What is the Secret to Real Joy?
My heart felt like it would explode with joy this past weekend. First, I got to hold my new granddaughter born just a week ago. Second I graduated with my Doctor of Ministry in spiritual formation and leadership from Epic Bible College and Graduate School. This was the fulfillment of a dream I have had most of my life. The third was a real surprise. This is me and my friend David at my graduation. We have not seen each other in about 42 years. It was 45 years ago that David led me to Jesus Christ, and I became a Christian. This completely changed my life. I would not be the person I am today if not for that moment 45 years ago.
My family growing up was not Christian. I was rough and tumble and loved to fight. I drank a lot of alcohol as a teenager and was headed down a very dark path. My family moved from Oregon to California when I was a young teen, and because of my size and height, I quickly became a bully. I was rebelling hard. We lived a couple of miles from my school, and I had to walk to school every day. A new family moved into my neighborhood, and that is when I met David. Being a bully, I can remember punching him in the gut when he annoyed me. But over time, we started walking to school together and became friends.
David began inviting me to church and his youth group. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to church, and I did my best to corrupt David. Every time he would invite me to church, I would make up an excuse why I couldn’t go, and then start cursing and talking about how immorality was such fun. A turning point came one day when I got into a fight and blacked out. I was so furious; I didn’t know what I was doing. A school bell rang snapping me out of my blind rage, and I found myself on top of my rival with intentions to do him bodily harm. This really scared me. I had never lost control in a fight like that before. My Dad had talked about having rage moments, where he would be so angry he would black out with rage, but this was the first time I had ever experienced it.
Shortly after I lost control in a schoolyard brawl, I started thinking about telling David yes the next time he asked me to go to church. I had run out of excuses for not going to church with him. Sometime later he asked me to go again, and I found myself visiting his church. It was OK. There were some other teens from my school, which surprised me. And the youth group was kind of fun. Something began to stir down in my heart and spirit.
When we went to church, we sat in the back pew. They sang old hymns and then the pastor got up to speak. The pastor actually held my attention at least partially. Towards the end, he began talking about what it means to be a Christian. He told us we were all sinners and deserved to go to Hell. He didn’t have to tell me I was a sinner. I was rotten to the core, and I knew it. He then started talking about the love of God, and how Jesus Christ loved me so much he was willing to go to the cross to die in my place. This struck me hard. He recited John 3:16 which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish but have everlasting life.” I don’t know if I had ever heard that before, but hearing it this time moved me. I knew I wanted the forgiveness of God. I knew I wanted a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The next thing that happened was the pastor asked anyone who wanted to become a Christian to get out of their pew and make their way down to the front. There was absolutely no way I was going to do that. I was “white knuckling” the pew I was sitting in. But the next thing I knew, I was standing up and walking up to meet the pastor. The Holy Spirit was moving so strongly on me, I knew it was time to stop fighting and come to Christ.
The pastor asked me to go to a back room with the youth pastor Jess, and he explained in more detail about what it meant to become a Christian and start a relationship with Jesus Christ. I knew I wanted this, and he had me say a prayer, confessing my sin, acknowledging the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and asking him to save me. I knew something happened. An immediate change began in me. Not everything went at once, but over time a lot of stuff started falling off. I got rid of my pornography collection and stopped drinking alcohol. My choice of language started changing, and I began to give up the filthy jokes I used to tell. It took time, but God began changing my heart.
Spiritual transformation began all those years ago with a decision to accept the offer of Christ of salvation and a relationship. That decision has influenced every decision I have made since then. (My newest grandbaby is one result) God began to change me. Romans 12:1-2 (MSG) tells us, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
The spiritual formation of the heart begins to take place as we make being a disciple of Jesus Christ a priority. God used my friend David to introduce me to Jesus Christ, but I had to decide whether I would serve God or serve myself. God’s grace, his unearned, and unmerited favor saved me. He immediately began a work in me. C.S. Lewis talked about how Christians like to play it safe with God. He challenges us to take the risk and serve the Lord unconditionally and give Him our all. He said, in The Weight of Glory:
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
I challenge you to take a risk with God. Give yourself fully to him. Don’t hold anything back. Commit to serving him with all of your heart, learn more about spiritual formation, and see how God changes you and gives you joy like you have never experienced before.