It has now been almost 36 years that I’ve been serving in vocational ministry. Along the journey, I’ve learned not just a few lessons. How I wish I could have known 36 years ago what I know now! I would have done so many things differently.
Thankfully, one thing I’ve learned is that God is in the redemption business. He can use even our mistakes to produce something good. Perhaps this series of e-teachings will serve that purpose to some degree, if I can help others—who have begun their journey more recently than me—to avoid the mistakes I’ve made.
This series might also help some of my longtime readers to understand that I may not be as sanctified as my P.R. team would like them to believe! (And I know that I always seem to get a lift when I read about the mistakes of others, because it makes me realize that I’m not alone!)
And please don’t misunderstand me. I’m quite sure I still have much to learn. Something that John Wesley once said resonates within me:
When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me.
When we stop learning, we stop making progress. But learning requires humility, because it demands acknowledgement of ignorance. Sometimes it demands even an admission of being deceived. Thus, “with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2).
A Little Personal History
Although I was raised in a Presbyterian home, and although my family attended church every Sunday, no one in my family was born again. If any of our Presbyterian pastors over the years ever preached the gospel, we somehow missed it.
And as a child, I was certainly no saint. Here’s my first confession: In elementary school, one of my close friends and I started a “pen stealing club.” We competed to see who could steal the most and the nicest pens from our classmates. We’d lift them right off their desks when they were distracted, or steal them out of their desks when they were absent. I can still remember teachers announcing to our classes, “Has anyone seen Jonny’s pen anywhere? He’s apparently lost it,” knowing that I had just put Jonny’s pen in my pocket. I kept my stash of stolen pens in a box in my school locker, and later brought them home to hide the evidence.
In that same elementary school, I can remember being disciplined by the librarian for being disrespectful and disruptive. In front of the entire class, he made me hold my hands to the back of a chair, and he whacked my rear end with a yard stick. When he did, the yard stick broke in half at about the 18-inch mark, and I started laughing, which made the librarian even less pleased with me. I distinctly remember him asking if I wanted a second whack with the now-shorter yard stick, and I had the sense to sober up and tell him “no.”
My father, a respected teacher in the same school district, was called in to speak with the school principal. After that, I received a long talk and a spanking from him, and I promised to reform. But I’ve never told my dad about my pen-stealing club to this day. In fact, there are a lot of things my parents never knew that I did. My companion in crime and I also foolishly experimented with making Malotov cocktails (bombs made of bottles filled with gasoline). And with other neighborhood friends, I stole, stored and regularly viewed pornographic magazines that we discovered in a shed built in the woods by some teenage boys. (This was in an era before porn was available on TV, and the internet didn’t exist, if you can imagine that.)
There is more I could confess about my pre-Christ years, and as embarrassed as I am about what I’ve already mentioned, there are other things, more embarrassing things, that I can’t bring myself to confess. I only wanted to establish the fact that I was a sinner, and I knew I was a sinner. I felt guilty, just like everyone does when they sin. At times I stopped certain practices. But I never consciously submitted to God from my heart, or made it my foremost goal to please Him.
A Shot at Atheism
In my early teens I became an atheist for a short time, “because of all the evil in the world,” I told myself, but actually because of my desire to continue sinning and assuage my guilt. I soon had to acknowledge, however, that being an atheist requires too much faith. When you place the evidence for atheism on one side of the balance, and the evidence against atheism on the other side, the latter exponentially outweighs the former. So I started a search to find God.
Assuming that I had already experienced all that Christianity had to offer as a Presbyterian since childhood, I decided to investigate other popular religions. Surely someone in human history had found God. So I went to the local library’s religious section where I could alphabetically scan what the world had to offer. I consequently became a Buddhist for a few weeks, and I followed up on that with trying to levitate my soul out of my body through transcendental meditation, which was popular in the 1970s. I succeeded to the degree that I could fool myself into thinking I was floating above my body. But it occurred to me that occasionally fooling yourself into thinking you are floating above your body is quite pointless and has no application to real life.
Not too long afterwards I picked up the Bible I had received when I was “confirmed” in my Presbyterian church, and I started reading the Gospel of Matthew. Prior to that, I had very little knowledge of Jesus as the Bible reveals Him. But as I continued reading His story in the four Gospels, it was evident from the nature of the narratives that it was either all tall tales and myths, or it was historically true. And if it was historically true, then I had a decision to make. I had to decide whether or not I was going to start living to please and obey Jesus, the resurrected Son of God before whom I would one day stand to give an account of my life.
It was also obvious to me that if the stories were just myths, they were very cruel myths. In fact, they were the cruelest myths ever penned, because they were written as if they were true, and as if one’s eternal destiny depended on whether or not one believed them and patterned his life accordingly, going against the tide of the entire world.
Believing these myths could be very costly. One’s own family and friends might become enemies. One could no longer spend all one’s money on oneself, continuing to ignore the plight of the poor. One had to suppress his or her sinful desires and forsake the pursuit of one’s former self-centered agenda. As I continued reading in the book of Acts, I realized that believing the stories about Jesus could cost me my life.
In the end, I realized that I didn’t have enough faith to believe that the stories of Jesus were myths. Believing they were myths required a willful decision to ignore facts. And the more I researched the evidence for the historical accuracy of the four Gospels, the more convinced I became that they were accurate. So I surrendered to the truth. I decided to follow Jesus, to be ready to stand before Him one day. It only made sense.
Loving the Darkness
Looking back at my life before Christ, I can better understand John 3:19:
This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
The reason I suppressed—for so long—the obvious truth that was revealed through my conscience, creation, and the person Jesus, was because I preferred evil over good. I wanted to live for myself. And this is how it is for every person who continues to live unsubmitted to God. The only way for anyone to continue in evil is if they continue to believe lies, which requires that they continually suppress the obvious truth.
It is probably the world’s greatest irony that non-believers look at believers as if they are crazy. The people who live in the darkness smugly believe they are living in the light, while thinking that those who are actually in the light are in the darkness! They are like drowning people who are mocking those of us who are safely sitting in life boats. “YOU FOOLS!” they shout at us, as they gasp and fight to keep their heads above the water.
But I’ve digressed a little.
Once I decided to follow Jesus, I knew that something had happened to me on the inside. But I didn’t know enough about the Bible to know that I had been spiritually born again or that the Holy Spirit was now living inside me. I didn’t know if there was anyone else in the entire world who had experienced what I had experienced. I remember trying to explain to one of my high school teachers what had happened to me, and I told her that I was a “deep person” and everyone else seemed “shallow.”
Eventually I discovered some high school classmates like me, and I started attending a weeknight Bible study with them, taught by a seminary student. Unfortunately, rather than teach us—all baby Christians—about the fundamentals of living for Jesus, he taught us what he was learning at seminary, which was the five points of Calvinism. His teaching confused me, as it clearly portrayed God as being unjust and unloving, the very opposite of what God expects of us, and the antithesis of how Jesus was portrayed in the Gospels I had been reading.
I wasn’t equipped to debate with a seminary student who had his list of proof texts supplied by his seminary professor. But that incident helped me to quickly understand that it was possible to extract just about any kind of theology one wanted from the Bible by simply elevating some verses and ignoring others. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that all theological errors under the banner of Christianity are the result of not harmonizing all 31,000 of the Bible’s verses. And I’ve since written on numerous biblical subjects in hopes of bringing some balance to common theological errors, including Calvinism, doing my best to consider all that Scripture says on any single subject.
The Second Greatest Spiritual Experience of My Life
In my senior year of high school, I experienced what I consider to be the second greatest spiritual experience of my life. I was invited by a friend from the Bible study to visit an Assembly of God church with her that was right down the road from my family’s Presbyterian church. I had watched it grow from a small church to a large church over the years as we passed it each Sunday morning, and I had also listened to the pastor, a man from Wales, whose Sunday sermons were broadcast live on a local radio station. My friend told me that people in the church “spoke in tongues,” something I knew nothing about. I told her I would be interested in joining her to visit and see for myself. (Since I’m making confessions, I should also admit that I was interested in her as well…)
The Sunday night that we attended, the church was full, with hundreds of people. The worship was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my Presbyterian church. They didn’t have a pipe organ, but rather many instruments, along with an enthusiastic choir, some of whom raised their hands at times during the singing. I wondered if they were feeling some sort of power coming down through their arms!
Near the end of worship, between songs, a man in the congregation spoke out loudly in a foreign language. Then someone else spoke in English, and it was obvious that that person was speaking a message as if it was directly from God. It was electrifying to think that God was speaking through someone, right then, with a special message for the gathered congregation. I later learned from my friend that the English speaker was, by a gift from God, interpreting what had been said by the other person who spoke in a foreign language, also by a gift from God. I had no idea why God didn’t just skip the first step and go straight to English!
I can’t remember anything that the English interpreter said, but I do remember that it sounded a lot like what I had been reading in the Bible.
When I went home that night, I looked up a few scripture verses that my friend had given to me about speaking in tongues. Even as a baby Christian, it was obvious to me that speaking in tongues was biblical, and I’m glad I didn’t consult with theologians who would have us believe that it ceased with the apostles. The next Sunday night, I was back at that Assembly of God church.
At the end of the service, pastor Owen gave an invitation for anyone who wanted to receive the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t sure what he was offering, but I walked down the long aisle to the front where I stood by myself, feeling very self-conscious. He asked some of the church members to take me to a room off to the side to pray for me to “receive the baptism.”
Surrounded by Pentecostals
I soon found myself sitting in a circle with some middle-age men and women. One of them asked me some questions about my faith, and I asked him some questions about what they were going to do to me! I soon began to realize that they were not only going to pray for me to receive the Holy Spirit, but that they were expecting that I would start speaking in tongues. A big surprise to me!
They led me in a prayer that I repeated, asking God to baptize me in His Holy Spirit. Then all of them started speaking out loud in foreign languages! As I listened to them, I could tell they were not just speaking gibberish by their own efforts, but actual languages. All of them were different. But I did not speak in tongues.
After a minute or so, they stopped, and I was told that the Holy Spirit would not force me to speak in tongues, but that I would need to open my mouth by faith and start speaking by faith. Then they all started praying again in their foreign languages.
I observed that speaking in tongues was something they could start doing and stop doing at will, so it was obvious that if I was going to speak in tongues like them, it would involve a conscious decision on my part. So I opened my mouth, started moving my mouth and making a little sound with my vocal chords. As soon as I did, I felt my mouth wanted to form syllables that made no sense to me. Within seconds, I was fluently speaking in a language that was obviously Asian, which I continued speaking for several minutes along with everyone else, who were all rejoicing over what had happened to me.
The church service was over when we all returned to the sanctuary, but there were lots of people standing around talking, including the pastor, to whom my prayer team reported that I had “received the baptism,” to which he said, “Praise the Lord!” I had never heard a pastor use those words before!
I floated home that night and could hardly sleep for excitement over what had happened to me. Perhaps the most significant part was that I was beginning to understand that the miracles I had been reading about in the book of Acts were obviously not just for the first Christians. The Holy Spirit was still doing the same things!
Since that day, I have spoken in tongues thousands of times, and on three special occasions, Japanese-speaking people have told me that they have heard me speaking in Japanese, saying things like, “You are so good!,” and “Thank You very much!”, and “Come quickly, come quickly; I am waiting!” So whenever I hear a cessationist claim that all of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and miracles ended with the original apostles, I tell them they arrived a little too late to convince me.
So I will conclude this month with this third confession: I speak in tongues. That doesn’t mean I think I’m superior to anyone else, or that Christians who don’t speak in other tongues don’t have the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean that gifts of the Spirit are more important than the fruit of the Spirit. That doesn’t mean that speaking in tongues is required of people who work at Heaven’s Family or that we only work with or assist Christians in poor nations who speak in tongues. (We even work with and serve Calvinists!) And that doesn’t mean that I jump over pews, swing from church chandeliers, handle snakes, or preach that God wants everyone to be filthy rich.
Jesus said that believers would speak in tongues (Mark 16:15-18). All of His apostles, with the exception of Judas, spoke in tongues (Acts 2:1-11). Paul spoke in tongues (1 Cor. 14:18). Other Christians in the early church spoke in tongues (Acts 10:44-46; 19:1-6). It is biblical. And because it is biblical, millions upon millions of Christians around the world today speak in tongues.
Yet this confession will undoubtedly result in some folks ending their support of Heaven’s Family. If you are one of them, you might also consider tossing out the New Testament, because most of its human authors spoke in tongues! Please, I beg you, don’t be offended at me if you’ve been abused in the past by some charismatic fruitless fruitcake! We all know what Paul wrote about people who speak in tongues but who don’t have love.
If you are interested in learning more about what the Bible teaches about speaking in tongues, I’ve written about it here. I love to pray in tongues. Even though I don’t know what I’m saying, knowing that the Holy Spirit is helping me pray convinces me that I must be praying prayers that are pleasing to God. And that feels good!
Next month…more shocking confessions!