics to our own personal struggles, our lighthearted bunch was determined to be how it says in the Proverbs, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Our great idealism would surely change the world and the church. We certainly were not going to settle for the status quo; the question was just a matter of strategy, or so we thought.
During my senior year, more and more questions emerged. I was reading many books about the Bible as well as materials from many churches. I wanted to know the truth, and just assumed that if I kept reading I could find it. The more I studied, the more I concluded that Christianity needed a great deal of help. It simply did not line up with the Scriptures. What I read in Acts was not what I had grown up in. What is more, a greater and more personal conclusion was becoming increasingly evident from the Scriptures. My conscience nagged at me as I became keenly aware of the fact that I really was powerless to overcome the sin in my life. My personal life did not line up with the life of a person who was truly saved.
My career ambition had been to become a missionary doctor in some third-world country. Graduating from college, I found myself with two major hindrances. My applications to medical school were rejected, but more importantly, I was not saved. It was not just a casual doubt, but a sincere realization that my life just did not line up. I wanted it to, but it did not. I had to be honest with myself — yes, I went to church; yes, I read my Bible; but my life did not demonstrate the love or power of God working in my heart. I was still in the world, and still in my sins. Believing at that time that there were only two eternal destinies, I came to the shuddering conclusion that I was headed for the lake of fire.
Being a missionary was still my hope for the future, but it sure seemed to me that I'd better have eternal life first before offering it to others. Not sure what to do, I thought I'd try the "third-world country" part at least, and maybe God would help me figure out the rest. My roommate from college got me a job teaching in Honduras, and away I went for a year.
When I left, I was keenly aware of my needy condition, as it says in Ephesians 2:12, "Remember, brothers, that at that time you were alone, strangers to the covenants of promise, without God, without hope, and in the world." If you have ever felt as if no one understands you, a year in a foreign country won't really help. By the time I returned to the States, my thirst for the water of life was like never before — I was desperate for salvation and forgiveness. The stars at night were witness to my many prayers to God to please save me, please show me what I should do. I had to know the truth. I had to find His people, if they even existed.
The search continued — reading books, visiting this church and that church, studying history, and talking to many people. I took some classes from Wycliffe Bible Translators, a missions organization. I really liked the classes and teachers, and they really liked me. Some of the missionaries wanted me to enlist with them, but I told them frankly that I was not saved and showed them in the Scriptures why it was so. Carefully, I avoided their required chapel time, not wanting to be a hypocrite. To me the time was much better spent reading and praying, though it really was a question whether God even heard my prayers. One day, the people at chapel were singing a song from Isaiah 53:4 in Handel's Messiah, "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." Crouched by the door I sat, listening to the words, knowing whom those words were about, but knowing my grief, sin, and sorrow was still upon me. Outside the chapel door that day, I wept alone.
Continuing to search, I finally found a very conservative church where they studied the Bible just as I did, and really wanted to be obedient to the Scriptures. I liked their emphasis on right doctrine and proving things from the Scriptures, even how they held scriptural debates during Sunday services. It really appealed to something in me. Skeptical at first, I finally decided to join that church. My search in lostness had ended. "Home at last," I thought.
Mark was the pastor, and he was really into end-times prophecy. We all believed Jesus could come back at any moment, so we had to be on guard not to be deceived by anything false. Everything we believed and everything we did had to be proven from the Bible. The sermons would expose the false teachings in the other denominations and prove our own beliefs as true from the Scriptures. Mark was also a zealous evangelist, with a great ability to use the Scriptures to show the lukewarm Christian and heathen alike their need to repent. I quickly learned to follow his example, so grateful to finally have a spiritual mentor who could teach me how to be like Jesus. It was so satisfying to do the Lord's work, maintaining the very high standard that the narrow way was all about. Mark and I became good friends.
About two years later, my eyes started seeing what my first enthusiasm had overlooked. Many people in the church were suffering. While the strong among us traveled land and sea to make converts, the weak in the church were oppressed and silent. Others were fearful of the brothers in authority, though I did not understand why.
One summer, I decided to move in with the other single men in the church. We lived together in an apartment with five bedrooms and one kitchen. Coming home from work, I was so excited at the thought of living and eating together like the early church. My attempts to bring the brothers together soon ended in humorous disaster. The elaborate dinners I prepared for all drew no one to the table. Instead, I watched as one by one, the door of each brother's personal bedroom would open, the brother would shuffle out to his own personal cabinet, and take out his own personal canned vegetable and cook it, eat it, and clean his own personal dish. I couldn't get them to change. So much for the early church. So much for taking our meals together with glad and sincere hearts. Something was terribly wrong.
With determination, I told Mark that I wanted to quit my job and work full-time for the church, doing whatever I could do to make it work — care for the sheep, help the brothers, fix the buildings, whatever was needed. I would give my savings, my car — everything I had I would give to wherever he thought best. All I asked in return was that he would teach me how to be a spiritual Christian. Mark told me the best way to help the church was to keep my good-paying job, as I was one of the few who was earning good money. This news was disappointing to me, but I gave myself to working hard and giving all the money I could to the church there.
I declared the next summer as the "Summer of Evangelism." Discarding all distracting projects or influences, I was determined to use every spare minute in reaching out to the lost. Members of our church would go all over, handing out papers and talking to people, even going door-to-door. But I could not run away from the hurting souls in church on Sunday, or turn away from the lack of love and fellowship in our midst. Visiting my brothers and sisters in their homes, I found out that there were deep unspoken rifts in the relationships among members — especially with the leaders.
It appeared that the high standard applied so arrogantly to all other groups was turning inward and crushing the very spirits of our own members. Some members wanted us to lower our standards on certain things so as not to be so exclusive; other members felt strongly to keep our original positions. If there ever was a time that we needed true spiritual authority, it was then. We were divided, and the division was only getting larger. The "Summer of Evangelism" was canceled; the fire in my heart for saving the lost was extinguished to ashes by the reality of the state of our church. There simply was not a home to bring the lost sheep back to.
"We have got to do something, Mark," I said in his apartment. "We cannot keep going on like this." As we talked about the problems in the church, I noticed a large hole in the bedroom door. "What is that? How did that happen?" I asked, assuming that one of his children had thrown something into it. Shock and dread struck me like never before as my good friend and pastor exploded in anger, accusing me of such things as arrogance and pride. He shouted, "Okay, you figured it out! I'm a sinner, but you are, too! Get out of here!" I apologized and left the room, finding out later that Mark had punched the hole in the door when he was in a rage with his wife.
"Could this be the reason for the oppressed sheep in the church?" My mind spun quickly, trying to make sense of it all. "Are leaders allowed to be like this in the true church? Was God really with us? Or was it my own pride and arrogance that caused this? Am I just being a Judas or Korah?" So many thoughts, so much confusion.
The situation went from bad to worse. Confiding in another leader about my terrible encounter, this other leader decided that it was time to finally bring charges against Mark and ask him to step down from leadership. We went together to talk to Mark. Mark wouldn't talk to us both, insisting that "correct doctrine" was that only one person should come. The situation escalated. Mark became convinced that it was a conspiracy of Satan to depose his rightful authority. He would not listen, but demanded that he could present his case before the entire church. We begged him not to, but he insisted. He was sure that the church would side with him, but they did not. We met as Mark wished, so there, in front of the sheepfold, the shepherds bit and devoured each other. Roots of bitterness had broken forth and defiled many. My dream of finding the true church was shattered there before me. The gates of Hell had prevailed against this church, and I had opened them.
An innocent victim I was not, for Mark and my other friends were hurt by my own unwitting pride and arrogance, though I did not see it at the time. We had tried to live the life of disciples, but without the power of God within us to accomplish this high calling. Most of the members quit coming; a few leaders just departed; the church was shattered. We were disappointed to the uttermost. It was as if God had forsaken us. Though the details may vary, many other believers have suffered in similar or greater ways. It is usually at times like these that people become cynical and give up hope.
With only the faintest trace of hope in my soul, I remembered one other place that might have the truth. My leaders had warned me that their doctrines were way off, but what did that matter now? I had gone far down the road of trying to find God by doctrine, and I knew that you could not find Him that way. God was not going to be found by reading books or any other intellectual approach. I was starting to realize that maybe my whole approach was off, based on arrogance and intellect instead of childlike trust — doctrine instead of love. The Master had said that you have to enter the Kingdom as a little child, a little trusting child. How could you possibly trust like that if you had to be a doctrinal expert? Isn't that just leaning on your own understanding?
I heard of a place in Island Pond, Vermont, where people loved each other and lived together as the early church did. When I visited for a week, I was totally amazed. The life of this people was just like what I had always dreamed about, just like the early church described in the book of Acts. When I asked my technical questions about doctrinal beliefs, I only got back blank stares. This place obviously ran by some force that I knew nothing about. The people here loved each other, and they trusted their leaders, because their leaders cared about them. It wasn't a doctrine about faith; it was a life of faith. All my reading and studying about the Bible had failed to produce this life — intellectual knowledge was worthless. But I knew enough of the Bible to recognize that these people had the same Spirit as was present in Abraham, and in Yahshua,1 and in the early church. I fell in love, and determined to move in and try once again to trust.
For a while, I tried to defend my faltering doctrines. One brother looked at me and said, "You think you are alive, but really you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked." So true it was. Who was I kidding? I thought my great knowledge of the Scriptures counted for something, but the truth was that my spiritual condition was truly wretched. I needed to surrender my life and humble myself, like I never truly had, because no one had ever called me to. No one had the authority to require this kind of obedience because no one had done it himself, up until now. He was quoting Revelation 3:17, which was written to a church in danger of falling away. Evidently, that church had made a shift from a community life of love to a system of doctrine, and thought they were something when they were nothing.
The roommates in the brothers' room where I was staying were Greg, James, and Kevin. We had all been thirsty, and we had all found the water of life. Greg had sought for it using marijuana before he became a disciple. James had thought it could be found hiking the Appalachian Trail. Kevin was a quiet yet loyal man from Maryland. You couldn't pick four people with more different backgrounds, but we became good friends together, as we still are ten years later. Previously, my arrogance had kept me from knowing and appreciating people of different walks of life, but I came to see that we had the same yearning in our hearts. We ate our meals together, worked together, lived together — and unlike summer camp years ago, we never left each other.
My life was transformed. Having tasted the bitter fruit of trusting in my own understanding through doctrine, I came to see that a person comes to believe in his heart, not just in his mind. It is with our hearts that we come to trust Yahshua with everything, surrendering all to inherit eternal life.
Yahshua said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me as the Scripture says, streams of living water will flow out of his heart."2 All my religious experiences had left me truly thirsty, desperate for eternal life. Ten years later, I can say that Yahshua has not disappointed me. My wife and I have been happily married for seven years, have two boys, and our lives are completely in the hands of God. We have given up everything for Him, even the comfort and security that this world offers. My search for truth is over, and I found what I was looking for. The water of life is truly satisfying, and I shall never thirst again.