A long time ago, I made a choice.
I chose to follow Jesus. I chose to ask God into my heart. I chose Christianity over all of the other religions out there.
Or did I?
After discovering God and Jesus on my own at a very young age, I drifted far from the faith for about twenty years. When I returned, I took a very methodical, logical, and well-thought-out path to God, through a few good books and a class I was required to teach on the Bible as literature. Along with 1990s Christian talk radio, those things convinced me that Christianity was true, and that I ought to follow it in my life.
So I chose. Out of all the religions out there (including new age spirituality and “none,” both of which I’d tried), I chose Jesus and turned my life over to him. I understood the truth that we all are going to worship something in this life, and I decided that for me, it would be Christ.
That’s what it felt like, at least. Because as I experienced my conversion process, I felt very much in control of it. Even as it unfolded over a period of more than a year, I was under the impression that each step toward or away from God was mine alone to take, that I could at any point choose to reject this religion altogether and go back to my old ways. But I chose to stay, and here I remain today.
For a long time, I understood my conversion as my decision, my choice. I had been raised to be independent, pro-choice in every possible way, and in control of my own destiny, so the idea that I had simply made a purposeful choice to follow Christ was an easy intellectual transition for me to make. I suspect it’s easy for most Americans to think of conversion in this way, born and bred into a pro-individualistic, pro-autonomy culture as we are. A culture that fully believes “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul (“Invictus”), and, as death approaches, has “not the words of one who kneels … I did it my way” (a huge hit by Frank Sinatra in 1969).
But a few years after I became a Christian and after I had become much more familiar with the whole Bible, I saw that I didn’t actually choose Jesus at all. Instead, he chose me (Eph. 2:8-9, Rom. 8:29-30, Eph. 1:3-6, John 15:16). I saw that from the beginning (the beginning of my life, and even before the beginning of time—Psalm 139:13-16), God had known and pursued me. Even though it seemed to me that I was seeking him out, he was actually calling me to himself, at the exact moment that he’d determined was best in my life. Here’s a key question: did I have free will to choose or reject him, or was it all under his control from the start? The answer is yes to both.
I learned about Jesus and had the choice to follow or not follow … but I never would have paid attention to him in the first place if God hadn’t orchestrated it. If God hadn’t softened my heart, I would still today have a heart of stone. If God hadn’t chosen me as one of his own, I couldn’t and wouldn’t have made that crucial decision to believe that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. If God hadn’t set his plan into motion, I would have kept on living only for myself, master of my fate, captain of my soul, refusing to kneel, and doing it my way.
If God is sovereign (and he is) and ultimately in control of everything (also true), then do we ever actually choose anything? Does our free will even matter? It does! We choose many things in our daily spiritual lives: we choose whether or not to go to church, whether or not to read our Bible, whether and how purposefully to raise up our children in the faith, whether or not to be involved in the family of God outside of Sunday mornings, whether or how much to give to God financially, when and how often to pray … but we didn’t choose whether or not to follow Christ. He chose us. Even if we did choose in the sense of making a determined decision away from our previous life, the fact is that we couldn’t have made this decision had he not enabled us and prompted us to do so.
In the years since I’ve come to an understanding of who chose whom, it’s actually a great relief to me that I had so very little to do with my own conversion. Simply put, God did it all. I’m not, and never was, responsible for my own salvation in any way—and thank goodness for that.
When I was about ten years old and living in Florida with my mom after escaping domestic abuse at the hands of her second husband, she and I would put on her favorite Frank Sinatra album and sing loudly and somewhat off-key: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do, I saw it through without exemption. I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway. And more, much more than this, I did it my way.” On the run from the trauma and pain we had experienced, and without recognizing or remembering God’s presence and love for us, it felt cathartic and powerful to proclaim our ability to take care of ourselves. Looking back, I see clearly that God was present even then (maybe especially then), protecting us as we put our lives back together in the only way we knew how.
I harbor no ill will toward Frank Sinatra for his misguided influence in my early life, but I haven’t listened to him in several decades. These days, I often play Christian music while in the car, and recently, one short line from “For the Love of God” by Andrew Ripp (sort of an anti-“My Way” song) hit home with me: “And the one I thought I’d chose had really chosen me first.” I’ve known this for a while now, but the wonder of it never ceases to amaze me. I don’t deserve it. I’m not worthy. But yet, he chose me.
Testimony of the Mind and Heart
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