I came to a spiritual crossroad towards the end of high school. Because of a girl, I’d gotten back into youth group attendance and eventually added church attendance in 2003-4. Then a Christian schoolmate had invited me to attend his home group/Bible study during my final year of school.
Things seemed to be getting a bit more serious for me and although part of the reason was definitely connected to keeping the girlfriend and her parents happy, that was far from the whole picture. I realised that when I went to university I was going to need to decide whether I’d live independently as a Christian young adult, once the crutch of school chapel and the spoon-feeding of caring Christian teachers disappeared into the rear vision mirror of life. I knew uni wouldn’t do anything to make it easy to live as a Christian, so I felt confronted with the need to either commit or acknowledge that my faith would slowly melt away.
God truly was at work in my life during this season and as I left high school, I continued with church, youth group and home group. I was growing more convinced and committed rather than less and I wanted to ensure I was living as a sincere disciple in response to God’s offer in the gospel.
In August 2005, I had one of the most significant experiences of my Christian life. I was baptised after making a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance from my sins. In my own mind this was my decisive step in declaring my genuine discipleship to family and friends. But as I went down into the waters and subsequently emerged I experienced a powerful sense of assurance from the Holy Spirit that I had indeed been washed clean by the blood of Christ, died with Him in His death and risen again to new life.
I knew the water had not done anything special to me, but at the same time I knew God had. A new chapter had begun and I was determined to live for Jesus, trusting in Him for salvation and following Him as Lord in a way I had neglected to do for so many years of calling myself a Christian.
I was once again part of Pentecostal Christianity and experienced all the strengths and weaknesses that come with this particular expression of the faith. My church and home group instilled in me a greater appreciation for both the Bible as God’s Word and its place in my life, as well as the vitality of a relationship with Jesus through faith and the inner working of the Holy Spirit. I had experienced what Pentecostals call the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” a few months before my water baptism and spoken in tongues and developed something of a mystical spirituality when it came to relating to God. On more mature reflection, I think Pentecostal spirituality can be like a two-edged sword. It helpfully cuts away at religious formality and emphasises real, holy Christian living on one hand, but at the same time it can deeply wound the conscientious soul that is striving for spiritual attainments that are seemingly always out of one’s reach. I think the teachings on holiness I received during those years had an incredibly positive impact on my life in some respects. But at the same time I developed a strong fundamentalistic, reactionary posture to help me survive the harsh secular environment of university and to navigate the temptations of youth – which was not terribly helpful to me or others and often sunk into legalism. I don’t wish to pin the blame for this on others, as I’m aware that my own personality and way of thinking was fertile ground for this perspective on life to develop.
I also had a very speculative approach to understanding Bible prophecy which was fuelled by influences within my circles of fellowship, along with online influences I’d discovered as a high school student. I believed the European Union was the revived Roman Empire and that the Great Tribulation would probably begin before I finished university. Living a godly life and evangelising the lost both seemed much more urgent to me than other things during this period – especially long-term life-planning like super-annuation.
This was the theological and spiritual position I was in when I made some of the most difficult decisions and faced some of the most difficult trials in my young life up to that point. I broke up with my girlfriend because of my new convictions about living a holy life (in hindsight a difficult but wise and right decision). I left university without completing my degree (I’d return later) because I thought God wanted me to give this up too as a sign of devotion towards Him (in hindsight, probably an immature and unwise decision, given I ignored the counsel of my pastor in making it). And in 2007, I experienced terrible personal trials as my family unit broke apart – something which is still difficult for me to speak about today and which has impacted me enormously ever since.
There is no other way to describe this period than this. I got crushed. Emotionally, relationally and spiritually. My theology and spirituality helped me through in some ways, but they did not spare me any suffering and I lacked the maturity to properly process what was going on. I stubbornly persisted in the ministries at church I was involved in and carried on in the Christian life, but I was hurting and felt let down.
After this season I was a changed person – mostly it felt for the worse. I would need to gradually recover personally, but also change theologically and grow into greater spiritual and emotional maturity. More on that in the final installment.