Rather than celebrate their blessings, I have found that many people raised in Christian homes question the depth of their commitment to Christ because they don’t feel as though they ever went through a transformative conversion experience. The distinction between their old life and their new life in Christ is minimal.
In Galatians chapter 5 Paul paints a dramatic contrast between the behaviour of a pagan and the values of a Christian.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Paul personally experienced a profound transformation when he encountered the risen Jesus. He stopped persecuting Christians and actually submitted his life to the Lordship of Jesus. The transformation continued as he became a teacher in the fledgling Christian movement and was ultimately recognised as an Apostle.
During my two years as a campus minister I met several young adults from Christian families who questioned the reality of their commitment to God. They felt that because they didn’t have a spectacular conversion story that somehow God’s grace wasn’t as real in their lives. Someone caught up in a hedonistic lifestyle that meets Jesus and immediately pursues a life of simplicity and holiness obviously has a greater testimony of the power and love of God than I do, right?
This line of thought presents some serious problems.
The Bible addresses this logic in Romans 5 when Paul asks, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” Pursuing sin so that we can then experience God’s love and grace is a destructive cycle.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story often given the title The Prodigal Son. Jesus intends for us to learn from this story how much God loves us, and much he longs for sinful people to return to him. As a second point, he longs for his followers to be like the older son who remains faithful to the father.
Those who question their commitment because of an absence of a “conversion experience” in their life may not realise it, but they distort the message of this parable. They see themselves as the older brother in the story. They believe that the only way they can experience God’s love and grace is to demand their inheritance and live a life of wastefulness. Then, and only then, their father will throw them a party.
The father’s words to the older son provide the ultimate rebuttal to this faulty logic. We absolutely need to celebrate when someone turns their life around in a dramatic way. But for those of us who’ve always been “good kids” God has some special words,
“Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours.”
I’ll close with two thoughts:
First, the Christians described in Galatians 5 really did have a sensational turnaround in their lives. The Holy Spirit worked powerfully to help these people overcome the allure of sin.
In our society every Christian makes a dramatic decision. Sometimes the dramatic decision requires stopping a behaviour. For “good kids” it’s a decision to never start a set of behaviours. We all have the opportunity to be the younger son and leave for a land far away from the father. Yet some of us make the choice to never take that road. We all know friends who took that path. We have family members who woke up in a pig sty. We’ve seen people who settled for sharing food scraps with the pigs. But in the face of social expectations we made the sensational decision to trust our future to God. There’s nothing second best about that. I’ll take love and joy over hatred and rage any day of the week.
Second, churches have clearly done something wrong when our young people would rather identify with the prodigal son than the older son. When Christians believe that they need to taste death to experience living. To walk in darkness so they can appreciate light. To fall so that God will pick them up.
How do we communicate the intimacy of love, the euphoria of joy, the wholeness of peace, the virtue of patience, the value of kindness, the heart of goodness, the security of faithfulness, the safety of gentleness and the wisdom of self-control?
How do we share the fruit of the Spirit?
Why is it so difficult to convince Christian young people that “being with the Father all the time, and having everything he has” is the greatest blessing available to humanity?
Tennyson apparently said, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
God says, “It’s best to be loved and to never be lost.”
BONUS TRACK: If you’ve liked this post you might also enjoy THIS article on ChristianityToday.com.