In order to awaken my need for a Savior, God used an unlikely Chik Tract laying on the sidewalk next to my apartment in Hattiesburg, MS. And though I would now have some real issues with tracts like this, I am still so thankful that, nearly three decades ago, God placed it in my path.
But before I tell that story:
If someone asks me why I am a Christian, I do not say it is because I am convinced Christianity is true by sophisticated apologetic arguments. In fact, the first answer I feel obligated to give is a personal answer. Before I can give more brainy answers like the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God, or detailed arguments on why I trust the Bible, or why naturalism is bankrupt, I first have to show that all of this is very, very personal.
Francis Schaeffer once wisely wrote, “Christian apologetics do not start somewhere beyond the stars. They begin with man and what he knows about himself.” I couldn’t agree more. What was it that first made me even consider God at all? What was it that initially drove me to him? Was it science and nature? Was it the words of a preacher? What was it?
The answer to these questions is indeed personal. I began seeking after God because of what I was personally feeling inside my own heart about the meaning and purpose of life. As I was growing up and contemplating my own existence, I sensed certain longings and desires within me that seemed to have no corresponding satisfaction anywhere on earth. It was somewhat like Adam must have felt as he yearned for a mate who was like him, but none could be found (Genesis 2:20).
These yearnings led me to seek God through a study of the Bible. There I found that God has made a promise to me as an individual to meet my greatest need. My greatest need (and yours too), is to be forgiven of sin and reconciled to God. Therefore, through his enablement I ran to him and threw myself at his feet, pleading for his mercy. This is the primary reason I am a Christian. He has turned my personal “mourning into dancing.”
Psalm 30:11-12 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
A DEEP DOWN KIND OF BAD
It all started with a deep down knowledge of my own badness. Even as a child I knew that I was bad. I could sense my heart leaning toward the “dark side.” I felt much like Anakin Skywalker, who desperately struggled with his true nature. Was Anakin good or bad? Most of us know the story. He started out as good, or at least as a “good guy.” But eventually the man that was Anakin Skywalker became the dreaded killer Darth Vader, mostly machine and seared conscience. The pull towards evil was much too powerful for Skywalker to resist.
I felt those same evil urges in my own life, but this was no movie – it was real. What is worse, I liked it. To me it was more fun lying, “cussing,” stealing, cheating and thinking dirty thoughts than it was to be good and obedient. I enjoyed evil, not because it benefited me in any way, but just because it was evil. There was a certain sport to it for me. An exhilarating, adrenaline-rush thrill was produced in knowingly violating the rules.
As a pre-teen living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, my “friends” and I were already smoking cigarettes, but that is not all. We obtained our cigarettes by going on what we called a “run.” We would say, “Well, we’re out of cigarettes, it’s time to take a run.” The “run” was actually a ride – on our bicycles down to Jitney Jungle, our local supermarket.
We would walk smoothly through the electric sliding doors, the same ones we used to open and close over and over again while waiting on our parents to bag the groceries. Then we would calmly walk up to the massive display of cigarettes, which at that time were not yet out of reach behind the counter as they are in most stores today. Instead, they were right in the open, and low enough that a three year old could crawl by and grab them.
I reached my hand out and took two or three packs or Marlboro Lights, usually three. My friends did the same. Then we would walk down an obscure and abandoned aisle and, while walking, we would stuff the cigarettes down our pants – not our best moments. Then we would walk out of the store as quickly as we came in. We never got caught. But God had caught my heart.
Oh, I knew I was bad. Even as we fled the scene of the crime, hearts racing faster than our bikes, ecstatic to have gotten away with it, my conscience was crying out with immeasurable guilt and shame. And it wasn’t just the normal kind of wicked behavior that could be justified with words like, “Everybody does it.” No, I sensed a deep depravity that went all the way down to my soul. This guilt also made me inescapably aware that I was most likely in serious trouble with God. Perhaps you know exactly what I’m talking about.
There were times when the sense of guilt was intense and sometimes overwhelming. I remember when my parents caught me sneaking out of our apartment in the middle of the night. I felt so awful. I really had let them down and they let me know about it as only parents can do. Something was terribly wrong in my heart and soul and I knew it and even as a young teenager I desperately wanted that problem repaired. I could not stand living with it.
Plus, I knew that it wasn’t just the Bible that called me bad. I really didn’t care at all about church or the Bible or anything related to those things. So it wasn’t as though I was conditioned to think I was bad, but I knew that I was really and actually bad. And that scared me.
All of us deep down face this same dilemma. We may not know what we have done to make ourselves wicked, or the level of badness that we possess, but we all do know that we play a role in the evil that overrides this planet.
Often we try to deny it. We rate our own faults and compare them to others, saying “At least I haven’t murdered anybody,” or “Surely Hitler deserves worse than I do.” We speak as if somehow possessing a lesser degree of depravity excuses the immorality that so clearly marks our own lives. We like to think of ourselves as pretty good people overall.
The denial of the evil that dominates our hearts can be clearly seen in the words of Superman’s father, Jor-El, who believes that people are innately good, at least for the most part. In the most recent movie manifestation of the caped hero, Kal-El (Clark Kent’s Kryptonian identity) is remembering his father’s advice to him about living on planet earth among the humans. Using eerie, messianic terminology, Jor-El makes the following recommendations to his son:
Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.
This description of humanity as basically good, perhaps needing a little “light to show the way,” is well received by the majority. We justify this positive assessment of our own ethical condition by comparing ourselves with the worst sinners on the planet. When we do this, we look in the mirror and deceive ourselves into believing that we are decent folks, since we are not the Lex Luther’s of the world. But we fail to realize that the very action of passing the blame to others, in itself reveals our insecurity about our condition. We are the same as our first parents who, when they fell into sin, attempted to improve their outward image by passing the blame to someone else. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent:
Genesis 3:11-13 [God] said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The prophet Isaiah stunningly states, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Our badness consumes our very being and pollutes our every action. There is a devastating brokenness that infiltrates every area of our lives. This is why, when we carefully analyze the condition of the world in which we live, we find hate, violence, malice, greed, and every conceivable vice at every turn. Badness is a universal and undeniable reality that each of us must face.
This sin, deeply imbedded within us, reveals its grotesque face clearly as we abandon God and turn to worship idols. We worship primarily the idols of me-and-my-stuff. Rather than loving, obeying, and rejoicing in God, we attempt to please our own hearts by spending the majority of our days focused on ourselves and the stuff we can get our hands on. This is why in the first of the Ten Commandments, God clearly directs us to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). But for the wicked heart, that is easier said than done.
GOD SENT ME A NOTE
Yet God is a God of grace and mercy beyond our wildest imaginations, and he works in astonishing ways. As I struggled through my own badness and how I planned to deal with it, God sent me a little note. The note was a tract, which is a small booklet that has the message of Jesus Christ printed on it. I was only eleven or twelve years old when I stumbled across it on a sidewalk that ran next to my family’s apartment. It was, ironically, the same sidewalk I was walking on the night I was caught sneaking out. I’m not sure how the note got there. Perhaps someone tossed it out of the window of their car. Such is the grace of God.
I read the tract while standing there on the curb. I had always believed in the existence of God, but had never really understood what a relationship with him really meant. As I read, I was being exposed to truth I hadn’t really considered seriously before. But with my heart freshly guilty with the stains of thievery and underage smoking, I was deeply interested in and intrigued by what this little note from God said.
If you are familiar with the gospel, or gospel tracts at least, you might be able to guess the first thing I read. It said that all people are “sinners and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Wow! This little booklet was identifying my heart! The Bible confirmed the truth that I already knew – I am bad and desperately needing help, and so is everyone else.
I kept reading the tract. I saw that a great Day of Judgment was coming; a Day on which God would take his seat upon his throne and books would be opened. The Lamb’s Book of Life would be among them. The little note from God made it clear to me that anyone who did not have his or her name recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life would be cast into a lake of fire and be forever punished for sin.
Revelation 20:12; 15 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done…And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
My heart was gripped and it was melting. I did not desire to face this holy Judge in my condition and I was afraid. Perhaps you are reading these words right now and you understand the fear I felt, because you are feeling it, too. If this is you, our prayer is that as you read the next section, you will be moved from fear to joy.
CHRISTIANITY PROVIDES A DEFINITIVE AND PERMANENT ANSWER
As I continued analyzing the note from God I began to sense the wonder of the gospel message inasmuch as a preteen can. Jesus Christ had come to earth, not as a mere ethical teacher to show us how to be good, but rather to pay a high and permanent price to redeem us from our badness. It was becoming clear to me that Jesus had come to repair my heart problem. He could take my evil and wicked heart and trade it for a heart of love, peace, and joy. He could take my empty and bankrupt moral account and replace it with his own righteousness.
I could not rid myself of the guilt and sin that polluted my being, but his atoning life, death, and resurrection was sufficient to get the job done! Through his loving work of cleansing my sin and repairing my heart, I found true peace with God.
Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ provided for me a personal answer to my biggest problem. As I prayed for his forgiveness that night in my bed, I was overtaken by his embrace. This is why Jesus is so enticing. He is a glorious, ever-existing, all powerful being who concerned himself with my problem and provided a definitive and permanent solution. The Maker of an uncountable billion-plus stars, in all their majestic brilliance, saw fit to reach his mighty hand into my wicked life and adopt me, wretch that I am, into his own family.
Truly the great psalmist, David, has captured in words my thoughts about the Lord’s mercy:
Psalm 8:3-4 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
Even if there were no other defenses of the Christian faith, I would still be convinced that Jesus Christ is the Savior because I can sing with personal confidence that “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” I also can sing, “I need no other argument; I need no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died and that he died for me!”
Even further (as if this could get any better), I cannot be re-lost again. The Bible makes it clear that Christ holds me, along with all his children, in his powerful hand. It is not up to me to hold myself in his hand any more than it is up to a two-month-old to hold herself in her mother’s arms. He is the Father who eternally embraces his bought and beloved children.
John 10:28-29 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
This is really good news! It means my cleansing and salvation is definitive. It is a life-change from now throughout eternity. In other words, my badness can no longer be grounds for my punishment in Hell, because I am securely hidden in Christ. He is my newfound goodness and righteousness.
What a unique idea this is, that Christ would end our suffering by entering it himself. He would remove our guilt by taking our blame. He would restore our fellowship with the Father by severing his own. He would solve the problem of humanity by the gift of divinity.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
OTHER WORLDVIEWS ARE INSUFFICIENT
After my conversion to Christ I began to notice over a period of years that other religions could not have done for me what Christ did. If I had remained in the more-or-less agnostic state I was in, I would have continued to suffer under my own shame and guilt. I don’t know how long I could have held out that way. My conscience bothered me so much that, honestly, without some form of relief, suicide would probably have been a serious option for me. But suppose I had attempted to find peace with God through some other religious framework. Think about what would have happened in the following hypothetical scenarios.
If I had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking relief for my guilty soul, I would have been taught that salvation was not an act of pure grace, but also involved my own righteous works. Former JW member Lorri MacGregor wrote about their version of salvation:
I was told [that “working out your salvation”] consisted of “publishing the good news of God’s Kingdom” by selling their publications door-to-door, attending five meetings a week, and meeting numerous other quotas.
I would have been extremely frustrated trying to please God by knocking on a certain number of doors in order to earn his favor. After all, I am bad to the core of my being. How terribly irritating it would have been for me trying to produce righteous fruits from a dead and unholy heart! There just aren’t enough doors to knock on or meetings to attend to wash away the guilty stains that tarnish the soul.
If I had joined the Mormon Church I would also have been required to perform a certain amount of good deeds in order to maintain my right standing before God. If I had joined Islam I would have been required to keep Islamic Law faithfully. These two options would have been similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses option. Frustration, frustration, frustration!
If I had fled to eastern religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, I would have been told that, contrary to what I feel and know I am not actually bad. In fact, many Eastern sects teach that all of reality is an illusion. My guru would have taught me that I need to work diligently to escape the brutal cycles of reincarnation that entrap me and then the illusion that I am bad would go away forever.
I think this type of belief system would have driven me insane! In spite of denying that evil is in my heart, I would still have felt the evil there. A person can deny they have cancer, but if they really have it, the denial is ridiculous and dangerous. Eastern religions do not fix the problem that resides in every human heart. They just simply deny that a problem exists.
Only biblical Christianity deals with my problem. It alone provides a solution to man’s deepest need and solves our biggest problem. Christ alone can reconcile God to man.
Romans 5:11 We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
I CAN BE NO OTHER
So I am a Christian first and foremost because Jesus saved me. My personal experiences of God’s grace motivate me to share Christ with others and tear down every lofty argument that is lifted up against the truth. I have experienced God personally and know his grace directly. I am convinced that there is a God, and that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Christianity is true primarily because of his act of grace upon my soul. Nothing could convince me otherwise. He made me his, and I can be no other than what I am.