For a job application I’m filling out right now to teach at a Christian school, I’ve been asked to share my testimony “including approximate date of conversion,” and it occurred to me that I’ve never actually shared the story of the beginning of my Christian walk on this site.
Frankly, I have ambivalent feelings about the term “conversion,” not because I’ve never had one, but because I believe I’ve had at least two. When I was about five years old, I remember coming out of church in early spring and praying to God that he would “make me a Christian.” (Apparently, I had been asking lots of questions the preceding few weeks – questions along the line of how the preacher managed to stay dry in his suit while baptizing people.) When I prayed, the image came to my mind of a poorly drawn stick figure, and I had a sense that my prayer was…insufficient. But the following Sunday, as my parents got ready for church, I echoed the sinner’s prayer after a preacher on TV. I immediately ran to my mother and announced that I was now a Christian. I was baptized a few weeks later. This would have been around 1983.
You may have some doubts about the authenticity of my “conversion” in such as simplified format, so early in my life. “Where’s the heart-felt repentance?” you may say. I started asking the same thing about a year later. I remember being at school, back behind a pre-fab classroom, with a group of boys, boasting. Oddly enough, however, we weren’t comparing the normal attributes that young boys are prone to demonstrate. Instead, we were each bragging about how young we were when we got saved. The assumption seemed to be that the younger you were when you became a Christian the more innately holy you must have already been, to come to Christ so quickly. I have no idea, I only remember bragging.
That next Sunday, there was a guest speaker at our church who preached a powerful evangelistic message. The gist of the message was that you might *not* be saved, though you had repented, if you had come to Christ for the wrong reason. What if, for instance, you had become a Christian simply for the sake of status or reputation? I was cut to the heart. My very words from the pulpit against me. When the time came for the altar call, I swore to be the first to rise. Eyes blurred with tears, I hurried toward the steps, to grab hold of the horns of the altar, as it were. I wanted to be a Christian, and not one in name only!
As I knelt and prayed, I waited for the pastor or a deacon to come and talk with me. Instead, my mother came. I poured out the secrets of my hear to her, and asked how I could know that I was saved, and that I hadn’t merely “prayed with wrong motives.” I don’t believe she actually showed me the verse in Romans 8 that says, “The Spirit himself bears witness,” but she told me she believed that the Holy Spirit would confirm my state before God if I asked him to. So I did. I prayed, and received a confidence that God looked on me and saw a Christian.
Nevertheless, upon conversion, I immediately became a perfect hoodlum. My life was not marked by a desire to live out the gospel. When I was 9, my parents moved, and I was placed in an exceptional Christian school, where I learned (among other things) that my hurtful, self-centered way of behaving was not the best tool for winning friends. Over the next year and a half, I worked on reforming my manners, and succeeded in making myself a very nice, attractive boy. My reform efforts were so successful that, while I had been wildly unpopular in that school, when we moved again and joined a new church, I found I had discovered all the secrets I needed to “win friends and influence people.” I had become very good at making myself liked. However, in all this my heart was not converted.
When I was eleven or twelve, I began to realize that I was still a sinner. I had been reading a fact book by Isaac Asimov, which mentioned that scientists, supplied with enough heat and oxygen, had actually managed to ignite diamond dust. This was possible, of course, because diamonds, though they were considered precious stones, were in fact made up of carbon – no different than firewood or straw. And one Sunday, I saw a picture of my heart, like a diamond. (The image I saw was probably taken from a Rainbow Bright movie I had watched over my sister’s shoulder: they had a diamond-planet in the movie that was created to focus the light of the world, but was being subverted for selfish purposes. There’s room for theological reflection here, but I haven’t space !)
The scripture says in 1 Corinthians that whatever we have built our lives with, whether gold and silver and precious stones, or wood and hay and straw, will be known in the end, “because it will be revealed by fire.” Here I had been pretending, deceiving myself that my life was made with precious stones, but it turned out that my precious stones were merely wood, hay, and straw, compressed under heat and pressure, cut and polished, but prone to burn nonetheless. Or again, my heart was hard, and could not be broken before God. I had heard it said that I should “fall on the rock and be broken,” but what can break a heart of diamond? No stone will even scratch it. But a diamond can be burned, and “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). So in fear of fire, I came to repentance, and too redeem me, he sent his fire.
I wrote my prayer on a sheet of paper and left it in the church, hoping someone would discover it and come speak with me. No one did. This would have been around 1990. Of the two experiences, it’s clear that the second one was the deeper repentance, but I’m not quite willing to say that the first wasn’t a true conversion. I heard the Spirit’s voice when I prayed. But it may have been merely what you might call the first fruits of repentance. Nevertheless, the God who sees the end from the beginning has, from the foundation of the world, called me Christian, and it is he who converts the hearts of men. I believe that one of the tools he uses is conversion; after all, Jesus says you must be born again to see the kingdom of God. But sometimes I question if we can lay out with exactness the order that he uses.