This New Life

Many years ago, as a brand-new Christian, I was involved with a college ministry group known as The Navigators. One of the things they encouraged was to identify a “Life Verse” – a single verse of Scripture that would provide shape and purpose to one’s life.

Selection of the Life Verse was a matter of fervent prayer. One did not make a selection for mere fleshly reasons – because the prose was particularly mellifluous, for instance, or because it could be used to excuse a pattern of behavior that one would naturally follow anyway. The Navigators encouraged us new believers to sincerely submit this process to God and await an answer.

So I prayed, and I waited.

About four years later, I happened to think about the Life Verse again. One might say that this thought was entirely due to random synapse-firing in my brain, but Christians are trained to believe that such things occur as part of a divine purpose. Accordingly, I prayed again for a Life Verse, and immediately I found the following:

“Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.” Acts 5:20

That was not what I wanted.

With that, I closed the book on the quest for the Life Verse. At least now I had one, if anyone from the Navigators were to track me down and ask me. I could see how it could be a Life Verse for someone – St. Peter, perhaps. But I had no idea how it could possibly be MY Life Verse. This was a command from the angel who freed St. Peter from the Jerusalem prison. This was a command to evangelize, to spread the message.

Nothing could have been less in line with my introverted, analytical personality than a command to evangelize. During my Navigator days, I would frequently invent scheduling conflicts in order to avoid the dreaded “Tuesday Night Evangelism” outings. Once, to my eternal shame, I feigned illness to avoid a two-day weekend outing where the Navigators were traveling to share the gospel in the parking lots during major-league baseball games. Evangelism was not my thing at all.

During my Bleak Period (1990-93), I would still claim that Acts 5:20 was my Life Verse, but I would always qualify that statement with “but I don’t know why.” The Bleak Period was followed by the Crisis of 1994, upon which followed the Golden Age of Grace. Through timely ministry by others, through certain important books (notably Trusting God by Navigator Jerry Bridges), and through particular passages in the New Testament and the Psalms, I came to understand the power of Christ’s work in me. As a result I became a free man, freed from what I called “Post-Navigator Syndrome” — the gnawing, nagging discomfort caused by habitually thinking that my efforts have not quite measured up to God’s standard. That syndrome is toxic to the cultivation of joy; it saps the strength, dims the eyes, and cramps the mind.

(Note: One mustn’t blame the Navigators for this. Their disciplines of Scripture memorization, meditation, prayer, and regular Bible study were of tremendous benefit to me in those early days. I would recommend such a program for any new believer. But I would warn them against a religion of works.)

As the Golden Age dawned, I found myself (by coincidence) re-reading The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. I had read this book about 7-8 years earlier, just prior to the Bleak Period, and wondered at the time what it meant. A dear woman at church named Sharon (now promoted to Glory), who “got it” completely, kept explaining the meaning of the book to me. At the time I never quite got it.

This time I got it.

Brothers and sisters,  it is not exaggeration or hypersentimentalism to say that joy flooded my soul. My life became one of Christ living in me and through me, rather than weak, unreliable me trying to live for Him. It was something like (I would think) John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment:

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death… After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He ‘sent me help from his holy place.’ And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

Not only did my whole outlook change, at this point the New Testament all started coming together for me, like pieces of a puzzle. Even the Old Testament, seen in the light of this astounding new (I say “new,” because it was new to me) revelation, was clear to me. The Navigator memory verses were of great value to me at this time, because I was able to find parallels instantly, without having to research them.

Tingling, I began teaching adult Sunday School classes and discovering new truths in the New Testament every day. The old patterns of thinking were falling away: the Adamic pattern of self-reliance and self-justification and self-defense began to give way to a Christlike pattern of dependence on God, trust in my permanent redemption, and vulnerability that enabled real love. I cannot say that I have attained all this. Like Paul writing to the Philippians, I press on toward the goal. But the motivation is completely different now.

Teaching those classes became my highest joy, because I found that I could lead others along a pathway that I really believed in.

“…tell the people the full message of this new life.”

The “full message” in Greek is more accurately translated “every word.” The command, at least as it applied to me, the Life Verse seeker, was not to evangelize, but to tell people a message about the “new life” that they already possessed. Like Jesus’ command to Mary and Martha after Lazarus came out of the tomb, “Take off the grave clothes” was my mandate. The people to whom I was called have already been raised to life; my task was to unwrap from their eyes and minds the dead, smelly grave clothes – the habits and patterns of thinking that would prevent them from being truly free.

More than that, the command was to tell them “every word.” It is supposed to be a comprehensive message, not a soundbite or a quick blog post. I did not want to withhold anything that might help them; as Paul told the elders of the Ephesian church upon his farewell,

“You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house… I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.

Acts 20:20, 26-27

So many people are presumably just like me about 1993: I had heard the “full message,” but had absorbed only half of it. In his superb book Classic Christianity, Bob George entitles one of his chapters “Man Alive: The Neglected Half of the Gospel.” There is a contingent of believers who have received Christ but who have not yet comprehended real capital-G Grace. Many among this contingent, sadly, are pastors and teachers, who confirm in their flocks all the wrong thinking that they bring into churches and Bible studies each week. The lack of an understanding of “this new life” causes a terrible sclerosis in the church, as generations of new Christians become hardened in their unredeemed thought patterns.

We know from the example of Acts that it is possible for believers to have grasped only part of the message:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

Acts 19:1-2

I’m here because the whole message needs to be presented. And so, twenty-five years later, the Lord’s sense of humor shines through: I declare to you now that my Life Verse is Acts 5:20, not because I want to be an evangelist, but because my most passionate desire is to tell to Christians (and non-believers, if they’re interested) the full message, every word, of this new life.

I think that’s a ministry. I think that is a calling. So many are weary and burdened; they’ve heard the message but to them it sounds like responsibility and weight on their shoulders. Their souls need to find rest, and their churches are not providing anything that feels like rest. I want to operate a hospital for damaged souls, for bright, ambitious, self-reliant people who came to Christ expecting to use their natural energies in His service, and who have instead found nothing but the dismal days of their own “Bleak Period.”

Where do I start? A bright, ambitious, self-reliant person might make the mistake of enthusiastically plunging into some ill-advised venture. I look to God for leading, and not to my own natural inclinations and abilities:

My heart is not proud, O Lord; my eyes are not haughty,

I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me,

But I have stilled and quieted my soul…

Psalm 131:1-2

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