New Year's Testimony
2002 in Review and Philippians 3 for 2003
I've made it to the beginning of yet another year. As always, it's time to reflect on the previous 365 days, and more importantly, on the year to come. Thank God for new beginnings.
Last year around this time I wrote a New Year's testimony at the direction of my University Bible Fellowship (UBF) "shepherd." UBF is the organization in which I participated for about two years. Back in Summer 2000, God decided the time was right for me to be drawn closer to Him. He sought me out via a Korean man named Work Hard Yoon, who invited me to study the Bible. Mr. Yoon was a pretty good and patient teacher, but now I realize that it was the Holy Spirit who was really doing the teaching. "Seek and you will find," says Matthew 7:7, and when I opened the Bible and made a serious effort to seek God, I found Him. God used a UBF missionary to reach out to me initially, but He spoke to my heart through His Word. This immersion in the Bible eventually enabled God to use me to encourage my family during my grandmother's funeral in April.
Anyway, that was my situation at the beginning of 2002 - growing as a Christian, but also quite committed to an organization. That's where the trouble began. The longer I spent in UBF, the more responsibility I gained and the more was "asked" of me. Although I learned a lot from the Bible during this period, the increased demands on my time from UBF activities (early morning prayer, conferences, music practices, etc.) put a strain on my school work. In my last school term at Waterloo, taking courses such as Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity, I really needed to study hard. This was it! I could not afford to blow it. But man, was I petrified of doing just that.
Other things occupied my time as well. My band, Phlak, was really taking off, and we were playing a lot of concerts, especially in March. These provided possibly the best experiences of the whole year, and certainly helped to keep me sane. Then, there was Chantelle, my girlfriend since November. To be honest, I adored her. I liked her so much I wrote a song for her, something I'd earlier sworn off doing (Drew and I know that women rarely appreciate such a thing). Chantelle appreciated it though. She bore with my constant need to write Bible testimonies and even came to church with me. I have many very wonderful memories from our time together, and have found myself thinking about them of late. Finally, my housemates filled the remainder of my free time with lots of games, beer, coke and just hanging out. I suppose I did some sleeping in there too.
Of course, this life could not hold itself together. I want to tell about what happened to my relationship with Chantelle, because it completely relates to where I am now in my faith. As I participated more in UBF, Work Hard wanted to give me more responsibilities, as I have said. I had also mentioned to him my desire to be baptized, in obedience to the Bible (Acts 2:38). One time, we met in his house to talk about these things, and he brought up my girlfriend situation. He was glad that Chantelle was starting to study the Bible, but said that our romantic relationship was inappropriate. UBF leaders (I had recently been made a "shepherd") do not normally have girlfriends, he told me. If I wanted to be baptized in front of other UBF leaders (and be welcomed into their circle), I could not have a girlfriend. If I cared about Chantelle's soul, he said, I should leave her in God's hands (and those of her own human UBF shepherd) and end the relationship. He had been planning to make me a leader for the UBF teenagers' youth group, something I really wanted to do, but in order to take this position, I had to set a better example and seek God instead of women.
What could I do? I had been trained by UBF to believe that anything my Bible teacher said came from God. I didn't really pray about it; I trusted my teacher and just assumed it was the right thing to do. I brought the situation up with Chantelle, and of course, she did not take it well. This brought a rather abrupt end to things, for which I cannot blame her. Too late, I realized that I had made a mistake, but the relationship was finished for good. And I won't lie: I was upset, confused, in tears. God did not seem very close, but I hung on to the hope the UBF people gave me: "God will bless your decision," they said.
Things did improve from there. I served the teenagers faithfully as a Bible study leader and enjoyed the things we did together. I studied like a crazed man for my final exams, and barely passed them. I got re-hired to my summer job from the previous year, ensuring I'd be staying in Waterloo, and accordingly arranged to move in with UBF people. I planned to bring my family to UBF's Summer Conference in Peterborough. The future seemed certain: all UBF, all the time.
Then, at just the right moment, God intervened again.
I see now that God was always watching over me. He let me go to UBF so that I could learn the Bible, and move to a new level in my relationship with Him. Now He saw that UBF was harming me, and getting in the way of further growth. I was too caught up in the organization, in the work I was doing, in obeying everything UBF said, in being "religious." He resolved to help me out of this situation, before it got any worse. One June weekend in Waterloo, as I was preparing to move in with my UBF friend Andy, I started reading a UBF newsletter. I read an article that mentioned the "R" group, which I had earlier learned stood for the "Reform" UBF (or "Rebellion" as the UBFers had informed me). My curiosity was piqued quite suddenly. "Who are these R Group people?" I wondered. I went off to a computer lab on campus and did a web search on Reform UBF.
For the next several hours, I read in complete disbelief the many Internet forums and testimonies about the real UBF. I read about spiritual abuse, deception, lies, coercion, false doctrine and financial impropriety. A whole history of corruption among the leadership. Arranged marriages (no wonder they wanted me to be single). I didn't want to believe it, but something spoke to my heart - my conscience, the Holy Spirit, I think - and I knew that at least some of it had to be true. Everything I had experienced in the previous months - pressure to terminate my relationship, UBF's insistence to have me baptized on their terms (quite unscriptural!), the focus on recruitment and numbers and leader-glorification in the prayers, confirmed what I was reading. I was devastated. I called Mom for her advice. She also confirmed the truth of the matter by revealing how uneasy she had been over the above-mentioned events, and how she had been praying for me. I raced back to UBF and read more of the newsletter, and suddenly the articles there seemed very strange. They came into focus. These articles were praising Samuel Lee, UBF's late chairman, instead of God.
Back in my room, I never prayed so intensely in my life. What should I do? My conscience was irrevocably seared. Even though I felt that my friends in the Waterloo chapter were probably genuine Christians caught up in a corrupt organization, there seemed no way to wholeheartedly serve UBF given what I'd learned. For the first time in a while, I prayed to God for help instead of relying on other people. As I prayed, I sensed that this was a turning point, and I listened to what my conscience was saying. My conscience told me I was not supposed to be "Shepherd Andrew," as they all named me. Jesus said "I am the good shepherd." (John 10:11). Only Jesus is the Shepherd. I decided to leave UBF.
The rest of the weekend was bizarre. It was hellish. The UBF people took me out to lunch and made me dinner, talking about what a great summer it would be, and all the while I was secretly planning to escape, drive home, and write an email detailing my decision to leave.
Not long after I left, I saw the fruit of God's plan. In my home church, I was baptized, as soon as I asked for it, under no terms except faith in Jesus Christ. My Pastor thought we should have the baptism done immediately. This happened on the same weekend as Convocation, which meant that my whole family (Dad, Mom, Sarah, stepfamilies) was there to hear my testimony and watch the baptism. This was not an accident. Without leaving UBF I would not have been baptized on that weekend, but God wanted to seize the opportunity to speak to the hearts of my family and the whole church through my testimony. He put the whole thing in motion. I never thought I would leave UBF like that, but God's plans are different from humanity's and are never thwarted. (Proverbs 19:21) Thank God for rescuing me at the right time!
If I thought spiritual life would be easier after my baptism, however, I was wrong. The teens I had worked with in UBF rejected me (of course), and I missed them. I spent the summer in Waterloo, trying to keep up Bible study on my own, but was not too successful. Instead, I started to become more afflicted with sin problems. This is hard to admit, but from July right up to the end of the year, I fought a desperate battle with lust, the downfall of many a man. This sin manifested itself in several ways, which I will not detail (it's probably not what you're thinking!). I think this problem developed as a kind of "hangover" from my suddenly-ended relationship. Anyway, at the same time, I was trying to work through a study called "Experiencing God" by Henry Blackaby, because I wanted to learn how to discern God's will and hear His voice. These competing desires almost tore my mind apart sometimes. Throughout the fall, having moved home to Peterborough to pursue a teaching degree, I often felt alone; I missed Waterloo. I missed my best friend Andrew, who was in Europe. Many times it was just me in my room, crying out for God to speak to me.
Here's how it went. I would be overwhelmed by my sinful nature, and feel a terrible sense of guilt. My conscience convicted me. My hands tore through my Bible, searching out those verses that condemned the sinful nature. "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires." (Romans 6:12); "Flee from sexual immorality." (1 Corinthians 6:18) Why was this happening? I wondered. I was supposed to have started a new, free, life after baptism. But I did not feel free. I repented humbly, I don't know how many times. Back and forth and back and forth. I knew that God would forgive me - God forgives anyone who comes to Him with a truly repentant heart, no matter what they have done, because of the work of Jesus Christ. But my repentance never lasted. I pleaded with God to help me, change my heart, heal me. But then do you know what I did? I went off and tried to do it on my own. I set goals for myself and did not meet them. I made promises to God and I broke them, which was devastating. Finally, nearing the end of the year, almost ready to give up, I realized: I can't do this on my own. I can't beat human nature. I was truly despairing.
However, the whole time I had been keeping up Bible study (irregularly, to be sure). And finally, with the help of the "Experiencing God" book, I understood: God was speaking to me. He had been, all through the crisis. His voice was in my conscience, writing those Scriptures on my heart and always calling me back, every time I drifted away. I learned that God speaks through the Holy Spirit, via the Bible. I learned that hearing God, talking to Him, forming a relationship with Jesus Christ is what Christian life is all about. Bible verses were jumping out at me in surprising ways. My conscience started to calmly say things to me like, "Pray, read the Bible now," to which I replied, "I don't feel like it...", and then my conscience said, "Do it anyway." So I did.
Hence, I decided the only way I was going to beat my sin problem was to replace it with something else. Replace idle daydreaming with time for prayer and getting to know God better. A new year was about to begin - what better time to start? I resolved to study the Bible every single day and keep a steady spiritual journal. I decided it - no one forced me. Christianity is not about rules and regulations. I made this decision because I wanted to know God better. I often hear people wonder, "How do I just let go of something and give it over to God?" Well, I think I just did it.
I vowed to spend the month of January 2003 replacing sin with daily prayer and meditation on the Bible. A few days into this journey, a miracle has happened. I am free. I feel different. That particular sin has lost its hold on me. I tried for months to concentrate on staying sin-free, and utterly failed. Now I've spent two weeks seriously talking with God every day, reading His beautiful Word, and almost immediately sin's power has been snapped like a twig. It tries to come back, of course, but if I keep focused on God, it goes away. Now my task is to keep up this newfound relationship. It's not easy, friends, but it's the only way. I tried it my way for a long time and that was a huge failure; but thank God for setting me free at last.
The purpose of this voluntary testimony should be clear. I am writing these things to bring glory to God. This is my honest account of events, which I hope will maybe reach one person and help them see that God is real. Obviously, I was in some trouble this year. Everything you read above should show you how great God is, and how weak I am. I was stumbling around in the dark, relying on men, women, myself, until I heard God, reached out and grabbed Him for dear life. And I've been a Christian for 12 years! Only now do I realize what it means to have a Saviour in Jesus. I am very thankful for the concerned people God has used to comfort me in troubled times, as well: Mom, Dad, Sarah, Shirley, Dave, Geoff (who always suspected UBF was a cult!), Pete, Chantelle, Steve, Andy, Monica, Leah, April, and my dearest friend Drew. They've been helping me along my path. It's a lifelong journey, and I'm only just beginning.
That's the theme of my New Year's meditation. Philippians chapter 3 is a wonderful exposition of the Christian life:
"But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." (Phil. 3: 7-9)
Basically, Paul is saying that Jesus Christ is the prize. Forget religion. If religion got you anywhere, then Paul would be the best - he was, after all, a great Jew and a faultless and zealous Pharisee before his conversion (verses 5 & 6). But he just called all that stuff rubbish! Life is not about obeying rules, being good, doing good deeds, or whatever. It's about seeking Jesus, knowing Jesus, "gaining Christ." A relationship, an intimate friendship, with Christ is the only way to be made right before God, and it's completely by faith. Having spent two years in UBF, this is my lesson for this year! UBF preaches righteousness by faith from the pulpit, but they're really all about righteousness by recruiting large numbers. They emphasize a relationship with a human shepherd. They make rules like "you must not have a girlfriend." In UBF, obedience to your elders, sticking to a church, doing good work is the way to be holy. No way, says Paul in this chapter. Jesus is the prize, the goal, the ultimate end. There is no greater thing than knowing Him. Jesus said, "I am the Truth," (John 14:6). Knowing Him, not listening to men's advice, will convict me about what to do in my own life. I tried to "be good" this past year by focusing on my sins and trying to stop them. That failed miserably. It made me feel miserable, not righteous. No, this year I want to turn it around. Like Paul, I want to "know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow ['with intense concern and involvement'!], to attain the resurrection from the dead." (verses 10 & 11).
I'm not perfect - far, far from it. I'm only just starting out on the road to knowing Jesus as my daily, personal Lord. I will fall down, surely. Sin will knock at my door again, and I'll probably give in to it again. That's what makes Christianity unique, though. Gaining Christ is the ultimate ideal, but we are allowed to stumble along the way. It's not about following rules, it's about staying on the upward path. "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (verses 13 & 14) I'm going to "forget" the past - not wipe it from my memory, which is impossible, but I will stop worrying about it. God forgives me, and I will forgive myself. Christian life is not about yesterday, but tomorrow. It asks, Which way are you travelling, in the long run? Where does your true heart lie? God knows, and that's what He will judge by. I will make mistakes in 2003, but as long as I keep hold of the ideal, keep my eyes on Christ, the goal, my salvation is secure.
I thank God for delivering me from danger this year. I praise Jesus for saving me from sin and setting me free. I'm rejoicing right now and I know He will help me and my family all through the coming year, and use my new career as a math teacher for His purposes. I pray that this testimony may bring honour and glory to God by revealing the truth of what He was done. - A.J.S. January 2003
I'm pressing on the upward way,
New heights I'm gaining ev'ry day;
Still praying as I onward bound,
"Lord, plant my feet on higher ground."
Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven's table land,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim is higher ground.
I want to live above the world,
Though Satan's darts at me are hurled;
For faith has caught the joyful sound,
The song of saints on higher ground.
I want to scale the utmost height
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I'll pray till heav'n I've found,
"Lord, lead me on to higher ground."
- Johnson Oatman, Jr., 1856 - 1922