The year is 1970. I’m an eight-year-old sitting on the couch, watching Billy Graham. It’s only a momentary curiosity before returning to toy planes and comics. Still, I wonder what attracts the people in that stadium. All the sitting and listening looks suspiciously like school, which according to my young mind could never be fun. Then something incredibly strange happens. Billy says, “Come down here to the front…hundreds of you!” And they do. I can’t figure out why. Later, I’m told these people want to go meet Jesus, which I find odd because I don’t see Him standing down there anywhere.
It took me a while to understand how stadium evangelism worked. It took me even longer to realize that a lot of the people going down to the front had already met Jesus at some other time and wanted to re-dedicate their lives. The idea of dedication, re-dedication, commitment—or whatever you happen to call it—will dominate the ongoing thought of this book.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about this subject. Some of them became downright confessional. Lapsed Christian men would tell me how they had gotten into the whole wild women, booze-hounding, and barking at the moon kind of thing. Then ashamed, they would add, “I guess I got pretty far away from it.”
I knew what they meant. “It” is code for the whole shrink-wrapped Christian life package. If folks get away from “it” they should get close to “it” again. And so they think of re-dedication as primarily getting back to church and a cleaner, better life. In effect, it’s a return to Pleasantville, where a person can hold his or her head high and feel good about the way they’re living life.
I remembered gauging my spiritual health this way. As a young, wanna-be apostle, I averaged a dozen Christian meetings a week, counting group devotional times, Bible studies, planning meetings, and large events. Plus I read twenty-five chapters of the Bible a day, all while working and going to school. Nothing short of kryptonite could have stopped me. I had “it.” And yet I was in danger of heading down a road others had already traveled with ill-effect.
In the world of score-board religious living, the Christian life can only be as glorious as you can manage to make it. Grace and forgiveness is limited because you’re not supposed to need much of it. The transformation of your soul into the image of Jesus goes only as far as your anemic will power can drive it—yes, the same will power that finds it impossible to stop eating Twinkies. If there are any rewards in this type of Christian life, they’re incredibly stunted, not to mention short-lived.
Yet even misguided progress is addictive. The Apostle Paul spoke of how he advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, being more zealous for his traditions than anyone else (Gal. 1:14). But God had to reveal that His ultimate point of orientation was not a new and improved version of ourselves, but Christ, “His Son” (Gal. 1:16). Sooner or later, all of us have to learn this. A Christian life with nothing at its center except zeal for disciplines will begin to fall under its own weight.
Before we consider the great mass of Christian interests and involvements, of churches and doctrinal disputes, of positions, and numerous small convictions, know this: Christ “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). We live unto a crucified and resurrected Person.
This simple fact shapes everything else you might do as a Christian. Why do I pray? So I can commune with the Person I live for. Why do I read the Bible? Because without it, I will not accurately encounter the Person I live for. Why do I share the gospel with others? The Person I live for feels it is important to reach others and I want to be involved with Him as He does it. Why even bother with the church? Because the Person I live for calls the church His household of faith and wants His children to relate together with each other as well as to Him.
You can get everything right—prayer, works, Bible, church, outreach—but unplug your consciousness of the Person of Christ, and everything dehydrates. A believer’s life will turn into a dry flower arrangement—pretty, in a desiccated sort of way, but void of life juice. Without Christ, there is no Christian life, only a moral, ethical, principled, cultural, religious lifestyle.
In fact, the largest factor determining what kind of spiritual trajectory you will have lies in whether you tend to Christ as a Person or Christ as a lifestyle. This bearing will shape your joy and sense of wonder. It will deeply influence your feeling of accountability, the way you deal with sufferings, how you view sacrifice, and even what type of legacy you’ll leave. A lot rides on which way you bend.
“Sure,” you say. “Of course. You’re preaching to the choir here.” And yet the choir is sometimes the hardest audience to reach…
(To Be Continued in Introduction part 2)