What has happened to all your joy?
GALATIANS 4:15 NIV
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You have just finished reading a rather rare book a discussion of Christian joy by a Christian writer. For whatever good this book may contain, may the Great Giver of Joy receive the thanks and the glory at His altar of incense.
And now the hour of truth has arrived for me. Until twenty-some years ago I felt a stranger to the joy of the Lord. Even during my years as a Christian, the cheerful face I put on often masked an ash-heap of discontent.
It's hard to know what to say about the dark side of my life before 1972. Rembrandt, a master of chiaroscuro, used dark shadow with superb artistry to accent the light colors of his paintings. My own darkness became so miserable that I dread to mention it. To do so in order that God may be glorified is not easy; yet it may help someone to learn that the Holy Spirit can turn a wormy soul into a swallowtail butterfly.
My problem had no relationship to the churches I served, or their members, or any people in the Christian organizations in which I worked. Generally I get along with people. Nor did it have anything to do with moral character as such, for I
remained a good citizen and faithful husband and father and still am.
But for many of my early years I held a grievance against the world, and probably would have held it against the living God if I had known Him which I didn't. This grievance reflected my own deep inner sense of inadequacy, which was the real problem. I arrived on the planet as the last of six children, with an older brother who was taller, bigger, stronger, and faster than I, and who loved to pin me to the ground frequently. At school I became "Little Squirt," a tail-ender, ignored on the playground and kept off the teams until I got the strange feeling that I wasn't even there.
"So what?" you ask. "What else is new? Lots of kids have problems adjusting at school."
Yes, but there was more. I resented being a cipher. Instead of a little-shot, grinding my teeth in frustration, I wanted to be a big shot running things. My blazing ambition, as the story-tellers used to say, knew no bounds but got me nowhere. This again was my own inadequacy expressing itself by contrast.
Upon reaching adolescence I began to spend sad moments before the mirror, despising myself in earnest, and refusing utterly to come to terms with my body. How I longed for a huge frame so I could wear school letters on my sweater in front of the girls and win accolades on the football field! I wanted better legs, longer arms, more height, a more handsome face. Instead I got nothing.
All this narcissism made me few friends, and since athletics were beyond my reach, I chose to be a writer. In a high school English class I came across this statement by Henry Thoreau: "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation." That told me what the future would be like.
Berkeley High school was followed by the University of California across town. It did not take long for Philosophy 5-A, using the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius, to convince my softened brain that Sunday school was poppycock and God did not exist. My parents were so informed.
One night when 17 years of age and still living at home, I couldn't sleep. I went into my father's study and found him sitting at his desk. (As a fund-raiser for the relief causes he was away on long trips much of the time.) I said to him, "Dad, I don't like what I'm doing. I don't want to be a newspaperman. What I really want is to do something useful with my life, something that will help people, but I'm stuck. I don't know what to do."
My father, as I learned later, had been saved in a Methodist church meeting in Jamestown, North Dakota, at the age of 21. He must have spoken encouraging words to me that night, but I've forgotten what they were. I'm certain he did not mention the Name of Jesus. He sent me back to bed and life went on.
For some reason a fraternity chose to pledge me. As an under-classman I was forced to endure attempts at molestation by some big "brothers" during after-dinner roughhousing "all in fun" and I also learned how to fight like a tiger. Some other young men in that fraternity were, as I recall, good scholars and strong, outstanding Christians. I turned away from them and preferred to trail after the jazzy set which occupied its free time drinking, smoking, swearing, and singing ribald songs.
The fraternity leaders knew me to be a minister's son, and were not impressed by my blowhard efforts to become a BMOC (big man on campus). When they chose a chaplain for their housemeetings, they passed me by. Meanwhile I aimed at the editorship of The Daily Californian and missed it.
In the first seven years after graduation from college I worked as a reporter with newspapers in California, Hawaii, and Alaska. At age 29 I quit the profession. It was time to face the facts: I had failed as a writer, having completed two books, neither of which ever appeared in print. I had also stumbled at other things, being unmarried, unemployed and virtually penniless, while all my classmates were moving steadily up the ladder of economic success.
Religion never had been a vocational interest of mine, even though two of my brothers had become ministers. I had gradually returned to a belief in God, but He remained to me a kind of "oblong blur." It was at this point, having seemingly failed at
everything else, that I yielded to my brothers' persuasion and in 1940 applied for admission to a theological seminary.
No spiritual "call" from God or anyone else affected this decision. There were no rapturous moments. A silent prayer was about all the spirituality I could muster. My situation probably resembled in some way that of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, whose "call" to the ministry came while tossing off a few beers in a speakeasy bar. My former fraternity president set the stage by informing me, "Frankly, I can't fancy you in the pulpit."
It really was preposterous, and I laugh at it now. At the time I stood a country mile from the Lord, but didn't know that I didn't know Him. At the theological seminary in which I enrolled it didn't seem to matter much whether I did know Him or didn't. The weekly quizzes included questions such as "Why did Paul say that Hagar was Mount Sinai?" and "Would I discuss the metaphysics of individualistic personalism?"
Two encounters during seminary years penetrated my darkness. Pearl Harbor had brought America into World War II, and with my IV-D draft deferment I spent a summer working for the war effort at a Navy docksite in upper San Francisco Bay. As a time-checker it became my duty each morning and afternoon to contact visibly the construction crewmen on the job.
In doing so I met a pleasant, middle-aged ditchdigger named Steve. Someone told me that Steve professed to be a Pentecostal Christian, and as the docksite personnel were not particularly known for their spirituality, I was curious. Striking up a conversation with Steve one day, I asked him if he went to church.
He leaned on his shovel and said, "Yes, I go to church. It's Wednesday, and I'll be there tonight."
"Do you enjoy church?" I asked.
"Well, yes, I enjoy the Word," he responded. "Sometimes I get real hungry for it, like I do for a piece of beefsteak."
A piece of beefsteak? The Bible?
Some weeks later I met another man while hitchhiking from my seminary in Berkeley to the Navy dock. This gentleman was
driving an old Model-A Ford and stopped to pick me up. After shaking hands with me he smiled, and asked me if I were saved.
I hated it when people asked me that. (Now I love it.) I simply didn't know whether I was saved or not. I told him I was a theological student. That not being quite the answer he wanted, for the next few miles I listened to the warmest, most enthusiastic tribute to the love and the power of Jesus Christ that I have ever heard. I kept thinking, "He's not a minister. He has nothing to gain from this. Why is he doing it?"
Graciously, the man did not pursue questioning me. He simply exuded the joy of the Lord's salvation. It so poured out of his heart that it left me wondering, What am I missing in my Christianity? At a highway crossing he dropped me off with another handshake, then smiled and wished me the best.
I never forgot either of those men.
Two years earlier I had married a godly Christian girl who really knew the Lord. She and her equally godly mother had original-version Scofield Bibles. It took time, but eventually they led me to faith in Christ, and the spiritual change became very real. They had the Holy Spirit. They simply ignored what I was being taught in seminary and fed me with the "beefsteak" of God's Word. They taught me to stop preaching about the Bible and start preaching the Bible. I finished seminary, served 26 months as chaplain (captain) in the Army Air Corps, earned a doctorate of philosophy in Scotland on the subsidy of the "GI Bill of Rights," came back to the San Francisco area, and pastored churches for eight years until 1959.
By this time I was able to preach a salvation message, and the people appreciated it. Yet the devil continued to make me feel as if life had cheated me, and I often wondered, Why couldn't I have been somebody else? This nagging, discontented atmosphere even affected relationships with my family. Theologically I was bound for heaven, but actually I still held on to the unhappiness of who I was, and drenched my soul in self-pity. I read books, took graduate courses, sat in lectures at the Jung Institute in Switzerland, became a patient in a Scottish psychotherapy clinic, and even tried to study logic. I continually sought to find out
what was wrong with me. I learned at last the problem, and should have known it from childhood: I simply didn't like myself.
In April 1958 Billy Graham came to San Francisco for a seven-week crusade. I had arrived at being a confirmed, praying evangelical, and liked both Billy and his message. Doors opened for me to write a book about his crusade, and Billy liked what I wrote. Thanks to him and his teammates, my first book was published by Harper as Crusade at the Golden Gate. In December of that year Billy telephoned one night, inviting me to join his team and to become editor of a new magazine he was planning. I moved my family to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and lived there 17 years. Decision magazine became the largest Christian magazine in the world, with a monthly circulation of 5 million copies.
Yes, things were great, except that . . .
When Satan finds a weakness in a Christian, he wastes no time exploiting it. The psalmist speaks of becoming "a stranger and sojourner from God." Like Bunyan's Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, I was floundering in the Slough of Despond and finding it had no bottom. Externally I had become a successful Christian journalist; internally my soul hurt. One word expressed my deepest feeling: "fury." There were times when I even lost interest in living. For a Christian, this is an ugly matter.
After the book about Billy Graham's 1958 crusade appeared, my next literary effort fell flat.
Meanwhile I watched other merry Christians around me smiling, laughing, seeming to live cheerful lives under the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Gloom did not fill the Bible I read each day. Some of the churches I attended sang cheerful songs. The people I worked with had their own problems, but they kept them to themselves and put on a bright face. The news of the day sounded bad but no worse than usual. The problem was simply me, me, me. I could not relax and enjoy. The devil had succeeded in robbing me of that beautiful something the Bible calls the joy of the Lord. It seemed beyond my attainment.
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