Credible Faith

Some Autobiographical Reflections, Part 1

Some thoughts of reflection, shared in November 2012 email newsletter.

Text Publication: November 2012

Author(s): Paul Larson

"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

I would suppose that one could think that Paul was like some unusually precocious child in the realm of obedience, able to look on a plate of forbidden cookies, and unlike other children whose taste for such things would be greater than the inhibition, if there is such inhibition at all, simply turn away untempted. Cookies may be mostly harmless, but it is another thing to express so dismissive attitude as Paul does here in Philippians. Does not so bold a statement set him apart from the ordinary mass of sincere disciples? I'm not sure it does, at least for many of them. Such an attitude has been the attitude of many faithful followers of Christ, and one may see why. We are made for God. We are made such that our flourishing is only found in seeking and following him. Things of the world can not fully satisfy the human heart. For Paul, then, it was simply a matter of choosing that which he knew gave him life, that which would only do so.

I am close to finishing the PhD program; if the Lord wills, it would be next year, 2013. And much there is that I've done before now. Certainly I've obtained an assortment of degrees, but there were other opportunities....soccer, music, scripture presentations, jobs. And yet a lot of that does not now make a difference on one level. Sure, some of it can be used in the future for fundraising and setting me apart in the ministry world and in the world generally. But all of it is past. I'm here, now, in my room, and no past accomplishments are here in my room, with me right now. It's just me. So what good are such accomplishments, if I become discouraged? If a hope is dashed, a dream unfulfilled? They do not console me. They do not bring laughter to voice, or a smile to my face. And I am far off from family. It's just me.

And yet it's not just me. How right was the Psalmist when he found nowhere he could go in which God would be absent. God is with me. Though I run, he is there. Though I crouch into a dark corner, he needs no light to see me. People cannot remove God from my presence, nor from their own, just as I cannot remove him. And he is there. Always. And it's not just that he is always there. I am always there. He has made me an eternal being. He has set eternity in the hearts of men. So, I will not be here only for a time, a temporary flash across the unending sky, to be swallowed by death and enter a void of non-existence, and only granted the joy of knowing him for a time (if such a joy were possible and had by me). No. It will forever be him and me, a creature and his creator forever. On earth, some people might think that investing in relationships with the elderly may not be worth the time, given the short time such persons have left on earth. The thinking is shallow and self-centered, and for two true children of God, it would be incorrect. Those two have hope of being reunited beyond the grave. But even then there is a separation for a time. Death is a door through which enter only those whom God allows, and the rest must stay on their respective side, some separated for a time, others separated for eternity.

But God is on both sides of the door, and though I might be separated from family by that unrelenting door, I am not separated from him. Paul could rightly proclaim that neither life nor death would separate him from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. If I finish the PhD next year, and also a presentation for every book of the New Testament before July 20 of next year, I will have accomplished my goals. If God wants to take me from this life then, he can (he can now too, but that is up to him). I would have accomplished what I wanted. It's not that I feel I must do this to prove myself that I can. If it is proving something to myself, it's not about being able. It's about being willing, a matter of faithfulness to something implanted long ago. I would feel that I had been faithful to the vision and commitment I had when I was young and to that same vision and commitment that I pursue now.

When I was young, I was quite firm in my belief that the gospel is worth going to great lengths to spread, worth sacrificing much for. Though my perspective has since changed, at that time I looked around at people in the church, and whether they gave lip service to the importance of that gospel or not, I saw people who were married or would become married and who continued in a middle class, comfortable world that they had when they were children. Go to work. Focus on your family. Have fun, indulge in entertainment, and hang out with friends. And to me their lifestyle seemed incongruous with the importance of the gospel and of the Christian faith. Is there no sacrifice to spread the gospel? Do these people not care enough to break out of a zone of 20th century comfort and go to great lengths to bring the gospel to unbelievers?

To me, "Christianity" as seen in many of those who attended church was talk, but it would not have been easy to convince me that such people were living its full implications. I didn't want that for my life. I committed myself to doing what it takes, even if it meant avoiding marriage, in the quest that God would use my life for his work. And marriage was a big issue. Those who got married had kids, and at the martial stage, life appeared to become or to already have become comfortably entrenched in the ineffective and stale life of one's predecessors. Family life has a lot more financial demands than the single life, and a husband usually needs a solid and steady job in light of such demands. Marriage and family seemed like an obstacle, that which would shut the door to my being used for God's kingdom in some great way and usher me into the ranks of those whose lifestyle I silently deplored, a lifestyle that seemed so at odds with the radical nature of the gospel and the eternal consequences for those who would never be born again. I did not want to be a lukewarm believer, or one for whom the words of Rev. 3:16-17-19 would apply. In Revelation 3:16-19 of an NIV version, it has this: "So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent." My views towards people in the church have changed significantly from when I was younger, and I have lost much of my critical attitude, I may share some about that change in view in a future message, but the above should provide enough background for the present purpose.

Simply because I wanted my life to make a difference did not mean that I always knew in what way it would happen if it did (and I'm not saying it has happened or will happen). I was thinking "big" at the time (many in their youth do), and given the culture in which I lived, I did not have much confidence that I would be a Billy Graham or some big figure in ministry were I to go into that field. After I entered Bradley, I studied music performance and accounting, and my aim was to become like Keith Green, the singer/pianist/composer who boldly proclaimed the gospel and whose life and message affected thousands of people. I thought that if I were to be a really good pianist, and a singer, I could do something like what Keith Green did, even if I would never become what he was. I took voice lessons, and I gave classical piano concerts and played in jazz combos. But at some the disappointment came. I did not have the high voice that Keith Green did and could not sing the high notes like he could. Some things you're not born with.

That presented a problem. If there did not seem to be much hope of becoming a Billy Graham type, and if my voice was not high enough to be a Keith Green, was there any path I could take that would ensure some success in making a big difference for the kingdom, something where enough commitment, faithfulness, and hard work would lead to great results? It was here that the book Revolution in World Missions and the Gospel for Asia organization were relevant. At that time, a person could fully support a native missionary in Asia for around $1,500 or less. I had success in much of business school and passed a number of professional exams, among which were the Certified Public Accountant exams and the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) series of exams. My CIA exam score, being the highest student score in the world for that cycle, even got me an award and a trip to Texas. My thinking was that I would aim for being some big-shot businessman, lawyer, or financial professional who would make hundreds of thousands of dollars, live a meager life, and give a hundreds of thousands away to support native missionaries in Asia, and that if I were to do this, I could live my evangelist dream vicariously through missionaries I would support.

Think of how many that would be. If not more $1,500 were needed for full support of a missionary, $150,000 would fully support at least one hundred missionaries. If that basis were to hold financially (how much the dollar has been devalued since then!), every $150,000 I gave would result in one-hundred fully supported native missionaries. In light of such figures, I felt that if I were truly devoted to doing what would be the best use of my life for the kingdom, I would pursue the make and give away a ton of money route. Although I would already receive an MS in accounting from Bradley, I applied to Harvard business school and top law schools in pursuit of this new scheme for making a difference. But if math was what bound me to thinking that the 'make and give' strategy was the best use of my life for the kingdom and therefore to be followed if I was serious about giving my life in full service to the Lord, math was also what freed me to pursue evangelistic ministry. Suppose I went into traveling evangelistic ministry, and did not make a big impact, never being a Billy Graham and often preaching to the choir and to small crowds. If I also told people about Gospel for Asia and got them to give their money to support native missionaries, maybe the end result would be just as much money given to support missionaries than if I had continued to pursue the make and give strategy. If every year I got ten people fired up and committed to give $1,000 a year for twenty years, there would be, assuming no attrition for the sake of simplicity of the illustration, $10,000 given in the first year, $20,000 in the second ($10,000 from first year people and $10,000 from second year people), $30,000 in the 3rd, $40,000 in the fourth. Plus, were I to die, many of those people would continue giving, whereas in the make and give strategy, once my life ended, the flow of money would die or greatly wither. I would also probably not be making hundreds of thousands of dollars straight out of law school or business school. In light of the possibility that going down the ministry route, wherein I would tell other people about Gospel for Asia and get them to give their money, might result in just as much money being given to support native missionaries, I felt free to go to seminary. This was great for me. It was something about which I would be passionate, whereas I would probably have hated or not highly valued much of the work I would have done on the path towards or of earning huge amounts of money.

And so I pursued the idea of becoming an intellectually rigorous evangelist, someone at least partially like a Ravi Zacharias or William Lane Craig. The path was one for which getting a Master of Divinity degree, and an MA in philosophy of religion were two important steps, and for which getting a PhD was necessary. But it appears that I may finish the PhD next year, and with all the other degrees completed, and with a good financial situation. With the degrees, with the memorization and presentation of scripture (I now would like to have done a presentation for every book of the New Testament before I hit 30 next July, though it would take a lot of work and I'm not promising it will happen), with the CPA qualification, with a good plan for the future, there will not have been very much more that I could have done to prepare myself for a successful itinerant ministry as a no-name guy. And though it is still premature to feel it fully, there has been a sense that I have run the race, that I have been faithful to the vision of doing something great for the gospel, even when it required years of paid work and school work. Of course, much of what I have done has been preparation for gospel work, and if the Lord wills, there is decades of that work to come. But I don't expect it to be as difficult as some of the past ten years of my life, and I would have the freedom to take a break if I needed one.

In saying that there has been a sense of having run the race, I don't mean to say that the obedience and faithfulness of the Christian life is now complete, or that God accepts degrees and memorizing scripture in place of a heart that follows and obeys him. Also, if what I shared above gave any idea to the contrary, I don't feel that I needed to go to seminary or get this PhD in order for God to look on me with pleasure. He does not require that I do this, nor that I do "ministry" as some evangelist. I was a sinner, and God the Son provided atonement, and my sins were forgiven. God provided the substitutionary sacrifice, and brought me to repentance, and rejoiced when I submitted my knee to him. His joy was in the repentance, not in some intention to do "ministry".

No. This was a Paul thing. The teenage Paul Larson had a desire that his life make a difference in the world, and so does the adult one. If God does not require of me or of others great voluntary sacrifice and much hard work for the spread of the gospel, such sacrifice and work may still be freely given, and has been given by many saints through many centuries. I admit that this pursuit of mine, though springing from the love God has shown me, is something that I have taken on voluntarily. But I have taken it on, and intend to finish it. It has been demanding, and hard at times, which is why it is so nice for the end to be in sight. If I finish the PhD next year, and do scripture presentations for the remaining books of the New Testament, I feel that the idealistic teenage Paul would be able to look at the Dr. Paul and commend him for faithfully working towards and accomplishing a desire to give up much for the name of Christ. I say this for the teenage Paul, though I don't say it for Christ. I continue to be a sinner, and the time from my teenage years to now has seen many of my sins. But Christ was there, knowing my sin and patiently and graciously calling me back to him. I am no celebrity and never will be in his eyes. I am the one - sinner, rebel, traitor, fill-in-the-blank - whom he has redeemed. And this is what makes me the prospect of that eternal relationship of creator and his creature so amazing. God has loved me, and never will be absent, and I am the one to know that presence and love for eternity. Let God be praised.

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