I have been wrestling with this question for some time with regard to my church, and had been planning a more ferociously ‘academic’ blog post on this subject. But as a theologian, the ‘academic’ is so natural sometimes. God has done a powerful work in me to bring me to the place where the ‘homiletic’ is just as important.
Put another way, heavy academic discourse is all well and good. But spiritual exhortation takes many forms, and cannot always be couched in dry language.
Which is why, when a friend posted this question on Facebook recently, a lightbulb went on in my head.
I’ll speak for myself. Growing up in a house with parents who were a) very serious indeed about Biblical Christianity; b) in science/medical/nursing professions, I was treated to a much better range of reasons for the positive truth about God than so many people have received. But it is safe to say that despite the genuineness of my childhood baptism, there was a much deeper level of conversion that I would later attain to – and that would in fact propel me into ministry.
It was a terrible moment reading A.W. Tozer’s God’s Pursuit of Man (something everyone ought to read at least twice) and realising – as if for the first time (but it wasn’t) – that human reason was not given to us as a means of knowing God.
In 2011 I remember reading Bonhoeffer on a beautiful summer day – saying that pastors and theologians needed to remember that Bible study and theological endeavour was not a substitute for personal prayer and devotional Bible reading. The Holy Spirit had already brought me to that conclusion, but it was still a shot in the arm.
Perhaps neither of these two reading moments was as life-changing as the multi-tiered anecdote I will now share.
I was reading a very interesting devotional book – the title grabbed me. I have to confess that I had a concern about how kosher it might be, but I quashed it and headed for the till. It was on sale, and my rational tendencies were firing, “read it first, then take it from there.” And this is because I am surrounded by folk whose rational output – well – the less said, the better.
At a certain point the author(s) decided to quote Descartes:
“…the contemplation of the idea of God is the source of greatest happiness in life.”
THIS really shook me up. Because for some time previously I had been teaching the concept that many Christians worship God-as-idea, not God-as-reality! “God” is accepted and then discussed as nothing more than a notional entity, but they believe that they believe in a real (ontologically-extant) God! On top of that, Tozer’s other writings had helped me grow in my understanding of the enormous challenges our modern (and now post – postmodern) world poses to true conversion, but to see Descartes ‘outed’ (or so I thought) as a thinker who was more comfortable with the idea of God than the reality of God was literally like a body blow. I saw myself in that. I realised for the first time that I had failed to emotionally connect to the truth that there were times in my life when God was more easily served as an idea than as the true and living God.
God did want for me to have that experience, but there is a real ‘sting in the tail’ of this tale. For in the moment of reading the Descartes quote, I questioned my own conversion. And that was a bad time – but a very important time. I got worried and in fact you could say that I became depressed. Serious times.
It would be a long time before I found out that there were some massive problems with the way in which the quote was used. How could I have forgotten Descartes’ contributions to what we call the ‘ontological argument for the proof of God’s existence?’ I’ll not in any way digress, but suffice it to say that if I’d thought about this more carefully at the time, I would have had to go and check Descartes’ Discourse on Method for myself before going any further.
I do not intend to start getting into the nitty-gritty, but I do want to say that Descartes really did believe in a real and actual God. Not just the idea.
And in a very weird, but wonderful way, God used the time of massive self-doubt and turmoil to show me that the ‘proof’ of my conversion was not something that I could ever ‘know’ in the way that I can know that 2+2=4. I was converted. I am converted. Most likely you may never know how much it means to me to be able to write these words – and for this reason, I desire to serve God ever-more faithfully.
So here’s where this is going: every single Christian needs to ask themselves this question every once in a while. If you’re not familiar with Hebrews 6:-4-6, then now would be a good time to do something about that. A person CAN in fact lose their salvation. But if you never had salvation, you still have everything to gain.
Matthew 18:3 is another very powerful text in which ‘conversion’ is mentioned. This, however, is a problem: what exactly IS conversion, though? And that specific question will have to wait for another post. But for now, for those who know the word and have an understanding of what it means – this question is for you.