When a friend read my story about musician John Davis, he commented, "That doesn't sound like a conversion to me. It sounds like he ate a bad burrito."
I can sympathize. I'm wary of sensational, emotional conversion stories, and my first inclination is to assume that they've been, well, if not fabricated, then at least substantially embellished. As a young Christian, I used to see this weird sort of "top this testimony" dynamic at work all the time. So you were a drug-abusing transvestite before you came to Christ, huh? Well, I was a drug-abusing transvestite in a motorcyle gang of drug abusing transvestites, and Jesus spoke to me when I was on acid and told me to put away the drugs and the bikes and the dresses and to follow Him. Etc. Etc.
The thing is, I really do know people whose lives have been instantly transformed by an encounter with Jesus. That encounter may or may not have been an emotional one. And so, I suspect that what we really struggle with is the radical inbreaking of God into human lives. In some ways we prefer the slow grind of infinitesimal transformation, because that makes more sense to us. It's a lot like going on a diet or studying for another degree. Just keep plugging away at it and eventually you'll see some progress. What doesn't make sense to us is the kind of testimony of John Davis -- one day I was a raging, out-of-control alcoholic, and the next day I had been delivered of the need to drink. That somehow seems unfair -- at least to me. It's the spiritual equivalent of stomach stapling to a perpetual dieter. What! You mean you didn't have to work at it, when my own story involves successes and failures, slipping back into an old way of life, pain and trauma, slowly being changed into someone who, by nature, I am not. It's not fair!
We're also (rightly) suspicious of sensational conversion stories that often turn out, in the long run, to be little more than a temporary reprieve from the usual self-centered life. And so we prefer to wait and see, and that's a reasonable approach in the case of John Davis.
All I know is that human beings are extraordinarily complex creatures. What seems like a legitimate encounter with God may turn out to be a passing fancy, driven by guilt or short-lived willpower, or even a bad burrito, for all I know. But I don't want to rule out the possibility that God still breaks into human lives radically and powerfully. And I want to pray for those situations to occur, because although they may not always be fair, they are always glorious. I know so many people who ought to be dead, and who are not, and who are living reasonably healthy, whole lives, people whose stories of addiction go back generation after generation, and who sincerely believe that the chain of madness can be broken in their generation. I am one of them. This is miraculous, and I don't use that word lightly. For some people the chain has been snapped in two instantaneously. For most people it's been a slow, grinding process where the chain has been weakened little by little. In all cases, though, it's miraculous.
This doesn't happen by willpower. I don't know any addicts who believe that they can will themselves into sobriety. They've all tried it, because that's the easiest solution, and it doesn't work. It happens by the power of God.
I am afflicted with the disease of cynicism, and I can very easily slip into a mindset where I doubt and mock anything and everything. And I suspect that the little bastard on my shoulder who is whispering derogatory things about (melo)dramatic Christian conversions is, in the end, more concerned with my vanity and my feelings of superiority than he is about Christian charity. Lamentably, I often choose to listen to him when I should really be saying, “Get thee behind me, you little bastard."
I think about a friend, or perhaps ex-friend now, I've met recently. He had some issues in his life, as we all do, but I genuinely liked him, wanted to help him. Kate and I personally lent him a fair amount of money so that he could get back on an even footing. Life was improving for him until he split, with our money, for parts unknown.
Now he's gone. Part of me wants to kick myself for being so naive and so stupid. I knew this could happen. But part of me -- the better part of me, I'd like to think -- would do it all over again. He talked a good game. He had me convinced of the legitimacy of his faith and his dedication to following Christ. And maybe he is legitimate on one level. I understand that kind of moral schizophrenia. And maybe he'll be back. But I'm betting against it. In spite of that, I'd still like to silence that smug little bastard on my shoulder who cynically points out that God can't *really* change people easily and that quickly. As usual, I was wrong. But so is the smug little bastard.