Wisdom From a Prodigal: A Story of Grace
I grew up in church all my life. In fact, growing up as a pastor’s kid (or “PK” as church folks say), the only thing I ever really knew was church. My entire world was shaped by the beliefs I grew up with. When it came time for me to attend college, my parents picked a local college that they had both attended. Their thinking was that I could go to college, live at home, continue coming to church, and that would keep me safe from any wrong influences (drinking, drugs, etc.). Everything started out fine. I enjoyed school, work, and church. However, I made one crucial mistake right off the bat. I didn’t set out to get to know other faith-filled Christians on campus. I say faith-filled because the reality is that many young people in America say they’re Christians just because their parents are or because they go to church occasionally. The people you have to get to know are people who have a relationship with Christ and who are maintaining that relationship every day in their daily walk with God. So that was my first big mistake. I didn’t get to know other Christians my age, especially Christians from conservative, faith-filled, Bible-believing homes. Second, I didn’t enjoy my first major. I originally picked business and I was making good grades but I thought the classes were boring. In contrast, I was enjoying my introductory liberal arts classes, so I began to think about switching my major. Eventually, I decided upon double majoring in English and Religion. The latter was the problem. At the college I attended, saying the Religion department was liberal would be an understatement. The department had some great professors who were genuine people, even from semi-conservative backgrounds. It also had some professors who seemed to take joy in tearing apart the beliefs of students. Had I known this at the outset I would have made a different decision.
We are all influenced—rightly or wrongly, for better or worse—by what we listen to and read. Listen to and read thing the right things and you will be influenced positively. Listen to and read the wrong things and you will be influenced negatively. It is that simple.
This is why over the years, when young people from the church move off and go to college, it is so important that they find a Bible-believing church to attend on a regular basis. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by God’s Word. I don’t care how strong you think you are spiritually! If you stop hearing the Word, it is only a matter of time until you drift away.
In the Religion department, it wasn’t all bad. I learned some good things and did have some good teachers. For instance, my Greek professor was one of the most kind and humble men I have ever met. It was obvious his faith was genuine and that was reflected in his class and teaching. He never sought to tear down or damage faith. If anything, he sought to help us, as students, better understand the central texts behind our faith. I learned information that I still rely on today, whether in seminary or in the preparation of sermons from the New Testament.
There were other teachers though that sought to tear down the traditional beliefs and values of conservative Christian students (and I was one of them). Some even seemed to take joy in it. I eventually became a student assistant and I remember hearing professors joke and laugh about how a student had become confused or was beginning to reject their beliefs. To this day, I still remember a class in which a woman professor literally screamed and ranted, pounding the table (in a room of about 8 students), verbally ripping to shreds a young Presbyterian girl who had made the mistake of referring to her Calvinist theology. I am not a Calvinist, but I was literally flabbergasted—floored—when a teacher who professed openness, tolerance, and respecting every view and opinion, no matter how absurd, literally lashed out verbally and emotionally at a student with whom she disagreed. What’s interesting is that student who received a verbal lashing is a strong Christian woman today who has a family and is pursuing her purpose by serving in the ministry. She and her husband currently serve as missionaries, bettering the lives of others, leading people to faith in Christ. And that young woman is happy. That teacher? One of the unhappiest, most miserable people I have ever met. That speaks volumes!
And that is the irony and hypocrisy of liberal academia. They profess and champion openness and tolerance except about beliefs they disagree with. They profess and champion openness and tolerance to literally bully students into agreeing with them. But, then, if a student holds a differing point of view, especially a conservative point of view? Then, you are ignorant, stupid, and unintellectual. So much for openness and tolerance!
In classes where teachers sought to tear down and demolish traditional beliefs and values, the reading selection was completely liberal, radically so. Rarely was a book from a conservative perspective used, and when they were used they were often books that were so poorly written they offered a mere caricature of the conservative perspective being attacked. For instance, the only time spirit-filled, Charismatic Christianity was talked about was in the context of poison drinking, snake handling, back woods Christianity. Any religion scholar worth his or weight would recognize that when you consider any religious group you have to consider more than the extreme fringes.
As a religion major, I read authors such as Elaine Pagels, Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Robert Funk, and Don Cuppitt, amongst others. These were all books written from a certain perspective that sought to deconstruct traditional beliefs and values. I wasn’t changed or influenced over night but I was over time. Why? Because faith comes by hearing but so does unbelief. I was at church for every service, but most of the time I was volunteering, so I wasn’t really listening—hearing—my father’s sermons. So as each week went by, instead of filling my heart and spirit with faith, my heart and mind was filled with doubt. The truth is we become what we consume. It doesn’t happen over night but it does happen over time.
As time passed, I drew further and further away from God. I became unhappier and unhappier as I was being taught to question, criticize, deconstruct, and literally reject everything I had been taught to know.
Had I been in an environment where I had been honestly instructed and encouraged to read both liberal and conservative authors, I think the result would have been entirely different. I would have been able to consider the issues and choose. Instead, I was led down a path, a WRONG path.
Over time, I continued being in church to help out, but I stopped listening to the sermons. I stopped worshipping. In my mind, I believe I was literally on the precipice. My life was filled with unbelief.
Looking back, I now know it was the grace and goodness of God that brought me back from that state of unbelief. He is merciful and His mercies are new every morning!
During this time, I know my parents were frustrated with me. Occasionally, we got into arguments. My father is a man who has no problem expressing his opinion or perspective but instead of lashing out at me for pulling away, my parents simply loved me more. They continue to love and encourage me, and they continued to pray for me.
I know my mom would occasionally look at the books I was reading or the papers I was writing, and would break down into tears crying. I know that she (and my father) spent many nights praying for me all night long, praying that I would not be lost. Spiritually, I was backslidden; the danger was if I rejected the faith and rejected God.
My parents understood and knew that my life and soul were at stake, but I didn’t.
In 1 John, John writes about the importance of believers praying for one other when they are tempted and drawn into sin. Prayer works and praying for one another is much more effective than talking or gossiping about each other. I am sure that when I was in this state of confusion and unbelief (my “religion” phase as my father likes to call it) that there were people who talked about it and talked bad about me. But I am thankful that the majority of the people who knew me and knew me at church kept loving me, supporting me, and praying for me anyway. I know I hurt people with my attitude and unbelief—even my parents—but the majority of people kept loving me anyway. That’s grace! Even though I wasn’t really sure if I believed in who I was, I know there were people around me who did.
The prayers of my parents were answered in 2004. When I graduated from college, my father told me they would take me on a vacation anywhere I wanted. Most college kids would pick the beach. Instead, I picked an academic conference in Europe. (That’s how arrogant and snobby I had become!) Why my dad would offer to do this when I had such a negative, bad, critical attitude is something I will never understand. I had heard about a conference in Rome where N.T. Wright would be lecturing. N.T. Wright is perhaps the most prolific and intelligent conservative Christian scholar in the world today. At the time, I simply knew he was a New Testament scholar who had written extensively on Jesus and the Gospels. I had never read his works though. Why? Because his writings absolutely demolish the false, anachronistic arguments of the liberal authors I mentioned earlier.
When we arrived in Rome for the conference, in my intellectual pride and arrogance I had the attitude that I would go learn, while the rest of my family would go “vacation.” Yet in my pride, God’s grace shone through. There in that conference, in a single week, N.T. Wright undid all of the false teaching I had learned in the Religion department. There in Rome, I met a man who was far more gifted, smart, and intelligent than any professor I had had back at home in Texas. He began his lecture by talking about how on the plane trip to the conference he had been reading his Greek New Testament, when a man next to him asked him about what he was reading. He didn’t attempt to wow the main with his smarts. No, he shared the Gospel and led that man to faith in Jesus Christ. There in Rome, I encountered a man—a pastor, an intellectual, a professor—who believed in God.
The Bible tells us that God guides our steps. And sometimes I wonder and ask God why he sent me on a path that brought me to the precipice of unbelief only to be brought back again. I have struggled with that question for years. There are days when I wish I could go back in time and undo the college I went to and undo the books I read and the papers I wrote. I am both embarrassed and ashamed. Even though God has forgiven me and remembers my sins no more, I remember and the enemy often reminds me. How I have asked for God’s forgiveness and repented! But now I understand why that was my path. Because of what I went through and experienced, I can now help and guide young people from our church and school who will face the very same things. I also now understand the power of grace, love, and mercy in a way that I wouldn’t have understood it otherwise. I am in church today doing what I was called by God to do because people—including my parents—kept loving me and praying for me even when I didn’t deserve it. That’s grace. They didn’t reject me or toss me aside. They kept loving me and praying for me and that made all the difference.
There is a war going on in our culture. And there is a spiritual war going on. The stake? Literally, the souls of our young people. What have we accomplished if our children abandon faith in God?
Never before has traditional Christianity and its moral values been so under attack. Often, we kindly emphasize how important it is that young people be in a college environment where faith and moral values will be encouraged and not torn apart.
So based on my experience in college, this is what I would suggest to Christian young people.
- Don’t just pick a college that offers your area of study; pick a college in a town that has a great church that you can get rooted and established in. A great church is not just any church. A great church is a church that believes the Bible and actually teaches the Bible, including what the Bible says about morality.
- Don’t be a lone wolf. Don’t just show up for class. You have to get to know people of like-mind and faith. There is negative peer pressure, but there is also positive peer pressure. You want to build positive peer pressure in your life.
- Attend church at least twice per week. For single, college-age students, there really is no excuse for not attending and helping out in church twice a week. Even taking classes and working, it is possible.
- Don’t just attend church…VOLUNTEER. Get plugged in and involved. Become a part of the church.
- Make Christian friends you can trust and talk to.
- Make Christian friends who are older and more mature than you that you can rely on and ask questions. (The Christian life without discipleship is not the Christian life.)
- Just because a college has “Christian” in the name doesn’t mean there’s anything Christian about.
- Discipline yourself to read your Bible and pray every day. When you don’t pray and read your Bible every day, you will eventually drift away from God. It’s just a matter of time.
I know that sometimes people say or think of my father, “Why does pastor say that?” or “Why does pastor talk about that?” or “Why does pastor emphasizing taking action or making the right decisions?” My father’s heart is 3 John 2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” He teaches us to live the life—to fully commit to living the Christian life—because he understands and knows that it is the path that leads to well-being in every area of life. When we do our own thing, when we disobey God, and when we live with our own wisdom, not God’s, that is the path that leads to heartache, trouble, and destruction. My father preaches the way he does because he loves the people of God and he doesn’t want to see anyone messed up in any area of life (spiritually, in our relationships, homes, physically, financially). Every week he preaches hoping to spare us trouble. Yet, over the years, even when people have ignored and disregarded my father—myself included—I have never seen anyone treat people with as much grace and love as my father. He always welcomes the prodigals home. If anyone believes in new beginnings and fresh starts, it’s my father. Maybe you’ve messed up and don’t feel like you can come home. I want you to know you can. We will love you and help you get back on the right road. How can I say that? Because that is what I have personally experienced at Faith Christian Center. When I stumbled, when I fell, my father was there for me. He picked me back up and taught me how to walk again, how to walk by faith again. And that is what he has been doing for 40 years—teaching people—me included—how to walk by faith.
Today, I am thankful for God’s grace and goodness. I understand what it means to be a prodigal. And I understand what it means to be loved and welcomed back home. This is my story. This is my witness.
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