Reflections on the “Non-Negotiable” God of the Road to Damascus
How often do we unnecessarily add things to our list of divine “non-negotiables"—things that are not required by the God who freely welcomes us into his family as a gift of grace?
I became a Christian when I was 18, a freshman at the University of Maine. For me, my story of coming to faith was less a case of being walked through the steps of the sinner’s prayer, and more a case of being dragged through it kicking and screaming.
I was perfectly content with my life the way it was (or at least, as content as I thought a person could expect to be). I didn’t have much of an answer for the question of God, but then, it wasn’t very often in my life that I had need of such an answer.
Nevertheless, I had a couple Christian friends from high school who stubbornly evangelized me, and though I resented what I perceived to be their presumptive intrusion into what was not really any of their business (my life, namely), I was just slightly too nice to tell them to bug off.
But then, one weekend, I had what the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous refer to proverbially as “the wake-up call.” Fortunately for me, it was not as dramatic as what many AA members have experienced, but it was about as close to rock-bottom as I ever wanted to get.
Frankly, it scared me. So I did some thinking, and it wasn’t long before I recalled my two friends and their alluring talk of “the better life” God supposedly had for me. It seemed so easy. A simple prayer one night, and wake up a different man.
So I “prayed the prayer.” And absolutely nothing happened.
I was disturbed. Where were all these feelings of joy and peace that I was supposed to be awash in? Was the angel in charge of Heaven’s warm, fuzzy department on a smoke break or what?
In a genuinely surprising departure from how I typically deal with such disappointments, I didn’t give up there. Instead, I found myself conjecturing that the reason my conversion “didn’t take,” was because God didn’t want me—not after all the legitimately cruddy things I had done in my life, particularly to other people.
I had been raised Catholic, and though—on my part—it had been a fairly nominal faith affiliation that I had abandoned years before, I still knew a thing or two about confession and forgiveness, and I put all my vaguely remembered and half-baked notions to work that morning. Walking around campus that misty morning at UMaine, I talked to God and asked him to forgive me for being such a scumbag.
I ran out of sins and supposed sins after about an hour, and felt no different. My warm fuzzy meter was still on “empty.” Then I thought, “Well, talk is cheap. Maybe I need to do something.”
So I spent the next half-hour calling and emailing the people I had been the most cruddy to. I told them they didn’t deserve how I’d treated them, asked them for forgiveness, and promised to try and be a better human being.
That didn’t work either. Not to say that it wasn’t wonderfully freeing to own up to my past mistakes and be forgiven. It was. But deep, deep down, I felt no different. The rush of joy and affirmation that I’d been promised were still AWOL. The “God juice” that I’d expected still wasn’t flowing. So, I decided to call it quits and headed back to my dorm.
Honestly, I was pretty disappointed. I had sought, found nothing, and could conclude only that either there is no God, or he was not interested in me. I remember feeling a deep, unpleasant emptiness, and thinking that if God was real, I would give anything to know him.
It was then that I felt something the likes of which I’d never felt before—though I must admit it was akin to being high on drugs. I felt a light, tingly numbness in my head and extremities, and the pavement I was walking across suddenly became very far away. Most bizarrely, I felt a real, physical pressure within my chest—as though I were actually being “filled” with something—that made it hard to breathe.
The day was October 20, 2006, and it marked just the beginning, not the end, of my spiritual journey. But I learned a few things that morning that I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget: there is a God, he hears (and responds to) prayers, and I mean something to him. These became my working “non-negotiable” list of faith tenets, and I found that Christianity fit these basic criteria quite snugly.
I started attending college groups that had names like Campus Crusade for Christ and The Navigators. Those I met there took me under their wings, helped me understand that faith is more than a feeling, and that Christianity is more a daily dying to oneself than a one-time experience. For these lessons, and more, I will always be immensely grateful.
But some of my new friends also insisted that I add a few more points to my list of “non-negotiables,” some of which I agreed with eagerly, others I did not. One of the latter was that “God could not have used evolution.” I didn’t see anything offensive or fundamentally atheistic in the complex, beautiful, profound, epic, and (as far as I could tell) perfectly well-evidenced theory of evolution by common descent.
What’s more, there was nothing about my experiences on October 20 or the God I’d met that day that intimated to me that he harbored a particular abhorrence for evolution or any scientific theory.
I wonder how often we do stuff like that: add things to our list of divine “non-negotiables” that really reflect nothing of the God we experienced when he first welcomed us into his family as a free gift of grace, the God who would run toward his wayward son at the first glimpse of him on the horizon, the God who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
I daresay the Apostle Paul felt a frustration similar to mine (though I do not at all presume to possess the authority or divine inspiration he did) when he encountered Jewish Christians who were attempting to marry the gift of grace to ritual circumcision and other works of the law. In Paul’s view, the two were oil and water, Mac and Windows, completely incompatible; and he rebuked those who tried to argue otherwise, saying, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4 ESV), and “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3 ESV).
I understand that those Christians who oppose or harbor concerns about evolution and the allegorical views of Genesis primarily do so out of an abiding respect for the authority of God’s word, which is a noble aim that I would never ask anyone to abandon.
But when I was a confused, lonely teenager, looking for meaning that might be found somewhere other than the bottom of a bottle or a can, it was not a neat, tidy explanation of human origins that I needed. I needed God—plain and simple—and biological evolution was not an important part of the conversation we had that changed my life forever.
Nor do I expect that it or any other scientific matter was an essential step on many of my brothers’ and sisters’ personal roads to Damascus. No, in my experience, most Christians’ “testimonies” are much like mine: They involve a “rock-bottom” moment, and a God who was pleased to meet them there.
So, when the Holy Spirit might bless us with the opportunity to share our faith, I propose that this is the God we introduce to the world, the God who came to us when we were at our lowest, and our list of “non-negotiables” was very short.
Jesus warned his disciples that the way that leads to life is narrow, and they who find it are few. May we be careful, that we don’t make it any narrower than it already is.
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