Keith, as I have watched you from a distance for the past twenty-five years, you have not been a Christian who just made up his mind to be a Christian and just relax and be one. You seem to keep wrestling with the faith as if it is a continuous process after you are saved (or accepted by God). Why would you have to struggle with faith problems when you’ve been saved?
That’s a good question. It implies to me that you (or people you know) see Christianity as a transaction between God and a person like joining the YMCA or signing up as a Democrat or Republican. Once you’re in, you’re in. Of course you may have to pay dues, but the decisions are over once you’ve made the choice to join.
But for me, a serious relationship with God is more like a marriage than joining something. A marriage involves an initial commitment, but if one has a real marriage there is a commitment to ongoing communication and growth as the relationship deepens. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how the life of faith has gone for me.
When I was a little my mother told me that God is real and taught me to pray. I continued to “say my prayers” at night, and prayed for help when I felt vulnerable or like I might fail or not get what I wanted.
Then by the time I was twelve or thirteen I decided that “God is real”—not symbolic like Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. So when asked to, I stood with a bunch of other young people in front of the huge congregation at Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa and “said the words” that the Methodist church had for a commitment to Christ. I was doing what I had been told was the next right step. And according to the Church, I was officially saved and going to heaven. And I am not doubting the validity of the churches confirmation rite. But for me, inside my mind, I was to experience a lot about which I hadn’t been told.
That was when puberty hit. I began having two kinds of consciousness. I had my usual mind that dealt with schoolwork and how to be better at sports, etc. But when I was tempted to do things I was pretty sure God wouldn’t encourage us to do (like masturbate, think about girls and sex, etc.) I stepped out of the “God room” in my mind and into an empty windowless film room. Having a secret space to go where God was not invited didn’t seem like that big a deal for a long time since I’d never been told that God would “get me” if I wasn’t good.
Then life brought devastating situations that I could not change or make sense of by myself. My only brother was killed in WWII. A few years later I walked beside Dad as his damaged heart weakened, then killed him. I sat with Mother (taking the night shift in the hospital) a few short years later as cancer took her life, an inch at a time.
I began to ask questions I’d never asked, like “What is death?” and “Why do people hurt and kill each other?” I read serious books about what it might mean really to know God and learn how life was designed to be lived—since I believed he was its creator. I knew that I didn’t know God as I knew other people.
I had married a beautiful and very intelligent young woman. We were in love and I went to work to start fulfilling the American dream of raising a family and “becoming successful.” But when my mother was dying I realized that life wasn’t what I’d thought it would be. And then one day on a roadside in a car I had a deep intuitive knowing that I needed to surrender my whole life to God, and that he would guide me into the truth about life.
When I started to live out my commitment (to this God Jesus called Father) in every area of my life, I began to write books about the journey. The books succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I studied theology and then psychology, writing and lecturing in many places across the world about what I was discovering. Before I knew it, I had been given more affirmation and success than I could ever have predicted.
The experiences about which I’ve written might be seen by some people as struggling with faith. But to me it as been more like a struggle between myself and God over who would be in charge of my life.
Sometimes I wish it were as easy as I’ve heard people say it is for them—easy just to surrender, keep out of the driver’s seat of my own life and allow God to be in control all the time. It has not been so for me. At each stage of my learning, I was being asked to face personal issues that came up. I would pray and finally realize that I was putting something ahead of God. And after much prayer and counsel, I would see what I needed to give to God, finally surrender that and have a new burst of freedom.
Somewhere along the way—after some years of notoriety and the deference that comes with it—life lost its joy, and I was bewildered. I became aware of “something” about myself that was totally resistant to surrendering to God. I didn’t learn exactly what it was for years. But I was baffled at the uneasiness and frustration I was experiencing—while living a life of effectiveness and glamor caring for many people everywhere I went. I was really confused, but could not see what the matter with me was.
People close to me sensed that somewhere very deep in my life I was not the unselfish person whom people seemed to experience in relating to me. (The person whom I consciously was much of the time.)
Eventually a little beer or wine morphed into a lot of Scotch whiskey. Even several years of prayer and psychological and spiritual counseling did not uncover what the problem was. My behavior deteriorated and I acted out some of my fear and frustration in very self-centered and immoral behavior leading to a divorce and to the crash of the great life and work I’d been given to do.
Finally my misery led me to a treatment center where I learned that the thing I would not surrender to God was so deep and so well defended that I’d even repressed it from my own sight and sincerely thought God was driving my life. I came to the place where I saw no other way, no other solution than to agree to surrender whatever it was that I was hiding, if God would show it to me, as frightening as that prospect was. And at last I saw that it was my self-centered need to be in charge of my life and to make sure that I could get my own gigantic need for love and attention met. Facing and surrendering that was the most frightening experience of my life. I felt that if I surrendered my future, I might be nothing. (I have described the experience in a book.) The morning after facing my deep self-centeredness and my unconscious need to control even God, I realized that the self-centeredness and need to control had been my underlying denied problem all my life.
So the answer to your question, “Why have I continued to struggle with God and faith if I were truly saved or converted when I first committed my whole life to God” is this: In my conscious experience I gave all of my life I could see to as much of God as I could understand, asking him to show me what to do. And as God began to shed light on what I might do for him, that same light revealed things I needed to surrender in order for me to be able to do what he gave me to do. My struggle has been to recognize, confess, and be willing to give up each character defect he showed me—and then ask God for the power and the courage to live and love people, trusting Him with the outcome of my efforts.
Twenty-six years ago I began a new adventure of faith by seeing and confessing my deepest sin of wanting to control my destiny. On the new adventure, I have been learning more about how to think about other people and their adventure and to help those who are seeking to find the dreams God has put in their lives—and to help some of them accomplish those dreams.
I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.
– Galatians 5:4, The Message
Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others. You’re fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you’re not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe—some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them—then you know that you’re out of line. If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong.
– Romans 14:22, The Message
The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him [or her]. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you.
– Galatians 3:11, The Message
Lord, thank you that you have been so loving and patient with me as I have struggled to see not only your will for my life, but also as I have struggled to learn to live each day asking what your priorities are for me today, right now. And thank you that my job is not to try to change other people—especially family members—but just to love them as you have loved me. In Jesus’ name, amen.