My Testimony - A Grace Story

Note: This article is a work in progress. Particularly in the later sections of this story, I plan to expound on some of the specific experiences through which God has revealed Himself to me, as well as add a few bible references and other resources. If you have questions or want to chat about any part of my story, please get in touch.


tes·ti·mo·ny

NOUN

  • A formal written or spoken statement, especially one given in a court of law.
  • Evidence or proof provided by the existence or appearance of something.
  • A public recounting of a religious conversion or experience.

Grace

NOUN

  • The unmerited favor of God

I can remember in detail the evening that I sat down and prayed the five-year-old version of what is commonly known as “The Sinner’s Prayer.” It was May 6th, 1998. I was attending the weekly AWANA Cubbies program at my family’s church, First Bible Baptist Church in Greece, NY. We had finished our lesson and were settling in for perhaps the most highly anticipated event of the evening: snack time! It was a large group of preschool kids, and we were all sitting at those short little preschool kids’ tables waiting anxiously for our portions of animal crackers. They were the extra tasty kind that night, the kind with frosting on them! I was sitting by myself, not secluded but not actively engaged with anyone either.

At that age, I was a relatively solitary child, for a few reasons. I was not particularly shy, and had no real problem talking to other kids, but was not very inclined to making real “friends.” Though I wasn’t entirely aware of it until years later, I was often not very pleasant, and an insufferable know-it-all. In general, it took more patience to get along with me than could have been expected from my young peers. At that age, however, I usually felt content in my relative solitude, because I also tended to get caught up in my head anyway. My brain was always teeming with thoughts, both imaginative and analytical.

I was not (nor am I now) a genius by any measure, but my cognitive development was significantly ahead of the average timeline in proportion to my age. In addition to Sunday school and programs like AWANA, my parents often allowed me to be a part of adult conversations and gatherings. I was able to comprehend much of what speakers taught in the adult church services I attended. My mother also started homeschooling me when I was two. Alongside phonics, reading, interpreting the weather and telling time, she made sure bible stories and doctrinal foundations were integral to her curriculum. All these factors together led to me having a higher level of knowledge and understanding of the core gospel message than you might expect from a 5-year-old. I am far from unique in that respect (and I think a lot of 5-year-olds could use more credit), but I think it is important to qualify this story with that bit of background.

Because my parents and other adults in the church had told them to me, I knew about the Bible's teachings. I knew about God. I knew that He is all-powerful, that He created the earth and all living things. I knew that His first humans disobeyed, which was called sin, and they were no longer allowed to walk with God in the garden He made for them. I knew that as a result their descendants were born into a curse, which broke their relationship with God and with the earth. I was told these things, and I believed them.

There was one truth I believed, but not just because people told me. It was for a reason much more profound than that. I understood it because I knew by experience that it was true. The truth is that every person is born with a desire to sin, and even if they try as hard as they can to fight that desire, everyone ends up succumbing anyway. I understood that personally. I can remember having disobedient and mischievous proclivities from a very young age. I also remember finding that I was consistently unable, despite my most earnest attempts, to act according to my noble intentions. I still did things I knew I shouldn’t do and didn’t do things I knew I should do.

Such helplessness and hopelessness would all be a rather dismal situation if it weren’t for the final truth, the “good news.” God knew people would not succeed at being sinless on their own. They needed help, and because God is full of love, He had a plan to save them. He made an incredible sacrifice by sending His son Jesus to live as a human. Jesus taught us about God and His law, then allowed himself to be killed on a cross to pay for the sins of the whole world. That act of love balanced the scales of justice and opened the door for people to walk with God again. Then, Jesus came back from the grave and appeared to His followers to say goodbye before going back to heaven. Finally, He sent His Spirit to continue guiding and empowering all those who follow Him. All we need to do is believe and accept this incredible gift, and we can be saved from our sin. Jesus allows us to have an eternal relationship with our creator, instead of being forever separated from Him by our sin.

All this brings us back to that short little preschoolers’ table, where I sat waiting for my animal crackers, silently pondering and simmering in thoughts. I had heard the long and the short of the gospel message from various perspectives. I knew the message of “salvation” was usually being directed over my head, to the much older people surrounding me. Nevertheless, that evening one phrase kept echoing in my head. I had heard speakers say “It’s never too early or too late” to respond to the good news. I heard this said to adults, but figured “never too early,” if taken literally, must apply to me, too! I thought to myself “Well, I keep hearing about how people need to pray about getting saved, and of course I’ve been planning on doing that myself when I get older, but why should I wait any longer? It’s never too early! I might as well do it now! After all, nobody knows how long they’ll live; I could die tonight!” (Yes, I thought about my mortality when I was five). So, there at the table, I put my head down and blocked out the rest of the world with my arms wrapped around my face. I don’t remember my exact prayer, but it was something like this:

“God, I hope it’s ok to be praying this now, but I figured why not? I know I’m a sinner. I do bad stuff, and that makes you sad, I’m sorry. Thank you for sacrificing your son Jesus for me, I know you didn’t have to do that. Please save me, Jesus, and come live in my heart. I know you don’t move into my heart, like, literally, but please just do whatever it is you do for your spirit to live inside of me. I want to make God happy, and I can’t do it on my own. Oh, and I believe in you. Amen.”

I think when I was finishing up my prayer someone asked if I was alright, at which point I felt a little embarrassed because I was hoping I had been more discreet with my prayer. Of course, I was fine and enjoyed the rest of snack time.

What happened that night? Did I suddenly become a flawlessly obedient, respectful son or a paragon of an older brother? Not by a long shot. However, two things unquestionably did happen.

First, I believe my eternal fate was sealed. God chose to set me apart for His purposes and drew me to Him. That prayer was my response to His initiation of a two-way relationship. I knew from then on that I was redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, and forgiven for all my past, present and future sin. I believed in God’s promise to establish an everlasting relationship with me that nothing can ever break.

Secondly, God’s Spirit did begin working to transform my heart. His work has been a continual transformation and molding since then. Twenty years later, I can see all too clearly that there is still much work to be done. Along the way, I have exhibited varying levels of submission and receptiveness to His formative work. There were a few especially developmental events and seasons of life in which I can see (especially in hindsight) God shaping me.

One overarching instrument God used in my life from the beginning was that of my parents. I am thankful to have grown up under the excellent model of my devoted, patient, and loving parents. They, while of course not perfect, were faithful to pass on their knowledge of the one father who is perfect, reflecting Him as much as they could. Parenting is one of the most critical and impactful tools God uses in shaping young people. My first-hand experience has taught me how valuable that can be. Though my relationship with them is much different as an adult, I still much admire and value them as role models, learning from them to this day.

A couple of years after my snack-time prayer, I realized I should obey Jesus’ instruction for believers to be baptized after professing their faith. I was baptized at that same church, First Bible Baptist Church, by a pastor I had come to know and love. It was a little scary, the church was large (at least several hundreds of people at the time), and I had to stand in front of everybody, affirming my belief in Jesus! Regardless, I recognized the importance of that act of obedience. Jesus does not want His followers to be secretive about their faith; He wants them to proclaim it publicly.

When I was ten years old, I started feeling like I was still missing something. I knew God had saved me, and I had followed through with baptism. I just wasn’t sure what to do next, especially since I was just a kid! I knew a lot about God and the Bible. I knew I should spend time reading His word and praying. Still, I sensed that there was a step in my faith that I had not yet taken. I remember having a conversation with my mom, telling her about this feeling I had. She then asked me “have you ever told God that you want to submit your whole life to Him?” I wasn’t sure if I had or not. She explained how it is one thing to believe in God, but it is a step further to submit and dedicate your entire life to Him. I had heard this before, but for the first time, the weight of its meaning sunk in heavier the more I thought about it. I realized that, while knowing it was the right thing to do, I hadn’t fully acknowledged to God my desire for Him to take complete authority in my life. It was not a decision to be taken lightly, and it honestly scared me a little bit to think what God might do to me if I told Him “I’m all yours!” Nevertheless, I trusted that His plan would be the best possible plan. I prayed and told God I wanted to surrender my life and my will to His control. I asked Him to shape and mold me into whatever kind of person would bring Him the most glory.

When I got older, my faith began to grow and take new roots. While I was young, mine was merely an offshoot of my parents’. That is a beautiful start but cannot stand on its own in the long run. In middle and high school (still being homeschooled), my mother knew it was vital for us to learn how to think critically, gain understanding, and form conclusions on our own. That became an underlying focus in my academics, as well as my faith. I was encouraged to ask challenging questions and consider all the potential answers. I even explored the other major religions (including atheism), testing them and my own against reason and logic. I thought long and hard, not just about what I believed, but why. As a result, I began to grow roots of my own.

As I finished high school, I was feeling drawn to attend a secular college and had no real intentions of going to a “Christian” college. One day, I realized I hadn’t spent any time asking God where HE wanted me to go. I don’t think I even wanted to know. Still, I decided to sit down and pray about it for a while one afternoon. I had scarcely even begun praying when I got the answer, clear and frank. Of course, it was a Christian college that I never thought I would attend. I decided to ignore that answer for a while and still applied to some other schools thinking maybe God would change His mind, or that I had misunderstood His response. Eventually, I realized that was ridiculous and ended up going where He led me.

In college, my experience was somewhat two-sided. On the one hand, I was surrounded by some awesome people, dedicated to helping other students and me grow in our faith. I received some excellent academic training in core classes on scripture, theology, and philosophy. On the other hand, I often felt surrounded by superficiality and hypocrisy. At times I felt embarrassed to be associated with the Christian community at large. I developed some convictions and opinions that were not received well, and in the meantime, I got tired of trying to live the way God wanted me to. I was frustrated with God. I did not want to fight to do the right thing. I wanted God to make it easier for me to serve Him. “Why does it have to feel so difficult?” I asked. Stagnation was so much easier. It was more fun to do things that felt good instead of doing things I knew to be good. It was not a mindset of rebellion by any means, but it was a mindset of toxic apathy.

God was patient with me during that time and was waiting, ready for when I decided to start listening again. My academic and personal life had followed the slippery decline of my spiritual life. I finally realized that I was a mess when left to my own devices. I saw that I had become calloused to the presence of God in my life.

It was in that season I started having some conversations with a pastor in the church my parents were attending (they had moved around a lot since the beginning of this story). I explained my position. In my head, I completely believed the foundational doctrines of Christianity. But it stopped there. Though deep down somewhere the desire existed, I had lost any motivation to follow Jesus in practical terms. I found my beliefs (in my head) were in fact quite in line with the pastor’s, and we saw eye-to-eye on a broad range of topics. I appreciated this relationship God had put in my life, and sincerely valued the handful of meetings we had while I was still in college. During one of those meetings, He gave me a suggestion I’ll never forget. He asked me to pray for just one thing in the subsequent few weeks: that God would allow me to experience His presence. I gladly and fervently followed through with that prayer with an open heart. God, in turn, graciously responded. I started discovering and rediscovering the nature of God through everyday experiences. Gradually, He renewed my desire to follow Him.

I finished school with fresh zeal, and God continued to reveal Himself in profound ways to me during my last year. My parents moved again, but God led me to return to the North Country. I became a member of North Country Fellowship Church and wanted to get involved in any way I could. When the need arose, I started helping set up the sound system and mix the audio during the service. They announced some small groups were meeting during the week, and I got connected with one led by a young married couple in their home. When the church needed help leading the high school youth group, I, though barely older than a high schooler myself, signed up for the task.

Over the next few years, my relationship with God continued to mature, though still through periods of “ups and downs.” My continued connection to NCF has been a catalyst for a lot of learning and growth, and I am thankful to be still involved in several ministries in the church. I look forward to seeing God’s work continue in my life, my community, and North Country Fellowship Church.