Friday, September 10, 2010

The Wind Blows on the Road to Damascus and the Road to the Zoo

I was very pleased to get some feedback to one of my previous posts, Reasonable Faith, from a commenter named Steve. His comments were honest, thoughtful and thought provoking. You may read Steve's comments in their entirety by clicking on the hyperlink, but here is a snippet.

That you opened this blog entry with a discussion of Paul fits very well with a long standing notion that I have had about what it might take to convert me to Christianity…. [An] experience akin to what Saul/Paul had on the road to Damascus might be sufficient to provide the impetus to convert me and cause me to begin to evangelize. If I had a personal encounter with Jesus as Saul/Paul did, I might change my name from Steve to Pteve and go out to tell the world of what I had experienced. It would appear that Saul/Paul did not come to Christianity by the use of thought and reason, but rather by a spiritually overwhelming and even physically altering (loss of eyesight) experience that was entirely unsolicited but evidently radically transformative. Am I less deserving than Saul/Paul? Who knows? But I can say in all honesty that after many hours of prayer, meditation, and "opening" myself to the presence of God that absolutely nothing of His presence has been made known to me. After many hours of reading and contemplating the Bible, I have not had one iota of insight afforded me that might begin to compel me to believe in Jehovah or Jesus.

How is it that people come to faith? How is it that some do and some don’t? It does not seem that there are particular demographics that are necessarily more prone to faith. Educated or uneducated, rich or poor, sophisticated or unsophisticated, each group has within its ranks people who accept and embrace the Gospel, and people who don’t. Why?

In the case of Saul of Tarsus, he was obviously a very learned man, but also a zealous man who had faith in the God of his fathers. Yet his knowledge was limited to a paradigm that did not have room for a flesh and blood Messiah who claimed to be God. To him, this was utter blasphemy. Worse still, it was scandalous and preposterous to him that the long awaited Messiah would be subject to a shameful death on a cross. On the contrary, he knew that “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse.” (Deuteronomy 21:23)  But with all his learning, there were some fundamental things that Paul did not know, and his zealous faith was misguided. He apparently required a major course correction and paradigm shift that could only be achieved by his dramatic experience on the road to Damascus.

But this is not necessarily the case. One does not have to look too hard to find testimonies of hardened criminals, zealous atheists, strung out drug addicts, proud and self sufficient people who are full of themselves, etc. etc. --- whatever fits your stereotype of people who would require a lightning bolt conversion--who will tell you that they came to their senses in the quiet of their room, when the light suddenly turned on and they realized their sinful condition and need for a Savior, and they repented and believed.

I think of my favorite ex-atheist, C.S. Lewis. Like Paul, he was a very learned man, an Oxford professor, well versed in literatures and ancient mythologies. For most of his adult life, he viewed the Scriptures as just another myth or fable. To be sure, there were those who persistently tried to convince him otherwise, including his brother, as well as his friend J.R.R. Tolkein. Yet while their arguments no doubt had some influence on him, he had to undergo his own conversion experience, not on the road to Damascus, but in his case, on the way to the zoo. He described his experience in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion.... It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.  [quote obtained from]

My own experience is altogether different. I was raised as a nominal Catholic. I had my first communion when I was six or seven, went to CCD classes, and somehow managed to convince the priest to allow me to go through confirmation, despite the fact that I missed most of the classes. As a teenager I rejected Catholicism not because I was rejecting the claims of Jesus, but because I considered myself anti-clerical. I went around telling people (presumptuously) that I was a Christian, meaning that I did not consider myself a Catholic. I just believed in Jesus, or so I thought. Truth be told, my beliefs (whatever they were) did not have any discernable effect on my life.

I don’t think I came to genuine faith until my junior year in college, and even now I am not sure if it happened precisely then. I had somehow managed to weather the typical halfway-through-college identity crisis in which I dropped most of my courses and almost lost my footing. That tumultuous semester was already over, and I was back to carrying 19 credits and doing well in my classes. Life was good again.

One Friday evening, my roommate and I were rewarding our hard work and disciplined studies throughout the week by relaxing with a modest amount of alcoholic beverage. I had just finished pouring a glass of Scotch and ginger ale when there was a knock on the door, and someone whom I considered a “Bible thumper” showed up to ruin my evening.

I stepped out into the hall to politely listen to what he had to say. I am not even sure I remember the thread of conversation, but I do remember finding myself intellectually cornered. The conversation was something to the effect of, “If ‘A’ is true and ‘B’ is true, it is inevitable that you must do ‘C’,” with “C” being that I should submit my life to Jesus. I remember praying a prayer and, to be honest, I was probably squirming throughout. Maybe I was just repeating some words so this guy would leave me alone and go away. After he left, I went back to my room and enjoyed my glass of Scotch and soda.

If my testimony had ended right there, people would rightfully question its genuineness and sincerity. However, the next day while I went for a walk, I thought about the previous evening. The thought that kept going through my head was, “I guess if I have prayed to receive Jesus, life isn’t going to be the same anymore.”

And indeed it wasn’t. In the following months and years and ever since, the reality of Jesus has shaped my life, my decisions, and my raison d’etre. It has also been a bit of a roller coaster ride. There have been times when I have doubted my salvation (especially given some of the bone headed and sinful things that I have done even as a Christian) but have then been reassured by the fact that I always find myself being drawn back to Jesus. There have been times when I have been keenly aware of the presence and activity of God in my life, and there have been other periods of time when He seems noticeably absent or distant, in another universe. Yet through it all, He has preserved me and kept His hand on me, in great ways and small.

So my conversion is not altogether dramatic, but I am nonetheless convinced it is real. I am still not sure exactly how and when it happened, but am convinced that it did. The only common thread between my conversion and that of Saul of Tarsus, C.S. Lewis, and others is the activity of God. When Jesus explained to Nicodemus about being “born again,” He said,

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

Conversions might be accompanied by intellectual reason and they might not. They might involve emotion and they might not. They might even involve lightning bolts. Or they might occur in the quiet of a room, where people realize for the first time what they kind of knew all along, that Jesus, the perfect and sinless Son of God, suffered and died the death we deserve, to pay for our sins, and rose from the dead.


Tracy said...

Your questions

"How is it that people come to faith? How is it that some do and some don’t?"

are interesting ones. When I read something like what Steve is quoted as saying here; I find myself wondering how come God didn't make Himself known to Steve. But there's always so much we don't know.

All I know is that the Holy Spirit brings people to God. God gives us the faith to be able to believe in Him (Eph 2:8-9). It isn't a duplicate experience for everyone; most likely because we're all different.

Oh yeah, and I also know that I'm sure grateful that God in His mercy and grace saved me and continues to work in my life.

JD Curtis said...

It looks like you put some effort into this post MDC and your reply is honest and well thought out.

I only wonder if Steve would like to offer up this thoughts on your post.