Joy in the Journey

Reflecting on my twenty years with Christ

by David Lang (Posted: 8/11/04)


[Please Note: As with all Bully Pulpit articles, the views expressed in this opinion piece are completely my own, and are not necessarily representative of CMUG.]

Three Major Milestones

Whenever we reach an important milestone in life, it is natural for us to pause and reflect on how far we've come. In April, when my wife and I celebrated our tenth anniversary, we naturally reflected on how full (four kids!) and joyous our life together has been. When I turned thirty-five in May of this year, I naturally reflected on my immaturity and mortality. Why does turning thirty-five make me reflect on my immaturity? Well, I'm now old enough to become the President of the United States, and I'm barely able to run a household of six! I'm sure the Framers of the Constitution would be disappointed in me! As for making me think of my mortality, thirty-five is the age when doctors start listing things you shouldn't be doing any more and when insurance actuary tables indicate that you are statistically more likely to die (which, of course, is why they can raise your premiums). You know, I don't feel like I have one foot in the grave, but there you have it!

Today (August 9), I pass a third major milestone in my life: it was twenty years ago today that I first put my faith in Christ. It therefore seems fitting that I spend some time reflecting on how far I've come in my journey with Christ.

Now, on the one hand, reflecting on one's own spiritual development is an intensely private affair, and I can't imagine that any of you who might be reading this would really want to navel-gaze with me (believe me when I tell you that my navel ain't all that much to look at!). Still, in the past twenty years I've collected enough interesting stories, made enough humorous mistakes, and gained enough worthwhile insights to make for an article which I hope will be of interest to other people. There's even a funny Mac-related anecdote which gives me the thinnest shred of justification for posting this to the web-site of the Christian Macintosh User's Group!

A New Start

On this night twenty years ago, I sat on the edge of a dock looking out at the waters of a small lake. I had come there on a "retreat" with a friend's church youth group. Not brought up in the church, I didn't have any preconceived notions about how to pray, so I just began pouring my heart out to God—confessing my sin, my futile self-reliance, and all the reasons I was unworthy to come to Him. I understood that I was sinner, and I was keenly aware of my need for God.

There is a famous quote, variously attributed to Pascal, Augustine, or Ambrose, which says, "There is a God-shaped vacuum inside each of us which only God can fill." For me, that vacuum was all too real and palpable. As I sat there praying to God, I remember looking up at the vastness of the night sky and clearly sensing that He was there all around me, filling every space—every space except for the tiny insignificant void inside of me. Then it dawned on me that in His divine greed, He wanted to fill that space too!

While I can remember the perceptions and emotions of that night quite clearly, I recall almost nothing of the things I actually said in that prayer. The only thing I do remember saying is this: "God, I don't know what kind of servant I'm going to be for you, but I want to the best I can be." That moment when I spoke those words is the closest I think I've ever gotten to genuine humility. My pride was broken, my vanity spent, I knew I had nothing to offer. And yet, somehow, I knew that God wanted all of me, and I wanted nothing more than to be of some use for Him.

As I got up from the dock and headed off to bed that night, I remember feeling as if an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had just been freed from the burden of my sin, and all the separation, guilt, anxiety, and utter loneliness that go with it. That night, my step was light, and my heart was full.

"Slightly" a Christian

While from this vantage point I can see that I came to Christ relatively young, at the time I felt like a late convert. As I began going to church and applying myself to learning everything I could about my newfound faith, I was surrounded by kids who had grown up in the church. For them, the things I was so excited to discover were little more than stale old Sunday School lessons. I had entered a new world, but for them that world represented either elementary truths which they couldn't get worked up about, or parental values which they were just beginning to question.

Through the remainder of my high school years, I became a fairly active and outspoken Christian, and I must confess that at times I felt that I was "progressing" faster in my Christian walk than many of my peers who had been Christians longer than I had. Unfortunately, I have a "charming" story to illustrate this youthful arrogance.

My first week of college I was sitting in my dorm room listening to a Michael W. Smith album, when Charles, the "Resident Assistant" for my floor, stuck his head in the open doorway and said, "Hey, are you a Christian?" Apparently having forgotten the humility of my first dockside encounter with Christ, I responded by saying, "Slightly!" I guess I was trying to communicate to Charles that I was somehow more serious or devoted than your average Christian, but of course all I really succeeded in doing was making a complete jerk of myself! As far as I know, Charles has gone on to become a pastor, so I am quite sure my obnoxious response is now an oft-repeated sermon illustration! I can only hope that Charles has the charity to omit my full name!

The Writing on the Wall

College was a time when God taught me some valuable lessons about the difference between being "slightly" a Christian (I had no idea at the time how truly I had spoken!) and being a Christian whose life exhibits the character of Christ. Here's one of the most memorable.

My sophomore year I put one of those little Dry-Erase memo boards on my dorm-room door and began writing a "Verse of the Day" on it, just to see what kind of response I'd get. I did this for two or three days and then went home for the weekend. When I came back, I discovered that my roommate had apparently continued the practice by writing "God is love" on the memo board, and this simple statement had elicited an elaborate series of responses. Someone else had written "OK, so what is love?", to which someone else had answered, "Sex!" Another participant then asked, "OK, so what is sex?" and a logician in the group wrote, "If A = B and B = C then A = C, so God is Sex?" On top of all this, someone else had written the lyrics of some Metallica song which had absolutely nothing to do with anything else that had been written!

When I saw all this, I thought to myself, "Well, if they don't know who God is and what love is and what sex is, I'll tell them." So I got a piece of white poster board, entitled it "The Discussion on the Door," and explained that yes, God is love, that love exhibits the characteristics described in 1 Corinthians 13, and that sex is something God has designed to be enjoyed by a man and a woman in the context of marriage. I even threw in a few verses from the Song of Solomon to shake them up a little bit! I then stuck this brief treatise on my door and waited to see what would happen.

In that first Discussion on the Door poster, I also made statements that I knew might elicit further responses, such as that the Bible is God's Word and that as such it does not contradict itself. Sure enough, someone took issue with that statement, writing a response in the margins of my poster. So another poster, now taped to the wall beside the door, was written to deal with this new apologetic question. By the end of that semester, nine posters stretched down the hallway of my dorm, and I would often come home to find one or two people standing there reading this ongoing theological discussion!

At the same time all this was going on, I found myself getting more and more involved in a campus ministry which was rapidly growing in numbers. Because there were more jobs to do than people to do them, most of us were overloaded with "ministry" responsibilities, and I was no exception. That year I was running myself ragged trying to lead a Bible study, "disciple" each member of my Bible study individually, lead a prayer ministry, and on and on. As typically happens in such situations, I soon became exhausted, spiritually depleted, frustrated with my own inadequacies, and perpetually irritable. I vividly remember walking across the green one day where some students were playing volleyball and thinking, "I wish I could play volleyball, but I'm too busy doing ministry." If I would have had any sense, I would have realized right then that I needed to reduce my number of commitments, but I honestly thought that if I didn't do all these things, there would be no one else available to do them.

Eventually, I did begin to pare down my involvement. I also had some responsibilities taken away from me because I was doing such a poor job. And you know what? The "ministry" churned on just fine without me. I realized then that my contributions weren't so crucial as I had at first assumed, and that God was quite able to use other people to do the things I thought only I could do.

I fell into the same trap of getting overextended several years later when I began attending seminary. I was working two jobs, taking a full load of classes, and just beginning to date my wife, Lisa. Once again, I found myself becoming irritable, feeling incompetent because I was doing nothing well, and being absolutely no good for Lisa (she even broke up with me for a while). Since then, I have tried to guard my time carefully. I am much happier (and much nicer!) when I feel I am doing a few things well rather than doing many things poorly.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The reason I bring up the fact that I was overextended and stressed out that year in college is that it led me to a watershed moment. I remember standing in the hallway at the end of that year and looking at all these posters I had written, and I thought to myself, "You know, I've preached an eloquent message here, but if I were one of these guys on this hall, and I were to look at my life, would I want to become a Christian?" The answer was clear: No! The truth was that I was just as stressed out, just as frazzled, just as much of a mess, and just as miserable as they were, so what did I really have to offer them? In that moment I understood that my life had formed a better argument against my evangelistic message than anything they could have scrawled in the margins of one of my posters.

A Heated Argument

It's sad to say, but I've often found it easier to engage in rational debate over ultimate truths with unbelieving skeptics than to discuss nonessential points of doctrine or ethical questions with fellow believers. Somehow, we Christians get so worked up about questions like whether we should sprinkle or dunk, whether it's okay to play this or that instrument in church, or whether it's sinful to let your kid watch this or that movie. I'm not saying these aren't important questions, but so many of the things we fight to the death over ultimately amount to matters of personal conscience.

One of the most heated arguments I ever witnessed took place between two fellow students during my first semester of seminary. These two guys were engaged in fervent debate, and I was naturally curious to know what point of theology they were discussing. Was this a question of Calvinism versus Arminianism? Infant baptism versus believer's baptism? Supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism? (Don't ask, I don't know what they mean either!)

When I got close enough to hear, I discovered that the subject under discussion was nothing so trivial as those I've just listed. Here's the gist of what I overheard:

First student: "Of course you know the Mac is the wave of the future!"

Second student: "How can you say that?!"

At the time, I was just beginning to think about getting a computer, so I was unfamiliar with this particular brand of holy war. Little did I know how fervently I would later take sides in the debate. But hey, there are some things that are clearly worth fighting over!

In Deep Weeds

When I let my wife, Lisa, read what I've written so far for this article, she said to me, "This is great, but do you have to make yourself sound like such a jerk?" She's got a point, of course. So far I've emphasized some of my failures and the lessons learned from them, but I haven't really talked about any of my spiritual "successes." To some extent, I guess that's just the nature of this kind of reflection. We learn little from those times when we do things right, so when we consider our spiritual "progress," it's natural to focus on those watershed moments when we finally realize how much we've blown it.

I think, however, that there is another dynamic going on here as well—one which is much more significant than the mere fact that I am writing a kind of "confession." As Christians, we believe that the fundamental problem with the human condition is sin. It is this problem that Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead to resolve, and it is this problem with which we wrestle throughout our Christian lives. The more we walk with Christ, the more we discover just how sinful we really are, and the more we realize how dependent we are on Christ to give us His perfect righteousness rather than trying to claim any righteousness of our own.

Someone once said to me that when we first become Christians, God begins by pulling those "weeds" which grow up above the surface of the ground. In other words, He addresses the obvious behavioral sins which everybody recognizes as wrong: anger, selfishness, foul language, drinking to excess, dating girls who chew tobacco—that sort of thing. Before long, we've cleaned up our act sufficiently to begin thinking we're pretty good at this whole Christian walk thing. It's then that God begins to pull up those "weeds" with roots which run deep beneath the surface: that is, subtle sins and sins of personality that reach to the very heart of who we are. This is a much more painful and agonizing process, because the exposure of these kinds of sins can be a lot more difficult to face.

At the risk of sounding like a jerk again, let me give another example. When I was in college, I participated in a summer missions project in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I remember praying before that summer began, "God, this summer I want you to put me through the wringer. Do whatever it takes to make me the kind of man you want me to be!" Be careful what you pray for: God just might answer it! From the moment I arrived in Virginia Beach, God began exposing me to a depth of sin I never imagined I had.

The staff members who ran that summer missions project were concerned about sexual sin among the students to a degree which, I think it's fair to say, approached paranoia. Apparently some previous missions projects had been marred by male and female students feeling so close to each other spiritually that they began to engage in premarital sex, and our staff members wanted to make sure that didn't happen with us. So they spent a lot of time talking to us about inappropriate behavior, causing a brother or sister to "stumble" by the way we dressed or presented ourselves, and the dangers of using a spiritual high as justification for engaging in sexual sin. All of that was very helpful, of course, and I'm grateful for their efforts to encourage sexual purity. But there was another aspect of their purity program which was a little less pleasant, and that was their tendency to devote extra attention to those students whom they thought were especially likely to fall into sexual sin.

You guessed it, I was one of the lucky ones who got identified as a potential problem! Apparently my "discipler" was worried about my falling into sexual sin, and he spent a lot of time warning me against its dangers. Now, by God's grace, I was a virgin at that time and was committed to remaining so until marriage, but I also knew the wisdom of "taking heed" when you think you stand lest you fall (1 Cor. 10:12), so I listened intently to his warnings and tales of personal regret. After a while, though, I began to wonder why he seemed so convinced that I was headed in that direction.

Eventually, it dawned on me that the real sin I needed to address was not a wolfish desire to seduce young Christian women, but a vain, idolatrous desire to attract their attention and admiration. The reason my "discipler" was worried about me was that he saw me having long conversations with a different girl every night, and he jumped to a conclusion about the kind of guy I was. Yet rather than trying to "play the field" as he supposed I was doing, I was really just trying to get them to look at me and think, "Wow, what a neat guy." The moment of realization came when my "discipler" relayed to me something one of these young women had said about me: "You know, David's a nice guy, but he sure talks about himself a lot!"

Ouch! Was that really how these women saw me? Rather than being charming, was I really just being a boor? Was I merely one of those obnoxious people we've all met who seems to run around like a two-year-old shouting, "Look at me! Look at me!"? It wasn't a flattering picture, and it was the start of a devastating process of discovery. That summer, God opened my eyes to numerous aspects of my personality which were sinfully and selfishly motivated—little things I did to draw attention to myself rather than pointing people to God, ways I tried to prop myself up and feel good about myself rather than finding my identity and security in Christ, and a fundamental tendency to view the world as ultimately revolving around me. The worst part of it all was that some of the deeply rooted sins which God was working to pull up were aspects of my personality which I really liked. I thought these things were some of the best parts of who I am, and God was there demanding that I surrender them to Him.

Looked at from the outside, these sins may not seem like a big deal, but that's the deceptiveness of sin. The reason we Christians spend so much time condemning this or that thing as "worldly" or "sinful" is that it's so much easier than facing the fact that our sins proceed from a deep wellspring of depravity. We want to believe that we're sinners because we sin, but the reality is that we sin because we're sinners. Sin is not merely external behaviors that we need to reform. Sin is the essence of who we are apart from Christ, and it is an awful thing to catch even a glimpse of how utterly sinful we are.

I'll never forget the moment that summer when God opened my eyes to the depths of my own sinfulness. Part of the missions project involved getting jobs in the local community, and I spent the summer mowing lawns and hauling trash at a local campground. One day I was pushing a mower around an empty campsite and contemplating all the things God had been teaching me when I realized that sin was not just something I do, but something I am. My reaction was physical, and it was surprisingly strong. I felt as though someone had just punched me in the stomach, and my knees actually buckled. I stopped the mower and sat down on a picnic table, absolutely stunned by the magnitude of my own iniquity. In that moment I understood why people in the Bible always respond to an angelic appearance or divine epiphany with the fearful expectation of imminent death. If, in our sinful state, we were to come into the presence of a holy God, His holiness would consume and obliterate us. When God gave me but a glimpse into the darkness of my own heart I became physically ill, and I knew that if He revealed it to me in full it would kill me.

This is why Jeremiah can say, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). Our hearts are deceitful because we want to be deceived. We don't want to face the reality of our own sinfulness. We don't want to know how deep and far-reaching it is. So we go to tremendous lengths to convince ourselves that we're really not that bad. We forget that only God can fill the void within, that the only righteousness we can claim is the righteousness Christ gives us, and we try desperately to convince ourselves that we bring something to the table other than our sin.

Later that summer, God gave me a mental picture of what He was putting me through. I imagined myself in a boxing ring with God, and He was knocking me to the canvas again and again. Yet each time He flattened me with one hand, He was holding out the other hand to lift me to my feet. All I had to do was take His hand and depend on Him to make me stand, but instead, I kept trying to drag myself up by grabbing on to the ropes. In my sinful pride I didn't want to depend on Him. I wanted to find ways to stand on my own. And each time I did, He would flatten me again, holding out His hand to me all the while.

The Joys of Dependence

In the past twenty years, I have been privileged to experience some rapturous worship. For years I attended a large church which could combine sonorous twelfth-century medieval hymns with foot-stomping black gospel spirituals and simple contemplative choruses. That church has the best balance I've ever seen between theological content and passionate expression in worship. They teach people how to worship even as they're worshipping.

These days I attend a smaller church with fewer musicians and singers and resources, and sometimes the congregation has a hard time just clapping its hands, but the worship is no less theologically profound or passionately spiritual. I have sensed God's presence there as clearly as I did on that dock twenty years ago.

Yet the most powerful worship service I ever attended was not at any church. It was in a spartan concrete classroom building of the Marine Corps' Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. I was one of about twenty bald and broken officer candidates who had just completed their first week at OCS. The Navy Chaplain's sermon was simple and hardly what one would call eloquent, and the singing was simply laughable. After a week of trying to shout loud enough to satisfy our growling instructors, our voices were hoarse, and it was all we could do to croak out a few hymns without musical accompaniment. Yet I remember my soul soaring to the borders of heaven at that moment in a way that I have not experienced since.

The power of my worship that day was not in the external trappings, but in the joy of being able to depend on God in an environment completely devoid of comfort or charity or compassion. When you absolutely cannot stand on your own, there is no joy greater than "leaning on the everlasting arms."

In moments like these it all seems so simple and clear. Yet in the real world of work and worry we lose sight of this clarity, and we complicate the Christian life with duties and responsibilities and obligations which we think are up to us to fulfill. The reality is that we are just as needy in our everyday world as we are in those rare moments of extreme brokenness. There is nothing for us but to depend on God for our daily bread, our righteousness, our sanity, and the grace to live according to His will. And wonder of wonders, we can experience no greater joy than when we do.

Measuring Spiritual Progress

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul referred to himself as "the least of the apostles" (1 Cor. 15:9). A few years later, in his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote that he was "less than the least of all God's people" (Eph. 3:8). A few years later still, he described himself as the "chief" of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I can sympathize with him. Twenty years after I first came to know Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I am a greater sinner than I've ever been.

It's not that I've gotten worse. It's just that I've become more self-aware. In the first few years after I became a Christian, I tried to measure my spiritual progress by looking at how much my life had changed since that wonderful night on the dock. I could point to sins I thought I had overcome and changes in my character which I assumed were more or less permanent. But since that time I have discovered that sins I thought I had conquered can come rushing back with terrifying swiftness, and I've concluded that it's misleading to speak of "progress" when it comes to the Christian life.

Once again, an example seems to be the best way to explain this. Before I became a Christian, I was your proverbial "angry young man." I had a seething temper, and I continually felt as if my rage was about to boil over. Naturally, such an obvious and potentially destructive sin was among the first that God led me to deal with. I began finding and memorizing passages in the Bible which addressed the subject of anger, and I would recite them whenever I became tempted to let my temper flare. Amazingly, it didn't take long for my rage to subside.

Today, it's difficult for me to stay angry for any length of time. It just takes too much energy to sustain. Whenever I feel consumed with anger, I become physically uncomfortable, I remember the misery of those angry years, and I have no desire to return to them. If there is any sin which I could claim to have conquered, it's my anger.

Yet this "victory" over sin is surprisingly deceptive, because in times of stress, anxiety, frustration, wounded pride, or spiritual depletion, it is astounding how quickly my rage can come flooding back. It is at those times that I realize I haven't conquered anything. That sin is still with me, still lurking just beneath the surface. All that's needed is the right stimulus, and I can fall farther and faster into sin than I would ever have believed possible.

This is why I think it's a mistake to speak of "progress" with respect to the Christian life. Progress implies gradual and ongoing improvement, a process of reform in which this fault and that sin and these quirks are systematically addressed and overcome. But our sinful natures cannot be reformed or improved. They cannot be made holy through any process of education or behavioral modification. The only way to improve our sinful nature is to kill it, to obliterate it, to wipe it from the face of the earth—in other words, to crucify it. That is precisely why Christ had to die on the cross: so that the power of our sin might be put to death in His earthly body.

"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20, ESV)

"For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin." (Rom. 6:6-7, NIV)

Rather than speaking of progress or of overcoming this or that sin, we need to speak instead of learning to walk in the new life of the Spirit. Our sinful nature cannot change, but it can be put to death and replaced with a new life and a new nature and a new spiritual trajectory.

"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." (Gal. 5:16, NIV)

"And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." (Gal. 5:24-25, ESV)

Thus, the fundamental dynamic of the Christian life is not one of progressive moral improvement, but that of crucifixion and resurrection. When we put to death our sinful nature and choose to walk in the new life we've received, we experience the joy of dependence on God and the miracle of victory over sin. But when we walk according to the flesh, leaning on the old crutches we used to cling to for support, sooner or later we'll fall back into the same old sins we've always known. And more likely than not, that fall will prove to be shockingly swift and dramatic.

After twenty years with Christ, I've stopped trying to measure my spiritual growth in terms of sins I've overcome. Instead, I've begun to focus on the degree to which God has made me aware of my radical need for Him. If I've matured at all, it's in the sense that I'm learning not to trust in my own righteousness or in the strength of my own will. I'm learning that I cannot resist sin; I must be saved from it. I cannot be reformed; my only hope is to be transformed. In essence, I'm in the same place I was twenty years ago when I sat out on that dock: a sinner at the end of himself, despairing of his own efforts, and crying out to God in utter dependence. I'm not sure that qualifies as "progress," but I do know that it's still exactly where I need to be.

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