WELL, this is a bit awkward.
The thing is, for reasons I’ll try to explain, my most recent realisation is that I’ve probably never been a Christian. Not “saved”. Not “born again”, or whichever description you prefer.
Hence the awkwardness.
Because blogging about the Christian life when you’re not actually a Christian sounds a bit like me blogging about photography despite never having taken a picture. (I have taken pictures, by the way.)
I realise I won’t be the first to have entered the Christian world without being saved. John Wesley famously became an Anglican priest 10 years before a conversion experience, of which he said:
“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Less famously, the Methodist Minister who married me and my wife in 1984 told us that he, too, was already ordained when he became a Christian!
So, although I’ve called myself a Christian for nearly 38 years, I suspect in reality I’ve only been “born again” for, ooh, let’s see, about 12 hours at the time of writing.
Crumbs! That’s a drastic thing to say! Why do you think that?
Well, there’s my recent history…
Starting in the here and now, these thoughts were precipitated by a crisis. To repeat a summary I gave recently:
- Church has often been a difficult place for the last decade or two.
- The last couple of years have been particularly hard.
- My attempts to find a way out in recent months have produced either nothing or additional strife.
In desperation at the situation I cried out to God for help. I was about to write a document with some profound (or so I thought) comments in, but was brought up short on reviewing various other documents I’d written over the past year. I realised that:
- I’d already written pretty much everything I was about to say in the new document.
- When I wrote it before it didn’t help.
- I’d also written other bold “revelations” about changing my mindset and being determined to do better, where subsequent diary entries demonstrated nothing but failure and disappointment.
- Even my recent blog posts about growing seemed hollow and didn’t help.
And some older history…
From the very earliest days after my “conversion” in 1982 I was aware of not being as whole-hearted, willing or enthusiastic as others around me. I just put it down to the sort of personality I had. In the university hall of residence where I lived I was given responsibility for the Christian group and was never comfortable with it. I’d seen other people coming to faith but never felt able to be a “witness” myself or led anyone to Christ.
And yet, having been brought up a church-goer, there was a sense in which I was entirely comfortable with “doing the Christian thing”. I happily told people that I prayed and had read the entire Bible before being “converted”. And so after graduating we joined a church and I got involved in various things. For a time I was preaching, and I remember one comment I got back was that I, “sounded a bit like you were trying to convince yourself.”
In another congregation I’d been leading a worship time and the feedback was that this person enjoyed it but wondered if I’d been doing it for myself and not for the people I was leading.
Although I’ve called myself a Christian for nearly 38 years, I suspect in reality I’ve only been “born again” for about 12 hours
As time went on, and in various different congregations, the pattern developed that I would get involved to an extent but was reluctant and took no initiative. I convinced myself that was because I just wanted to “worship and belong”. Questions about vision or plans or hopes either baffled or irritated me. Then from time to time I would go along with something, or decide I was going to be enthusiastic, but it was from a powerful sense of obligation, not from any real desire.
Somebody once observed of me that I probably thought I was a “rubbish Christian” (I did). They also said that I needed to “get rid of the ought-to’s“. I knew exactly what she meant, and desperately wanted that – but that was in 2008 and I was never able to shake off that sense of having to be dragged along, Christian- or church-wise. It annoyed and puzzled me and I would sometimes pray, find an inspirational article that was going to fix things, maybe even write a blog about it – and then come quickly crashing down to earth.
…and things other people have written
First, a piece called Am I Really Saved? 10 Ways to Know for Sure. Assessing my Christianity honestly, I failed on at least seven of these points. I knew that things like loving others or sharing my faith were really important, but, again, they were obligations – “ought-to’s”.
Second, this post from the Billy Graham organisation. It says things like:
“There are many people today who claim to be Christians—who may even think they are Christians—but they are not.”
“A person may pray and still not be a Christian.”
“The outward without the inward is only an empty shell. You can pray, believe in miracles, hear the Gospel and even believe in its truth, and still not be a Christian. You can live an exemplary life, be religious and keep the commandments of God from earliest memory and still not be a Christian. You can be in church with other believers, hear the same message, receive communion, and even believe that Jesus is coming back—and still not be a Christian.”
Yep. That was me.
It all began to make sense. When I considered the lack of transformation in my life, the lack of love, the lack of desire to change or achieve anything, and the repeated failure to live up to aspirations, I dared to contemplate that maybe I’d been a fake all this time. Maybe, just maybe, I was the perfect illustration of how self-effort and religious observance will never transform me from the inside.
Sure, I was a “nice guy”, who people liked – but then I probably was before my “conversion”. I also knew there were scriptures that I could recite but never really embraced, such as:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)
Wow! So what did you do?
Ridiculous though it seemed, I knew I had to work on the assumption that I’d never been saved. I had thought about this once before (in 2014, I think), but dismissed it as absurd. How could I not be saved, with all that I knew and all that I did? I not only prayed, I prayed in tongues! I’m pretty sure I’ve had some prayers answered too. People who suggested that there should be more visible evidence of the hand of Jesus on my life were just being judgemental and should mind their own business.
Nevertheless, five years later, here I was being confronted with that probable truth again. Since I had no better explanation, I decided to go with it and act like someone who’d never been converted but knew they needed to be. At first I thought I needed to go to a friend, or a service or something. But then I realised that the one thing I didn’t lack was knowledge about the Gospel message and how to be saved:
- Accept I’m a sinner in need of forgiveness.
- Repent of my sin and ask Jesus to save me.
- Believe in my heart that God raised Jesus from the dead.
- Proclaim with my mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord.
At this point I also reluctantly acknowledged that my “conversion prayer” all those years ago had been about asking Jesus to “fill the hole in my life” – because this was the picture that the evangelist I heard had used. Though I knew about sin, I didn’t relate that “hole” to sin – it was more about Jesus making me whole (or something). So I’m not sure that I ever covered the whole sin / forgiveness / repentance thing, which is kinda crucial.
So, alone, at 4:30 a.m., I knelt and prayed all of that.
I thanked God in faith. I cried a little – but then I cry quite easily and have frequently done so in church – so I knew that didn’t “prove” anything. Mostly it was faith and thankfulness.
I also worried a little. What if I’ve made all this up? What if it’s all just another Massive Mark Excuse For Failure? What if it makes no difference? I could only leave those questions with God, pray a prayer of protection from Satan’s discouragement, and go to bed.
This is all brand new. But I know something significant has happened. Because I wanted to go to church this morning – to the congregation that’s been particularly full of woe for quite a long time. I wanted to be there for my wife, for me, for God – and even for other people. Gosh. I felt a bit like Scrooge on Christmas morning, full of energy and hope. I still am (although I’m pretty tired due to being up at 4:30 a.m.)
Blimey. But, hang on, what about all that Christian stuff you’ve done? Could you really do all that and not be born again?
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I get all the doctrine here. I do believe being born again is a binary state – you either are, or you’re not. There’s nothing in between. I also know some people have what they call a “gradual conversion”, but I think it’s more usually over weeks or months rather than 38 years. How could I “feel God” and weep in worship and pray for others if I wasn’t set free from sin and made righteous in the Father’s sight?
I don’t really know. I know God is gracious. I know the Bible’s full of tales of God speaking to people and even using people who don’t worship him or belong to him. And I also know that it’s the things that I’ve lacked that have convinced me.
Maybe the explanation will become clearer over time. To be honest, I don’t really care what my precise spiritual state has been; I only care that things change, that I change. I do feel that the Lord has begun a work on the inside that He couldn’t do before.
Watch this space, folks!