So, when I left off last I was 16 years old. I was a Christian, but I was definitely not living a life of relationship with Christ. My thoughts about God were that He was in control, but He must not have much interest in my life.
At sixteen my church split. It was a pretty ugly one, and the result was a lot of people going different directions. I was one of them. For the next 4-5 years, I bounced back and forth between two churches. I knew I needed to be in church, but I didn’t feel at home there anymore. Too much had changed. I had seen the ugly underbelly of a legalistic religious system, and I became very skeptical. Could I trust a Pastor again? I wasn’t sure.
Over that time frame I saw things that only kept me in turmoil as the leadership in each church turned over. Things were said, people were hurt, attendance ebbed and flowed, and I was still very confused. I could not settle into either church and felt like a perpetual visitor. I still was a member of my little church where I grew up, but I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I enjoyed the other church more, but felt like I couldn’t trust it. If I did, what would happen?
After Tammi and I were married we kind of settled into the routine of going to church where she had attended through her teen years. I said we got into the routine, and that was pretty much what it was. Just a routine. We kept hearing much of the same old story of how we needed to do this to gain God’s favor. Avoid that or we would bring down God’s wrath. Lots of rules, but not a lot of understanding what being a Christian meant.
As time continued to pass, we were blessed with a couple of kids. We got into the habit of taking the weekends for ourselves. We went to church more when we felt like it, and that became less and less. Eventually we realized that we were barely attending at all, and that bothered us because we wanted our kids to grow up to know Christ. I think God started tapping our shoulders around that time and we decided that we needed to look somewhere outside our community for a church.
After talking to some people and looking around we settled on a church in Traverse City that had a Pastor who had been there for many years. We figured if he had been there a long time that had to say something, so we decided to give it a try. We were very glad we did.
Over the next few years we were challenged to change much of how we thought about God. We started to hear a little bit more about how God’s grace is for living, and not just for salvation. We started to understand that while we should obey God as believers, He is not taken by surprise when we sin, and He is standing there ready to forgive and welcome us back.
It was a great time for healing in our lives as we began to make friends, enjoy church for the teaching as well as the people, and I was finally able to feel like God did want to be a part of my life. I had a hunger to serve. I had a hunger to learn!
Our kids were growing, as they are prone to do, and we had them enrolled in the Christian school in Traverse City. The financial strain of the commute every day for school combined with the time we spent on the road every week brought us to a point where we felt we needed to make a decision again. We wanted to be more involved in church, but we felt that the distance was making it too difficult. After a lot of talk, we decided that we needed to go back to our previous church and get involved there. We were very unhappy to leave, but felt that it was our best opportunity to serve God. After all, what good is a Christian who is not serving?
Looking back on that decision, I am not sure we made the right one at the time. I believe God redeemed that decision, but I know that we did not make the decision with Him. I do not remember ever praying about it. It was a time and money decision that I made and covered it up by saying that I was going to put myself in a position to serve God better. That would make Him happy, right? I still had a very strong performance-based outlook on my standing with God.
When we got back in our old church, we got involved – deeply. We were there for every service, event, whatever was going on. We sang, played music, worked in AWANA, and anything else that came along. We made friends and felt like it was a good place to be.
As time continued to pass, I ended up in leadership at the church. I still wonder why that happened, but I think that God had a plan to use it down the road. While I was a deacon, I began to see things in a different light. I noticed that I was getting very critical of those who were not serving in the church. I began to resent people who did not step up and “do their part.” I was not alone in this thinking, and it was never hard to find someone else who felt the same way.
I started to judge people’s spiritual maturity based on how many ministries they worked in. Seemed like a reasonable yardstick to use. That was how I had been raised, so it felt very normal to use that yardstick for those around me. Measure with it, and then smack those not performing to standard with it! “Rod of correction”, right?
This was serving to do one thing. I started becoming bitter. There really wasn’t any benefit in what I was doing. I was just getting more and more bitter toward people, the church, and even toward God. I kept a lot of that inside, but I know that it was leaking out as the number of friends we had began to decline, and I take the blame for that.
Right around this time I was asked to take on another ministry. Of course, I did it. I didn’t want to do it, but I was asked by my Pastor, and I was raised to do what the Pastor says. I think back now and I don’t think he was actually trying to force me to do this. I think that this was God at work. I was not doing a very good job in coming around to where God wanted me, so God used my ingrained training to get to me. Kind of like He was saying, “Well, Tom isn’t talking to me or reading his Bible. I guess if I can get the Pastor to ask him to do this, He might pay attention.”
So, I began to teach an adult Sunday School class. I was terrified for two reasons. The first was that I was afraid to get up in front of people and talk. The second was that I had been told through the years that the role of teaching God’s Word brought a level of responsibility on the teacher that was very heavy. It was nothing to take lightly.
I didn’t. I attacked it. For the first time in my life I was in my Bible regularly. I began to learn more than I ever had before. I know I was learning more than the people I was teaching! The books that I used for my class material started to make me look at things differently, and I started to experience something that I had never really felt before. Spiritual conflict.
I’d like to say it was growth, but it was conflict. I was a believer, but I was not serving God. I was a Christian, but my desires took precedence over God’s. My comfort, my standing, my glory, my opinions – these were my gods. The time I was spending in study was putting me in a position that brought me face to face with the facts. The facts being that I needed to make some changes. The changes that I needed to make started causing some conflict with people as I became hungry for change that others were not looking for.
I wish I could say that I handled that conflict well. I didn’t. I hurt people with my words and my attitude. I kept trying to do more in hopes that I could get people to see what I was seeing, but all it did was take me to a breaking point.
Until this point in my life I had never put a ton of thought into spiritual warfare – the demonic realm that works on our hearts in hopes of stalling our growth. I had read Peretti’s books and thought they were great stories. I believed in angels and demons, but I never thought they were really interested in me. Well, about this time I started having dreams that made me wake up sweating and scared, but I could not remember them. I was not sleeping much because I actually reached the point where I was afraid to sleep.
One night I had a particularly bad dream. I was in a dark place and was being chased by a horde of demons. I had my family with me and I was trying to keep the demons from them. I did everything I could do to fight them off and keep them from my family. Then I realized that the demons wanted me. The only way I could keep them from my family would be to give up. My hope was that if I just gave in, my family could get away and I would be the only one to fall. What a lie that would have been!
Well, in my dream I told them to run, and I stopped and turned around. I remember vividly how I curled into a ball as they began to bite, scratch and claw at me; tearing me to shreds. I was about to give up entirely when Tammi woke me up. She said I had been moaning, crying, and shaking in my sleep and I woke her up. Needless to say, we were pretty shaken up about it.
The next night a good friend of ours on the mission field “just happened” to call me. Amazing how God’s timing is always so perfect. He asked me how I was, and I just spilled it. Everything. He listened to me, asked a couple of questions, and then gave me the strangest piece of advice I had ever heard. “You need to back out of everything. Take one ministry and stay in that, but give up everything else.” I thought he was crazy!
How can I stop doing all these things for God? What will He think of me? What will the church think of me? Does he know what I am doing? Well, I sat down and counted up the different ministries I worked in on a regular basis, and the count was 18. I looked at them all and decided that I would drop half. That seemed to be a reasonable thing to do. I was afraid that God would be very upset if I did less than that.
Well, He was not upset. I know I felt better. I started to see some balance in my life again. I started to enjoy more of the things that I did do even if I didn’t enjoy all of them. I wish I could say that it was received well by others, but the most important thing was that I was sleeping at night, and I was still learning. I was learning to understand a truth that my friend told me the night of that “coincidental” phone call. “God is much more interested in people doing things with Him than for Him.”
Necessary change was taking place, and there would be more to come…