I have an atheistic background. My family was actively involved in our neighborhood church, but as a young high schooler, I walked away from my faith and entered a season in my life where I did not believe in God. For a period of a few years, I lived in a world where God, at least to my understanding, was ultimately unnecessary. Then, later in my college experience, I had one of those dramatic conversion experiences that thrust me not only into a rich and fascinating life with God, but also into a religious sub-culture that so often seemed to me small, narrow, dull, and strange. On the one hand, my encounter with God connected me with something expansive and big. The vistas were inspiring. On the other hand, the religious world I was entering often seemed tiny and petty by comparison. This troubled me. But if I was going to be a Christ-follower, the religious sub-culture seemed like the only show in town. So, I dutifully got involved.
Gradually, and quite unexpectedly, I began to experience these often oppressive and profound doubts about the whole God thing. It was like my atheism was coming back to torment me. I believed I had, in some way, made contact with God, or perhaps more accurately, He with me, but the current cultural religious expression of my faith, as well as my own personal experience, fell horribly short of what I believed in my bones a life with God would be like. In secret and unspoken parts of myself, I harbored the terrible thought that perhaps everything I believed was a lie. If God was real, certainly a life with Him should be experienced as a grander, more enthralling, and intellectually and spiritually captivating thing. Yet that was not my experience. Usually I assumed the problem lied with me. At other, darker times, I feared the whole thing was a sham.
And yet, I had become part of this larger, religious “thing” that was very hard to walk away from. Because of some raw people skills, and an overactive mouth that could put relatively coherent sentences together, I was put in leadership positions in various Christian organizations and churches. With great zeal, and some wrong-headed understandings of spiritual passion, I pursued a religious activism that kept me occupied and usually affirmed by those around me. Still, the doubts stayed with me. Often, if not usually, they were entirely endurable and ignorable, like a low-grade temperature or a nagging sense that I was forgetting something. At other times, these doubts were oppressive and overwhelmed me.
Eventually, my religious activism led me to become a church-planting missionary in Colombia, South America. For the first time since my encounter with God in college, because of my lack of fluency in the language, I could not depend on my mouth or personality to get by. I was stuck with just me and God, and the lack of depth and experience and reality in that relationship was immediately exposed. I suffered deeply from oppressive and haunting doubts about God and was plunged into an almost year-long depression. My journal entries during that year are still painful to read to this day. I pleaded with God to show Himself, but all I experienced, using the words of C. S. Lewis, was “a door slammed in my face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
After a year of this torment, I made the only rational decision I could think of. I quit. I admitted failure and came home. A lot of people had sacrificed a lot to get me to South America. I had to disappoint them. I had made a lot of friends in Colombia. I had to leave them. It was humbling and embarrassing, but it was the only road that led toward spiritual health.
Once I was back home, with God’s gracious help, I slowly began to put my internal world back together. There were a few books and authors that helped me to understand the nature of doubt and belief and certainty and truth. I read voraciously. I did some of the work that I had neglected to do before. Faith began to grow inside me. The doubts receded to the background. Scripture came alive to me again. I got married. I went to seminary.
But in the midst of all that, God graciously invited me to walk a new beautiful road. This road changed my life, ultimately addressed my doubts, and to this very day is foundational to my life with God. I am still on this road. I met a man named Carl Lundquist. Carl had recently retired as the long-time President of Bethel College and Seminary. He had become concerned with what he perceived as a lack of spiritual depth and warm-hearted experience of God within evangelicalism, so he created the “Evangelical Order of the Burning Heart.” The name, of course, was taken from the phrase that the two disciples used to describe their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” I don’t remember what the Order did. I don’t think it lasted very long. Maybe there are a few charter members still left. I don’t know. But what I received from Carl Lundquist was a bibliography. It was probably twenty-five to thirty pages and it listed hundreds and hundreds of books on one general topic: Experiencing the beautiful reality of God. A present encounter with the living God.
There were too many books for most people to read, but Carl had put an asterisk next to those books that, in his studied opinion, were foundational. So, I just started reading those. And for the next few years, and down to the present day, I was introduced to people who opened my soul to the beauty of God. I read the desert fathers and mothers, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Benedict, Brother Lawrence, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, Thomas à Kempis, William Law, Thomas Kelly, Jonathan Edwards, and many others. These men and women of God talked about God and their experiences with God in ways that I had not heard before. I was raised as an emotionally repressed Midwestern Lutheran of Swedish descent and this language was new to me. It took some getting used to. But it stirred up a ravenous hunger inside me for God. I wanted to know God in this way.
That, essentially, is the journey I’ve been on since my missionary failure thirty-five years ago. I have been seeking to join with women and men down through the centuries who have experienced a depth and beauty and intimacy in their relationship with God. Their experiences have become my model and my path. I have observed how they did it, and I have tried to follow them. I have veered off this path numerous times and have forgotten, for a season, what I am about. But God has always brought me back. Today, more than ever, I want my heart to burn within me with an authentic and transforming experience of God. I want my love for God and for people to be a real and beautiful thing that is inspired by God’s own real and beautiful love. If God is the ultimate reality, then I want my life to be caught up in His. This is my life pursuit.