On the morning of April 23, 2001 I headed west on highway 10 and planned on leaving Minnesota for good. I stuck U2's new CD in and replayed "Walk On" over and over again for about the first 200 miles. This song had been part of the inspiration for me to quit my job, sell everything I couldn't fit in my car, and head out west with no particular plan.
The idea began to take shape back on January 14 of that year. The Vikings, who were pretty much my only source of joy at this time, had just been blown out by the Giants, 41-0 in the NFC Championship game that day. As I was driving down interstate 94 and listening to the new U2 album I began to ponder the downward spiral my life had taken in the past year.
My worldview at this point was one of hostility toward religion and a vague belief in a spectator god who has no say in the events of my life. Since I had always been taught that God was fair and that man had free will, I felt that God would judge my decisions based on how I used that free will in response to the situation I was in. For example, if I found in myself a desire which contradicted a rule, I would have to conclude that either the desire or the rule was bad. Since my desires could not possibly be bad because I was created by God, I concluded that the rule was bad and needed to be reinterpreted (by me). Thus, I felt no need for repentance nor any need of a Savior.
I had a lot of time to ponder the religious upbringing that had such a negative influence on my life during my 1,700 mile drive. The Rocky Mountains tend to have a breathtaking effect on you and make you feel very small. You begin to ponder big things. It's dangerous for an unregenerate person to ponder big things because they all lead to one Thing and that's not what you want to think about. The existence of God was not something that I ever questioned, it was the nature of God that I couldn't understand. I had always been taught that man had a free will, yet people still attributed some measure of control over their lives to God. My picture of God was someone who sits up on a cloud and observes while we create our own destiny. Surely then he understood why I had to make the kind of decisions that I had to make because he understood the situations I was in. He could not possibly attribute sin to me because he created me just the way I was. Church and religion were for people who didn't get this. I was at peace with who I was and I was sure God was too. So why all this talk about repentance and sin and a Savior? I guess those people just weren't enlightened like I was.
And so, as the distance between me and my former life grew larger and larger, I felt the urge to pat myself on the back for figuring it all out as I cranked up U2 and sang along...
Home, hard to know where it is if you've never had one
Home, I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home
When I got to Seattle I stayed with a girl I had known from high school. I had nothing but a few clothes and a couple boxes of stuff in my car and about $2,000 in cash when I showed up. I was excited about starting over fresh. I got myself a job in Woodinville and everything seemed to be working out according to plan now.
My grand plan was to leave behind everyone and everything and start over with a new life in a new city and create a completely new identity. I didn't want anyone in my life who remembered the old me. I lied regularily, figuring that I could create my own past. And of course, God completely understood why I had to do this because he knew my situation.
About a year prior to this I had been making wedding plans when suddenly, my longtime sweetheart and fiance had a change of heart. That's when the downward spiral began which led to my brilliant idea of leaving town. I knew something needed to change. I had destroyed every relationship with every person and every family member in my life so I figured I had worn out my welcome in Minnesota.
After a couple months in Seattle I realized something--wherever I go, there I am. It wasn't my surroundings that needed changing, it was me. Seattle was starting to depress me and nothing had really changed in my life except the location. And so I did what I always did when I got depressed--I moved again.
In June, 2001 I headed back over the Rocky Mountains and back to my home state that I thought I would never see again. I didn't know what was going to be different this time. Really the only time I was happy was when I was driving. I took the drive nice and slow because I didn't want it to end. I considered just driving across the country until I ran out of money and then drive off a cliff somewhere, but there was always this funny thought that kept coming up in the back of my mind. What if I'm really not good enough to get to heaven? What if I drive off a cliff and land in hell? What if God really doesn't understand why I am justified in my sin? Those Bible verses that my mom used to read to me kept popping up in my head. But then I would pop in a Marylin Manson CD and try my best to forget about such foolishness.
Little did I know, my mother, who hadn't seen me in two years, was back home praying for my salvation every day while I was gone. Why do Arminians always turn into Calvinists when they pray? I don't know, but I'm glad they do.
I found a job in Eden Prairie when I got back and found an apartment in Mounds View. It was the only available apartment I could find being that it was the end of the month. All the other places I checked didn't have anything available until August 1, but this particular apartment had just been made available because the previous tenant had moved in with another tenant and kept this apartment for his/her teenage son who had completely trashed it. And so, in the Providence of God, the apartment manager was not expecting it to be fixed up properly in time for a July 1 move-in. But it was, and it became available right when I showed up.
I was feeling pretty good at this point. I was pretty proud of myself for all the adversity I had overcome, picking up and leaving town on a whim twice in three months, and resituating my life once again. I patted myself on the back for causing everything to fall into place with the job and the apartment, and I put those pesky thoughts about God and religion out of my mind and tried to carry on with my life.
I found out that my old high school classmate Matt was living in the same complex with his wife Jenny. Matt and I had similar work schedules so we found ourselves hanging out together a lot in the morning and early afternoon during the week. We discovered that we both loved to play tennis so we started going out to the courts every morning to play.
I quickly discovered that Matt was one of those born-again types who still hadn't shaken the religious influence of his upbringing. Our conversations during our tennis outings would always turn to religion and Matt seemed to think he was always right and always had an answer to my objections. I would give him the standard Christian-stumping questions like, "How can somebody who lives on an island and never hears about Jesus be held responsible?" and "What about some Muslim who really loves God? How can he be condemned to hell just because he doesn't believe in Jesus?" But Matt always seemed to have an answer for everything and it was starting to get a little annoying.
I guess I wanted to prove to him that I was alright even though I didn't get all carried away with religion like him so I accepted his invitation to church a couple of times and tried to play Christian. He wasn't buying it, however, and I could tell. He would confront me about all the sin in my life and my behavior and I would just blow him off.
Well, one thing led to another and then one day, after a long string of objections and answers, I found myself getting a lesson in the doctrine of election. One by one, all of my objections fell to the floor as Matt began to describe the sovereignty of God in salvation. This made me a bit uneasy because if what he was saying was true then all of my objections to Christianity had been founded on a false notion of the nature of God and the basis for my righteousness was founded on a false notion of what righteousness really is.
My curiosity mixed with my sinful nature led me to further inquiries in the form of arguments. I would argue that Matt's views were warped while he would just quote Scripture at me. I remember one day in August, 2001 when I was invited over to Matt and Jenny's for dinner along with another couple. They were discussing something related to religion and I shot back with what I thought was a pretty clever remark about how God wasn't up there controlling everything that happens because people are free to make choices. After a couple more clever remarks I walked away that day thinking I was the wise one of the bunch. I found out later that as soon as I walked out the door, Jordan turned to Matt and said, "He's not a Christian is he?" To which Matt responded something like, "No, but he likes to pretend he is."
Many similar conversations ensued throughout the rest of the summer as I continually sought to prove how enlightened I was. I desparately needed to prove him wrong so I could hold onto my spectator-god concept and carry on with my sinful life. He never backed down from my objections and always gave me a solid answer to everything. Sometimes he would even give me a list of Scripture references to look up when I wouldn't give in.
We continued to go back and forth on the election issue. I told him he was nuts because if that was really in the Bible then I wouldn't have gone to church three times a week for 18 years without hearing about it. One day he just told me to shut up and go read Romans 9. I had an old King James Bible sitting on my shelf that used to belong to my great uncle. I pulled it out and dusted it off and found my way to Romans 9. That was the first chapter of the Bible I had ever read since I was a little kid and it hit me hard. The implications were huge as I sat there and pondered what I had read on that late August day. It seemed so plain, yet why had I never been taught this in church?
I wanted to start reading the rest of the Bible to see if it all matched up with what I had read in Romans but I kept putting it off. By this point I began to tremble at the weightiness of this God who apparently was not as easy to trifle with as I had thought. I didn't like to tremble. I liked being in control and creating my own destiny. And besides, football season was starting and I didn't have time for religion. So I pushed Jesus to the back of my mind and tried to carry on as usual.
Life was going well. I had just gotten a call from my old boss at the job I left in Minneapolis and he wanted to hire me back. When my boss in Eden Prairie found out he offered me a nice raise to stay which my old boss matched so I ended up getting the same job back that I quit plus more money. I started dating a girl who I had met at the Eden Prairie job and things were looking up. I would have plenty of time to think about getting religious later I thought as I laid my head down peacefully on my pillow on September 10, 2001.
"There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us!" -C.S. Lewis
By this point there was definitely a trembling curiosity in my "search." Reality weighed slightly heavier in my scales than it had before, but there was a new wrinkle thrown into my life in the form of a girl and I needed to keep the scales balanced for just a little longer before I gave myself fully to this Jesus who, by now, I could see was slightly more worthy of my worship than what I had made him out to be. I would continue to just dabble in religion, show up in church once in a while, and put on a religious face when I needed to until I was fully ready to abandon the greater pleasure of sin.
I woke up to a ringing phone on September 11. It was Nate calling to tell me he was stuck in the airport in Chicago and he couldn't get home because they weren't letting any planes leave. Puzzled, I asked him why. "Dude, haven't you been watching TV?" he said. I flipped on my TV and lit up a Winston as I sat there in shock watching replay after replay.
I couldn't let this mish-mash of religious thoughts just sit in the back of my mind any longer. It's hard to recall exactly what went through my mind at this time but the air of triviality had definitely been replaced by a sense of weightiness. It became much more urgent that I find out exactly who this God is who allows(?)/determines(?)/watches passively(?) something like this.
But then there was my sin which I loved dearly and was not willing to let go. I tried so hard to cling to my sin while I continued to play at religion. I accepted Matt's invitation to come to church with him the Sunday following 9/11 but I ended up oversleeping that day. I tried to continue my cynical, triviality-soaked life of "fun" for just a little bit longer but Matt was making it really hard. He never let me feel secure in my self-righteousness for a second.
By the time I reached my 25th birthday in late September of 2001 I had enough motivation to actually start cracking open my Bible to try to see if Matt's words were consistent with God's Word. I had a mixture of reasons for this which included fear of being wrong, fear of hell, wanting to prove Matt wrong, and just plain curiosity about this God who everybody seems to have a different opinion about. I wasn't willing to admit that I was a sinner yet. I wanted to find something to prove that I was alright and didn't really need to change anything about my lifestyle. But there was a certain nervousness as I went back and read Romans 9 again out of my old King James Bible. The implications of Romans 9 were very weighty for me. If what it was saying was true then it meant that...
A) This God will NOT be trifled with.
B) If God is sovereign, then it is plain that he does NOT call those whom he elects to live the way I was living.
C) God does not have a 'plan B' for special cases like me.
D) I'm not going to be able to outsmart my own Creator by creating clever excuses for sin.
E) Believing IN God and believing OF God are not the same thing.
By now I had gotten enough lessons from Matt to have a fairly good understanding of the basics of the doctrines of grace even though I had never heard the word 'Calvinism' yet. I didn't like it at all and I was getting weary of trying to come up with excuses. One by one, all of my objections to Christianity dropped to the floor.
Objection: If Jesus is the only way, then what about the guy who lives on an island and never hears the gospel?
Answer: If he is elect then God will not let him die without hearing the gospel. If not, then he has just as much chance as the atheist who lived next door to Billy Graham all his life.
Objection: What about the Muslim who has never heard the name of Jesus but really has a love for God in his heart.
Answer: The Holy Spirit does not produce a love for God in one's heart apart from hearing the name of Jesus.
Objection: God is not fair to save some and damn others!
Answer: If God is glorified most fully by his electing grace, then he would not be fair to his own glory to leave the ultimate deciding factor in salvation in the hands of the sinner. By what standard would you like to judge God? Who are you to determine how God should run his universe? Shall the creature say to the Creator, "Why have you made me like this?"
There wasn't much else I could say. I didn't know the Bible well enough to argue with Matt anymore so I was going to have to see for myself. In the meantime, this was really throwing a wrinkle into my so-called life which was going along just fine without all this religion talk. I didn't like having to work extra hard to ease my conscience. Why couldn't Matt just accept the fact that my relationship with God is different than his but we both worship the same God? It would have made our tennis matches so much more enjoyable.
I went down to the Christian bookstore on October 3, 2001 and picked up an NIV Scofield Study Bible. I was determined to read the whole thing and find out once and for all if it was consistent with the picture of God that I was getting from Matt. I was getting very worried by now that what he was saying may be true, but still unable to admit it. But in the back of my mind, when I couldn't suppress it any longer, I knew.
"One of the goals of an unbeliever is to understand the world in such a way that it is not good or right for him to be destroyed." -R.C. Sproul Jr.
By beginning to read the Bible, my intention was to see if what I had read in Romans was consistent with the rest of the Bible. I still held out hope that there was some other explanation having spent the first 18 years of my life in church and never hearing anything about these strange doctrines that Matt was teaching me. I started poking around in the Old Testament first, not really understanding what I was reading and feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task in front of me.
When I woke up on the morning of Saturday, October 6, 2001, I had only one thing on my mind. Having just started dating R, and judging by the way our previous date had ended, there was no big mystery as to how our date on the night of October 6 was going to end. To be perfectly clear, I was not intending to pursue a relationship here, much less marriage. I had one thing on my mind and one thing only and I felt I was entitled to it after what I had gone through in my recent attempts to pursue marriage. My heart had grown cold and I was only interested in pursuing that which I thought was my right as a 21st century American male twentysomething hedonist. Oh, and did I mention R was married too?
Matt was wise to my intentions and tried to warn me. I thought to myself, why would a God who invented pleasure be so anti-pleasure? I was sure that Matt was missing something here because it just seemed clear that God would not create humans with all these desires and then hold them accountable for indulging in them. That thought was enough to ease my conscience for a while, but could not silence it completely.
The plan was to meet R at around 7:00 on the night of October 6. I woke up around noon and sat down to watch some TV. My conscience was really getting to me now. Matt's words kept replaying themselves in the back of my mind and wouldn't shut up. What if he was right? I knew my TULIP well enough by now to know what that meant. It meant that if I desired sin more than I desired God then I gave evidence of my depravity and could not use that as an excuse anymore. But what if I just accepted the fact that I was a depraved sinner? I knew that that was not salvation in itself because I would still be a depraved sinner, just an honest one. I knew I didn't desire God as I ought for there was nothing desirable in him that I could see. So clearly my only option here was to supress my conscience with all my might and try to make these lies true again.
At about 2:00 that day, I decided to just start poking around in the New Testament to see if I could find something that would ease my conscience. Bad idea. I opened to 1 Corinthians and began to read. There was one more big implication in what Matt had been teaching me that I had completely missed but was about to discover.
"The alteration which is made in man when he is converted and sanctified is not by diminishing his love to happiness, but only by regulating it with respect to its exercises and influence, and the objects to which it leads." -Jonathan Edwards
At about 2:30 my eyes fell upon 1 Corinthians 6:12: "All things are lawful for me..." This would have been enough to ease my conscience on a normal day, but this was not a normal day. I knew that Christians did not take that verse to mean what I wanted to take it to mean so I read on. Verse 18 said "Flee from sexual immorality." It didn't say "try to avoid" or "be moderate" or "take it easy," it said "Flee!" Why? What could possibly make a person want to do something that is so contrary to his nature? Why would God lay out all of these rules that are contrary to our desires and then hold us accountable for desiring what we desire?
I sat there on my couch pondering these things for the next few minutes. I thought about everything that Matt had taught me about the sovereignty of God over the past couple of months. I thought about everything I had been taught growing up about Jesus' death on the cross and the way of salvation. Then I realized this one inescapable fact that had thus far escaped me: If God is the creator of all pleasure in this world and he commands people to desire him above all other pleasure, then how can I conclude anything other than God, when he is seen as he truly is, is more to be desired than all other things? Clearly it was pleasure that I was after and I wanted all that I could get. People don't deny themselves pleasure unless there is a greater pleasure to be gained in it. There was no need to deny myself pleasure if this God truly was who he claimed to be. Again I pondered the way of salvation that I had been taught so many times which previously had made no sense to me. Like the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, everything slowly began to come together and form one glorious picture.
Then I turned my attention to all the great pleasures that this world had to offer me and weighed them all against what I could only conclude must be an infinite pleasure in an infinitely glorious God. One by one they all fell short as I began to see that true pleasure is found only in being in conformity to reality and living for the source of all pleasure rather than the shadows. For the first time I saw repentance as a change of desire rather than simply a denial of it. The way of salvation in Christ suddenly appeared to me as both necessary and glorious.
And so, at about 3:00 on the afternoon of Saturday, October 6, 2001, as I sat there on my couch about ten feet away from where I type this, with my Bible open in front of me and the greatest earthly pleasure an unregenerate 25 year old man could want waiting for me outside my door, I put my head down and confessed my unworthiness to God for the first time and asked for forgiveness and for a new heart to love Christ as I ought and commited my life to him. It was an awkward, broken prayer as I didn't really fully understand what that all meant yet. I simply knew that I had to face my depravity and that his death was sufficient to cover it and he was infinitely worthy to be lived for above all other things.
Immediately I knew that I had to make some phone calls. I called R and told her I couldn't see her that night (or any other night). That was probably a little confusing as I didn't really offer an explanation. It was like four sentences and "bye." Then, in one of the most humbling conversations I ever had, I called Matt and told him that he was right all along and that I had been living a lie all this time but I was now willing to live for Jesus. Needless to say, he was shocked.
In the following months Matt and I spent a lot of time together with a lot less arguing and a lot more praising. We began going to church together every Sunday. We would stay up late at night and read the Bible together and listen to sermons from Piper, Sproul, and Johnny Mac. There's no question that Matt has been the most important person ever to drop into my life and I thank God for him. And if he would ever quit being so Amish and learn how to get on the internet and read this then I want him to know that I can never thank him enough for not letting me remain content in my self-righteousness.
Those early days were just awesome as I began to see and savor more and more of the grace and mercy of this glorious Savior whom I had never before seen as so infinitely worthy of my praise. I read through my Bible as fast as I could, awestruck by the glory and majesty and sovereignty of Christ on page after page. On February 24th, 2002 I was baptized by Matt's dad at the church that he pastors in Big Lake. On April 9th I went back and saw my parents who I had disappeared on three years previously and told them what had happened. Much joy ensued.
So here I sit, almost four years later, still awestruck by the grace of God. How amazing it is that all of the events of my life would be ordered in such a way to bring about the events as they happened. How amazing it is that the first church I happened to attend upon being converted is pastored by a guy whose philosophy of life is called "Christian hedonism." How amazing it is that I could grow up despising religion for all its inconsistencies and then suddenly have good doctrine just fall into my lap without having to really search for it. And how amazing it is that God had all of this in mind before the foundation of the world as part of his plan to glorify himself.
That's my story,
To God be the glory;
'Twas him, not me
That bowed my knee.