"Mom,something's happened." It was my daughter, Julena, calling long-distance from college. "It's too complicated to explain over the phone. I'm sending a letter … but don't worry, okay?"
She was 500 miles from home, on her own for the first time, exposed to all the temptations every college student faces—and I wasn't supposed to worry?
What a relief when her letter arrived! Julena wrote that she'd committed her life to Christ, was attending church, and reading her Bible. She'd turned her back on the college "party scene" and joined a Christian students' organization called The Prodigals.
As happy as her news made me, I was faced with some disturbing questions. Why—only now—was Julena learning to know Christ? Our family had always professed Christian faith, and we thought we'd done everything to pass this to our children. We'd taken them to church and Sunday school, prayed with them at mealtime and bedtime, encouraged their involvement in church youth groups, and sent them to Christian summer camps. Had she forgotten her Christian upbringing? Or had we, her parents, failed to be living examples of the faith we professed? The name of our daughter's new Christian group hit home. Could I be a "prodigal Christian," too?
For anyone familiar with the Bible, the word prodigal immediately brings to mind Jesus' parable about the son who demanded his inheritance, then walked out on his family and squandered everything on a reckless, decadent lifestyle.
While I've never actually "walked out" on God, my words and actions haven't always honored Christ. It took my daughter's bold admission of faith and visible, ongoing pursuit of a changed lifestyle to make me realize I, too, wanted to become a child of God in more than name only.
But what's the difference between a professing Christian and a progressing Christian? Looking at the outward signs, it's hard to tell. I thought I'd done everything right. I've been a baptized member of a Christian congregation for the past quarter-century, attended Bible studies, sung in the choir, given financially to my church, taught Sunday school, sponsored the youth group, and served on church committees.
Yet 1 Samuel 16:7 states, "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." While I had all the outward appearances "right," I had to admit that inwardly I was the typical "Sunday Christian," someone who was often uncomfortable with her Christian identity in any setting except church.
I realized God saw the reluctance and resentment with which I sometimes gave my time, talents, and resources. He saw how I judged others and withheld love if they didn't meet my expectations. God saw that I prayed mainly for my own wants and needs, and when I did pray for others, it was mainly with the hope of changing them in ways that benefitted me. And God saw how rarely I spared the time to read the scriptural "love letter" so tenderly written for me.
Somewhere deep inside I knew I wasn't living up to what I thought God expected of me. I wondered how he could possibly forgive me for my failures and selfishness, for all the hurtful things I'd done and said. Despite my professed belief that I was saved by God's loving grace, when others spoke confidently of eternal life with Christ, I feared I was such a bad person that God had no place in heaven for me.
I knew I wanted to get on the right track as a true growing Christian, but how? In those first several months after reading my daughter's letter, two things became crucial: the daily practice of purposeful prayer, and a commitment to read the entire Bible. I realized an intimate relationship with my Lord is the only source of power for lasting change and strength for living the Christian life.
In the process of committing to prayer, my definition changed. I learned that it's more than "I ask, God answers (or doesn't)"; it's a conversation with God. Since conversations are two-sided, I need to stop and listen! I'm also learning the joy of praying for others, including the healing power of praying for those who've hurt me in some way.
Using a one-year Bible, I achieved my goal of reading the entire Bible in a year. I began to see the Scripture as a whole, not just random verses or stories to be interpreted out of context. I also "prayed the Scriptures," a practice I read about in Richard J. Foster's book, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home. Foster describes praying the Scriptures as reading a passage slowly, thinking deeply about it, and praying for God to use it to speak to you personally.
When I intentionally drew closer to God, studying his Word daily and allowing him to reveal himself to me, several changes occurred. Almost instantly, I found myself wanting to give more to my church and other charitable causes. I've experienced a new willingness to volunteer time and talents in God's service. And daily devotions are no longer the dreaded "homework assignment" they used to be; now I hunger for even more time to spend in prayer and the Scriptures.
Above all, each day I experience the security of my identity in Christ. I know that God loves me unconditionally, that God's forgiveness is total and forever, and that Christ is already preparing a place for me in heaven.
My daughter's growth in her Christian faith eventually took her to Kenya on a mission trip with other college students. She was immediately struck by the Kenyans' candor when they introduced themselves, and she quickly learned to do the same: "Hello, my name is Julena, and I'm a Christian."
Not many people I know would be comfortable starting a conversation that way—least of all me! But it reminded me once more that we honor God not only when we willingly spend time with him, but when we take pride in our Christian identity. In the words of the apostle Paul, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).
I've discovered progressing and professing Christianity go hand in hand. Now I'm not ashamed to say: "My name is Myra, and I'm a Christian."
Myra Langley Johnson is a freelancer who lives in Texas.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.