Note: Due to the sensitive subject matter being discussed, the names of the people involved have been changed to protect their identity.
By His Grace, For His Glory
One Sinner's Testimony of God's Sovereign Grace and Goodness
by Paul Sue
"called according to his purpose... to the praise of the glory of His grace" (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:6)
This is the story of how God has transformed me by His grace and how he is continuing to conform me into the image of His Son. I pray that my testimony may be a blessing to the reader and glorifying to God.
My first exposure to God
"...and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation" (2 Tim. 3:15)
My first exposure to God was in elementary school, where the principal used to recite "The Lord's Prayer" and read a portion of scripture at the start of each day. I had a New Testament at home that my parents received when they became Canadian citizens, and I would occasionally read it, not really understanding what it all meant. However, two accounts left a lasting impression on me.
One was the description of Christ's return, as depicted in this verse: "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be" (Matt. 24:27). I remember lying awake at night in fear whenever there was lightning. The other was the Passion narrative: I could not understand why a good man like Jesus had to be so cruelly put to death.
As was the case with many poor Asian immigrant families, my parents constantly preached the virtues of hard work and study. School was to be our savior to a better life, so I absorbed myself in my studies, and eventually forgot about God altogether.
"Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor. 1:20)
However, when I entered university, I suddenly felt lost in the impersonal vastness and shallowness of the academic rat race. This, in combination with the increasing conflicts at home between my sister and my parents eventually took its toll on my disillusioned psyche. As a result, I went through an extended period of deep angst and despair.
In an attempt to fill the aching void in my heart, I attempted to find meaning in various ways. I became obsessed with rock music, its loud, driving beat drowning out the silent agony of my soul, and the angry lyrics echoing my nihilistic worldview and rebellious "the-hell-with-everything" attitude.
This proved too shallow after awhile, so I began exploring the mystic wisdom of the East: Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as the troubled thinkers of the West, especially the existentialism of Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. However, despite their brilliance and intellectual depth, these sages and philosophers failed to impart any lasting peace to my troubled soul. I was hungering for something deeper and more satisfying. My memory of God was reawakened by reading literature from door-to-door religious peddlers (Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons). However, God seemed so distant and my inner self so corrupt, that I didn't know if I could live a "religious" life (my particular vices were my profanity and explosive anger). Every now and then I would resolve to "clean up my act" and try to live more uprightly, but I would always fail miserably.
"and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32)
Into this dark scenario, God began to shine the light of His sovereign grace. Surprisingly, it was a cartoon show on TV (the Peanuts special that usually airs each Christmas season) that God used to awaken me. There is a scene when Charlie Brown cries out, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" Linus then quietly begins to recite the nativity narrative in Luke 2, concluding with these memorable words: "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill toward men." For some reason, this really spoke to me.
A few months later, in the spring of 1982, I felt compelled to see a movie which was garnering much acclaim at the time, Chariots of Fire. One of the central figures in the movie is Eric Liddell, who won the Gold medal at the Olympic Games before stepping out of the limelight to do missionary work in China. I was deeply touched by the movie and it's portrayal of Liddell as a man with deep convictions who had genuine joy in serving God. When the closing caption informed us that he died in a Japanese prison camp, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. This man obviously had something worth living and dying for. And I longed to have what he had: a sense of purpose in life. I felt I could no longer go on living a life that seemed so empty and aimless.
In His sovereign goodness, God continued to convict me by His Spirit. A few weeks later, a friend and I were enjoying a leisurely walk through the university grounds (I was in my penultimate year) when someone from one of the campus Christian groups approached us and offered us a booklet to read. My friend took one look at the title, and upon discerning the nature of the contents, immediately tossed it in a nearby garbage can. I put my copy in my pocket.
At home that night, I read through it - nay, I devoured it, and for the first time in my life, I felt a real sense of hope. Could these things really be true? I then pulled out a Bible from the shelf, blew off the dust, and proceeded to read the Gospel of Matthew. When I got to the crucifixion account, I could not help but cry, as God revealed to me why Christ had to suffer and die on the cross. I fell on my knees and asked God to forgive me for my sins, trusting the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior. That night, on June 28, 1982, God saved me by His grace, and I finally found the Truth I had been seeking, and I was set FREE!
I then began attending the Baptist church nearby, and the pastor, after duly questioning me and ascertaining the reality of my conversion, baptized me a few months later.
Sharing my newfound joy
"May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Galatians 6:14)
Desiring to share my newfound joy in Christ, I wrote my own gospel tract (actually, essay would more appropriate!) and shared it with family and friends. Further, desiring to know more of God's Word, I soon became a regular fixture in the church library and at the Christian bookstore.
Interestingly, it was a biography of George Mueller by A.T. Piersen that really piqued my interest, in particular, his involvement with the "Brethren assemblies". Not surprisingly, I eventually ended up in a Brethren assembly, where I enjoyed the open worship meetings centered around the Lord's Supper, the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, and the absence of the clergy-laity distinction all too common in most churches.
The desire to know God more, and the hunger for His Word consumed me; I decided that I wanted to serve God full-time. The thought of attending seminary appealed to me, but my parents were already opposed to my newfound convictions. Therefore, I felt the best course would be to pursue studies on my own. As a result, I eventually amassed a large library of books, journals, and tapes. All my spare time was taken up with reading theological tomes or struggling to learn Hebrew and Greek on my own.
By God's grace, I was also privileged to serve Him in many ways:
- teaching Sunday School (grades 3-4 boys; pre-teens; young adult)
- open air tract distribution
- gospel preaching at evangelistic meetings (when I was with the Brethren assemblies)
- conducting seminars on various subjects (e.g., rock music, Romanism, the New Age movement)
- leading home Bible studies
- hospital visitation to the elderly
- editing newsletters
- tape and book distribution ministry
However, there were things that bothered me about the Brethren. They were proud isolationists, dogmatic traditionalists, and narrow-minded obscurantists. Women had to wear head-coverings and keep absolutely silent (except for congregational singing) during all the assembly meetings. Of course, pants, makeup and jewelry were taboo. Men were expected to be properly attired as well (dark suits, plain ties, short hair, no mustaches or beards). The KJV was the preferred Bible, and the long and sanctimonious prayers abounded with Thee's and Thou's. Their hermeneutical approach to Scripture was christocentric and typological, but also very allegorical, and dispensational.
My first experience with a legalistic church
"You have forsaken your first love." (Revelation 2:4b)
In the course of my reading, I stumbled upon John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. The accompanying introductory essay by J.I. Packer blew my mind! I began to search the Scriptures to see if these things (i.e. "Calvinism") were true. My first reaction was violent repulsion, but further study and reflection changed my mind, as I slowly I began to see that God indeed is sovereign in salvation. It wasn't long before the Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, and others became my theological "heroes". As for more recent writers in the same vein, I found John Piper's passionate vision of Christian Hedonism enthralling.
When the elders in the Brethren assembly discovered that I had embraced the "heretical" teachings of Calvinism, I was forced to leave. Ironically, George Mueller and J.N. Darby, men whom they esteem, would be of likeminded theological persuasion! Despite my offer to calmly discuss the matter together with an open Bible, they declined, and I felt it was best for me to quietly leave. Of course, I was roundly denounced as a heretic after my departure.
Just prior to this, some of the articles in Searching Together magazine challenged and clarified my understanding of church life. After leaving the Brethren, therefore, I went "church hopping", hoping to find an assembly of believers which sought to "do church" after the pattern of the NT. Of course, some would argue that such a search is dubious and misguided. My search did prove to be fruitless, and in disillusionment, I eventually stopped attending church altogether. Well at least I still had my huge library of books to keep me company!
However, without regular Christian fellowship, my interest soon waned, and I began backsliding. Bible reading and prayer soon ceased. I got rid of all my books and I began to revert to some of my pre-conversion interests (martial arts, rock music). Soon, my speech (remember my problem with profanity when I was unsaved?) and manner of life was no different from the non-Christians around me.
"I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil ... Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. ... And now my life ebbs away; days of suffering grip me. Night pierces my bones; my gnawing pain never rest. " (Job 3:26; 7:11; 30:16, 17)
Divorce. The statistics are disturbing and Christians have not been immune to this growing problem. Families torn apart. Hurting and confused children. Lives turned upside-down and forever changed. Those who have never gone through such an experience cannot really fathom the pain, hurt, bitterness, anger and despair of it all. Certainly, I did not think I would ever have to experience it. But I did.
To make a long story short: a few days after Christmas one year, my ex-wife announced that she was leaving me. I pleaded with her to seek counseling with me. Her older sister tried to intervene, but to no avail. The pastor who married us, along with his wife, met with us, but she refused to listen to their pleas and prayers. Another pastor wrote her a firm but loving letter. One of my best friends, a godly brother, wrote her a long letter as well.
She eventually moved out, leaving me with our two boys (4 and 7 years old at the time). I remember the sleepless nights. I can still recall vividly my youngest son crying himself to sleep every night for weeks, and often I cried with him. I need not go into details of how our lives were thrown into turmoil. I felt so helpless. I could only wait in agony and anguish, one day, one night at a time, with the hope that she would come to her senses. Things hit rock bottom when I eventually discovered she was having an adulterous affair with another man. Shortly after, she filed for divorce.
From this point on, my life went downhill. During that turbulent period of time, I doubted God's goodness, blamed Him for what happened, rebelled against Him, and ran away from Him in anger and bitterness.
there's nothing like watching TV all
and no one is watching me slide
below street level
barely alive (1)
I do not intend to paint a one-sided picture of what happened and make excuses for myself. Marriage is a sacred covenantal (2) relationship, and I had to face up to a broken covenant. God is sovereign and loving, and at the end of the day, I realized that I could not hide from the Almighty. Through the prayers of a few faithful Christians, by God's grace, I came to grips with what happened and asked God to give me a fresh start on life again. I had to acknowledge my share of the blame, therefore I confessed my sin to God and repented of my failures.
I am now remarried to a wonderful Christian woman, one whom I can clearly call my soulmate. Was I wrong to remarry? I confess the question still haunts me. I am aware that Christians differ on this matter, so I encourage readers to study the matter further for themselves. The following resources on divorce and remarriage are helpful starting points.
A burden for hurting Christians
"If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it ... A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (1 Cor. 12:26; John 13:34)
As a result of what I've been through (divorce, two authoritarian/legalistic churches), the Lord has given me a burden for people, especially those who are going through painful trials. The Lord has been pleased to use me in some small measure to comfort some brothers in Christ who are going through the agonies of divorce or the trauma of abusive churches.
It has been my experience that many Christians find divorce a taboo subject. Perhaps this may be due to the stigma of divorce, or the inadequacy of knowing how to help someone going through it. When I was going through my "marriage meltdown", only a few Christians really stood by me consistently. I remember calling a pastor for counseling, but all he did was pray with me for 2 minutes and then handed me over to a small group leader, so I could get "plugged in".
In an article titled, "How Not to Fail Hurting Couples", Thomas Needham writes:
What role should churches play in strengthening marriage and preventing divorce? As these examples suggest, the potential and opportunities are great. But I have a growing conviction that, for the most part, churches are failing couples in crisis. They generally avoid taking an active role in helping couples headed for divorce. We need a kind of shock therapy to become alert to the missed opportunities. ...
God is calling churches to become instruments of his grace, mercy, and truth to couples in crisis. It is vital that we rise to this.
It is clear that the church needs to be more exemplary in its care and compassion for hurting souls. And in such a traumatic trial as divorce, the body of Christ needs to be an instrument of Christ's love. Ideally, churches need to take a more pro-active role in supporting marriages, in today's morally lax society.
For some helpful suggestions, see "Becoming a Healing Community" by Margaret Rinck.
"Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." (Galatians 5:25)
Reading Gordon Fee's God's Empowering Presence (Hendrickson; 1994) has made me keenly aware of how much I need to be empowered by the Spirit. I have always struggled with spiritual dryness, probably as a result of reading too many dry-as-dust scholarly tomes and not enough time on my knees in prayer.
While I seldom read the popular Christian bestsellers geared to the masses, every now and then I will read a popularly written book. Recently, I just finished reading The Word & Power Church by Doug Banister (Zondervan; 1999). His story seemed to touch a cord with me as he traced his conversion from being a cessationist to a charismatic. He was troubled by his spiritual dryness and longed for a deeper experience of God; I too felt this way. He cites his surprise to discover that men whom he (and I) respected - Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and D.A. Carson - could NOT say with integrity that the NT teaches a cessation of the miraculous gifts.
"I now had a foot in both camps. As an evangelical, I loved the Word but longed for more of the Spirit. As someone who had begun to drink from the water of the charismatic renewal, I loved the emphasis on the Spirit's power, but saw that this power needed to be wedded with a stronger rooting in the Word. I saw strengths and weaknesses in both traditions. Both camps hold a piece of the puzzle the other needs." (pp. 19, 20)
I can only pray that I might be more sensitive to my need for the Spirit's empowerment daily, that I might come in faith to "be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18) and by him, cry, "Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15).
Though I'm happy where God has presently led me, my "church search" still doesn't seem to be finished yet. Perhaps the experience of one church will point the way forward for me (here are some more helpful links on church life).
Well, my story must come to an end, even though the journey continues. Who knows what our awesome God has in store for me in the future?
- Sarah Harmer, "Basement Apt.", © pare
publishing SOCAN/BMI (back to text)
- Gordon P. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant. VTSup 52. E.J. Brill, 1994. (back to text)