October 16, 2016.
It was a deliciously stormy Sunday. My husband, two boys and I were driving home from an out-of-town family event.
There’s something so soothing about driving in the rain. Listening to the rhythmic beating of the rain as it strikes the car and watching the rivulets of water run down the windshield blurring away the outside world produces a sort of magical and hypnotic effect where time is rendered irrelevant.
Reality is suspended, and you’re transported to an isolated dimension where all that exists is you and the storm.
Surrounded with wild, untamed beauty; yet protected and encased in a warm, dry cocoon. Environments such as these seem to open a hidden door into parts of myself that are otherwise inaccessible. But I digress. (I can’t help it, I’m one of those secret melancholy types who loves the rain.)
Anyways, on this particular Sunday as we were driving home, we listened to podcasts to pass the time. Little did I know I was about to experience one of those pivotal moments where on the timeline of your life, a pin is dropped marking the end of something, and the beginning of something new.
The Podcast: How do I know I’m a Christian?
The vehicle through which this transformation occurred was a podcast called “Must- Many- Know” by Pastor Robert Morris. The message dealt with the issue of how a person knows whether they are truly a follower of Christ, or “born again.” The central passage was Mathew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”
According to Pastor Morris, Jesus was specifically talking to people who thought they knew God. People who called themselves Christians. People who believed themselves to be Christians. And yet, according to Jesus, they were not.
He then gave some specific, identifiable characteristics of a person who is a true believer (and I’m going off of memory here- this is my own summary of what stood out in my mind):
1) They can identify the moment they met Jesus. Pastor Morris gave examples of self-professed Christians who were unable to identify a specific, life-changing encounter with Jesus.
When asked the question “When did you become a Christian?” they would give vague, noncommittal answers like “Oh, when I was four or five. Or maybe the time at youth group when I was 12. Or wait, maybe at camp when I was 16. Or maybe the time I recommitted at 24…” Essentially, they didn’t really know.
He then likened meeting Jesus to this powerful metaphor: meeting Jesus is like getting married. You may forget the date (once!), but you never forget the day or the moment. Likewise, becoming a true Christian is the same: you may not remember the exact date, but when you genuinely encounter the risen King, it is an unmistakable and unforgettable experience.
He continued that if you said the “sinners prayer” of repentance and profession of belief prior to this, basically, it didn’t really count as salvation, but rather, was more like a seed being planted which eventually (and hopefully), would one day lead to true salvation.
He also added that everyone must have such a personal encounter with Jesus. It was not enough to hear about other people’s profound experiences and say to oneself something to the effect of “well if that happened to them, surely He must be real!” Everyone must meet Jesus themselves.
2) A changed life. Once you have met Jesus, the evidence will be there. Your life will be unmistakably changed. Those who professed themselves to be Christians but were unsure of the moment of salvation often had lives that looked no different afterwards as compared to before. There was no change, no “fruit.”
3) Assurance of salvation. He said if you have doubts about whether or not you’re really “saved,” you probably aren’t. A person who knows where they stand with Jesus is not the person who is constantly wondering, responding to altar call after altar call in hopes that maybe, this time, it’ll work.
I was stunned.
Everything he said, that was me.
I sat shaken and dismayed at the implications of this, of everything.
It was one of those messages where my “mail had been read,” and he was speaking directly to me. How could he know? With each point, my fear and dread had increased as he laid bare all the secret fears I had so desperately tried to hide, even from myself, but nevertheless existed in my own heart.
My Christian Background
I was born into Christianity. The product of good ol’ ‘bedroom evangelism’ (if you’ve never heard that term before… you’re welcome.). My parents became believers in college before meeting each other and getting married. My dad was in seminary when I was born. He has worked as a pastor my entire life.
I remember accepting Jesus into my heart when I was around four years old, in my bedroom with my dad. And as a child, I did, I loved Jesus with all the passion and sweetness and ability of my little heart.
I was filled with the Holy Spirit in fourth grade at church camp (the same camp where I met my husband decades later, even after looking at camp romances with scorn and vowing I would never join the ranks of those pathetic people! Yeah…that worked out).
But like many church kids, as I entered into my teen years, I started rebelling toward church, and struggling to feel close with God. I still believed in God, but if we’re talking about “fruit,” it wasn’t there. At least not the good kind.
Things continued to go downhill. To make a long story short (or perhaps, for another day), my 19th birthday found me in a treatment center in Arizona for a severe and life-threatening eating disorder.
It was there I first had one of those moments Pastor Morris talked about- an unmistakable encounter with God (for the sake of brevity-not my strong point, as I’m sure you can tell- I’ll leave the details for another post). I wish I could say that was it, the moment where life changed. And in some ways, it did.
But it wasn’t long before I was engulfed in a bleak, angry, and miserable existence yet again, in some ways worse than before, just different.
About five years later I came to another moment of brokenness, and surrendered a previously unsurrendered aspect of my life to God. And God gave me profound freedom.
Shortly after this I met and married my husband (yay church camp cliché!), went back to finish college, moved to a new city, and had two children.
We’d been attending our current church for a couple of years, and God was active and working in our lives (a few months before listening to this podcast, I had what I consider to be my second unmistakable encounter with Jesus. Again, details provided another time). As far as major crises, things had seemed to finally level out, and for all intents and purposes, life was fine.
But deep inside, although I tried to ignore it or pretend it wasn’t there, something terrifying gnawed at my soul. Questions. Doubts.
Was I really saved? Did God really exist? What if I, all of us Christians… were wrong? What if death came and revealed the ultimate tragic deception: we had been wrong about God, or wrong about the path to spend eternity with Him.
Rather than face these doubts head on and bring them to God, I erected barricades against such thoughts, and attempted to keep my mind occupied with other, less threatening matters. But occasionally, one would slip through, and I teetered on the edge of an abyss, sheer terror threatening to overwhelm and consume me.
In an attempt to combat these doubts, I would call to mind other Christians’ stories of Jesus showing up for them. “See? Jesus must be real, because He healed Sally’s broken toe and Pastor Joe heard God speak to Him audibly that one time on the lake. Plus my dad is convinced and I really don’t think he could be wrong.”
Some nights I lay awake, tormented. I would plead with God, “God, PLEASE. Please don’t let me die until I’m SURE. I NEED to be sure about you. I need to be sure about my standing with you.”
I would frequently have dreams where the scenario was one of “The Ultimate Choice:” in the face of death, would I choose to profess my belief in Christ and die…or deny Him and live? In these dreams, faced with martyrdom, I always tried to hide, or sidestep the issue, because I knew I just wasn’t ready- I couldn’t face death and say “Yes. I believe.”
And this was deeply disturbing.
Sometimes at church, during the blessedly anonymous “in your seat with your head bowed and your eyes closed, with no one looking around” altar call, I would say the sinners prayer quietly to myself, in my mind whispering “God, let it count this time if it hasn’t.”
So doubts about being saved? Yes, I’d say so.
And now we return to the car, where
sh*t stuff is about to get real
When the podcast ended, the car was silent. I sat there reeling, trying to make sense of what had just happened, and more importantly, what would happen next. My husband broke the silence and
not so innocently asked “So… what did you think about the message?” At that moment, I had some choices to make.
Everything in my private, introspective, analytical nature screamed to respond with my default: a vague sort of “Oh, it was really thought-provoking and there were some interesting points…” and then go home and chew on it and try to figure out:
(a) what the heck just happened (b) where do I put this and (c) how can I get it to fit inside a neat little box that I can understand and know where this fits into my life.
Insert poker face emoji here (what my face usually looks like)….and insert multiple FREAK OUT CRAZY EYE emojis here (what I actually feel inside).
But by the grace of God I overrode my default, and answered honestly, sharing with my husband what I wrote above: all the parallels between the message and my own life, the truth about the fears and doubts. And my conclusion that when it all came down to it… perhaps I wasn’t- in the truest sense- really a Christian.
Which brought me to…
Choice # 2
Faced with this new truth about myself, it was clear I needed to respond.
But the dialogue in my head was “This isn’t the right place or time to respond to this message. You’re driving in the car, in a storm, with the kids sleeping in the back. If you want to respond to this message, well and fine, but wait until you get home, put the kids to bed, and then you and your husband can go outside on the patio and sit and pray together without distance or distractions.”
I was essentially saying that in order for this to “count,” the environmental elements had to be just right. How formulaic. How religious. How non-Jesus.
There was also the hurdle of pride to overcome. These thoughts flooded my mind: “You’ve been a Christian your whole life! You don’t really need to say the sinners prayer again! That would be admitting that your whole life has been a lie! What will your husband think? What will anyone else who hears of it think? You’re probably fine to stay the way you are.”
But something deeper and more primal was at work in me, an urgency to respond immediately that was unfamiliar.
The truth was, I was not guaranteed more than the present. What if we got in an accident on the way home, and I didn’t survive? Morbid? Sure. True? Absolutely. What if this was my chance, and I threw it away in the name of postponing until the perfect moment could be created?
I praise God that by His love and grace, He enabled me to push aside my ritualistic tendencies and pride, keep my eyes on Him, and step forward in humility and vulnerability. I asked my husband if we could pray together, right then and there. And on that stormy car ride home, we held hands and I gave my life to the Lord.
And truly, life has changed.
I understand this post brings up a whole can of theological worms on the issue of salvation. And I plan to discuss some of my reflections and conclusions in a follow-up post. But what I hope you’ll take away is this: if any of my story spoke to your heart and touched on similar doubts or experiences, or if my “mail is your mail,” so to speak, simply respond.
Like it says in Hebrews 3:15, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” If Jesus is speaking to you right now, resist the temptation to put it off, to reason away why this might not actually be a matter you should be concerned with. And simply respond to what He is speaking to you or asking of you. Accept His invitation.