It has been said that if a man talks to God, he’s pious, but if God talks to him, he’s schizophrenic. If that is true, it bodes ill for me, but I suppose I’ll have to let you judge for yourselves. As described in the first part of my story, though I was raised in the church, it was a long time before I was willing to admit that fact to my (mostly non-Christian) friends. When I finally did so, in ninth grade, it was revolutionary. Of course, simple honesty with oneself and one’s acquaintances accounts for much of the change, and would likely have done so regardless of what religion (or lack thereof) I had finally admitted.
But the change went deeper than that, as I stopped looking for my identity and validation in what others thought of me, stopped worrying (as much!) about being well-liked or popular. Ironically, the very act of deciding to care more about my relationship with God than my relationship with others in fact improved my relationships with others as well. As it turned out, not only did my relationships deepen but, quite unexpectedly, I found that my two circles of friends (“church” and “school”) begin to coalesce in a way I could not have thought possible.
But I also found, not for the last time, that God was not satisfied to improve my lot in life; he wanted to improve me. It wasn’t long after that I first became aware of God’s promptings, his “still small voice” (as it has been called), which rather insistently began to demand that I live my life better than I had been doing. It is difficult to describe this “voice,” and those who have not experienced it will be forgiven for finding the notion strange, if not absurd, but it will become central to my story so I must try to explain it. In truth, it’s not really a “voice,” at least not an audible one, but neither is it simply an amorphous “feeling.” As I said in my review of The Shack, the closest thing I could compare it to would be the conscience, but it is distinct from the conscience, and not quite the same.
While the conscience will leave you feeling guilty about certain moral choices (real or potential), God’s promptings are deeper and feel, for lack of a better word, more foreign. The conscience is, after all, just another part of your own mind, and expresses values you already hold, even if you would prefer not to at the moment. The voice of God is like having another mind altogether, simultaneously more elusive and more persistent than the conscience. As I said before, it is not (at least in my experience) a source of information so much as of direction, and it isn’t always limited to strictly moral choices. I’m certain I’ve done a poor job of explaining it, but hopefully the rest of my story itself will clarify what I mean.
In any case, in this subtle but unmistakable way, God began helping me to recognize a few of my worse qualities and begin to move beyond them. For instance, I had a very short temper and could sometimes get violent over very minor things (just ask my younger brothers), and this was one of the first things that God began working on. I came to recognize that television, film and video games were particular problems for me in this area. I would become inexplicably enraged playing even the most innocuous video games (I was a sore loser, I guess), and watched some extremely violent movies.
Looking back, I can see that the problem wasn’t always the shows or games themselves, but simply my own immaturity, but in order to recognize that I had to get away from them for a while, and one of the first things God convicted me of was to take a break from them. And for nearly a year I did so, and apart from a few weak moments, I didn’t watch or play any of them. This made a huge difference, beginning me on the path that has led to my current mellow self. Heh. Other issues God took up were my pride and vanity, odd though they might seem for a geeky teenager, and a perennial struggle with lust (made worse, no doubt, by the nudity in some of those movies I had been watching).
But while feeling pressed for moral progress is one, and perhaps the most important, aspect of intimacy with God (I said his voice is very like the conscience), it is not the only one. The summer after ninth grade was a particular turning point for me on that score. My youth pastor had started a program called Summer Servants, which was essentially an extension of small group I had been attending, except that it ran all day, every day, for eight weeks. Only five of us were crazy enough to sign up, but that summer changed all of our lives. There is much that I could say about it—how I made some of the deepest friendships I’ve ever had, experienced for the first time how overwhelming an experience prayer and worship can be, and faced my first serious challenge to my faith, among others—but I’ll limit myself to one point:
I’ve said that before I became serious about my faith the only thing I wanted was to be popular, but that isn’t exactly true. There was one thing my teenaged self wanted more: to have a girlfriend. As I was a shy and unattractive pre-teen (or do them call them “tweens” these days?), you wont be shocked to hear that my one relationship during that time consisted almost entirely of passing notes. The one time I worked up the nerve to call, her dad answered the phone, told me it was too late to be calling—it was 8pm—and hung up on me. Finally, I asked her (by note) to a dance, at which we stood ten feet apart and said not a word. A week later, a mutual friend informed me that we had broken up. The only reason I’d even call it “dating” is because it led to a fistfight with her next boyfriend (there was that temper I mentioned), but it sapped any nerve I had to ask another girl out.
Despite that utter failure (or perhaps because of it), however, dating became my dearest wish. Thus, even after I gave up to God my desire to be popular, it took until that summer for God to convince me to give up my obsession with finding a girlfriend. Though no one, that I can recall, ever suggested such a thing to me, it became clearer and clearer that God wanted me to give up dating. Not just to stop worrying so much about it, mind you, but to consciously choose not to date. You might think that a kid who hadn’t managed to ask a girl out since the sixth grade wouldn’t have been too opposed to the idea of giving up for a while, but you would be wrong. The fact that it seemed an unattainable goal only made it harder to give it up, and I fought God on it all summer. Slowly but surely the feeling built that this was what God wanted me to do, but just as steadily my own resistance to the idea grew as well.
By the end of the summer things came to a head. It seemed like every time I opened my Bible I’d stumble on some text like Matthew 19 or 1 Corinthians 7. At one point I even went cliff-diving with the youth group, decided to try a swan dive and instead landed, well in a very uncomfortable position, and got to spend the whole bus-ride home listening to my friends chanting the Beatles’ song Yesterday, especially the line: “suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be.” I actually became quite distressed about the whole affair, as I continued to hold on to what I thought I wanted most, but God was very persistent, and finally, the last week of Summer Servants, I gave in and handed that area of my life over as well.
Once again, and quite immediately, it was startling how freeing it was to let go of the issue. The funny thing was (God’s sense of humor?), just as I decided to give up dating was when I finally got a new hair cut, grew into my feet, and (if I’d have known it), actually did have the chance to go out with the girl I liked. But I stuck with my decision and soon discovered just how valuable refusing to date could be. While all my friends were coupling off, I was able to maintain much closer relationships with our female friends than any of my other guy friends did (the girls called me “as good as gay,” which I guess was a compliment). Freed of sexual tension, some of my best friends during that period were female, and we were able to talk with remarkable candor. Yet the greatest benefit I found was in avoiding the pain caused as my friends who dated inevitably broke up, usually on bad terms, causing divisions and rivalries among their own circles of acquaintances. For those of my friends who had gone further, sexually, this naturally led to worse grief, including at least one pregnancy, and I was spared all of that.
The truth is, God knew exactly what he was doing when he called me not to date, and the next couple years were among the best of my life. I generally found that I knew what it was God wanted of me, though I didn’t always succeed in doing it, but as often as I obeyed things worked out better than they would have otherwise. Yet the most significant examples of this pattern will have to wait for the next installment.
Continued in Part III