What does it mean to be a Christian?
When I sat at the the hospital desk, pre-registering for the birth of my first son, I found myself presented with one of those questions that always made my palms sweat: What is your religious preference?
That was more than 23 years ago, but I still remember the catch in my chest when I wrote, “Christian.” I wanted to be a Christian, but could I really make that claim? That was the real question rolling around in my mind. There I was, a well-raised, educated, and professional 27-year-old, but I was still unable to fully grasp what it meant to be a Christian.
By the time I reached my mid-30’s, I’d given up on becoming a Christian
My spiritual life was filled with so many stops and starts that I had pretty much given up on the idea of “becoming a Christian” by the time I reached my mid-30’s. I had spent years in and out of various churches, following along behind this friend or that, trying to find my place in God’s family. But for so long, I felt like I was just wandering. Lost. That is, until one special evening when God came knocking at my front door.
That’s the night I learned what it means to be a child of God. The night I realized that I was finally ready for a relationship with Him. It was the night that, after all those years of chasing God, He finally caught me.
Young marrieds, trying to find our way
We didn’t grow up in church-going families, but when my husband and I got married in our early 20’s, we set out to find ourselves a church. It felt like the right way to start our new life together. We kind of considered ourselves “pre-Christians.” We believed in God…and we hadn’t decided NOT to be Christian…so in our minds we just needed one more ingredient. A church. Because there was one thing we thought we knew for sure: going to church is what makes a person a Christian. No problem!
In our journey, we visited this church and that, in search of the right place for us. We were wide-eyed and overwhelmed at our first stop–a tiny church where (I’m just going to say it) the people singing and dancing and running around the church scared us. After a couple more churches, we started popping into our own neighborhood church. For a while.
If attending church was, indeed, what defined a Christian (as we continued to believe) then we were doomed! Looking back, I have no doubt that the message of salvation was delivered many times while I sat in the church pews, but somehow I had never truly heard or understood it. We were just going through the motions, without a real relationship with God.
God comes knocking
One Monday evening, fourteen years into our marriage, we were enjoying a rare evening at home. Our two young boys and their dad were watching Monday Night Football while I read The Purpose Driven Life (still trying to figure out my own life’s purpose and how God factored into it). We had three family members and friends suffering from terminal illness, and we were reeling. One of those people, my husband’s grandfather, had recently said, “Don’t worry about me. I know where I’m going. I just want you all to know where you’re going, too.”
You see, that was the problem. We didn’t know how to know! Was it all about being a good person? Leading a good life? Getting to church each week?
As my husband and I sat on the sofa, talking about our uncertainty – and our fears — we were interrupted by a knock at the door. We suspected it was a visitation team from the latest church we’d been visiting. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but prior to that moment, we likely would have left the door unanswered. This night was different.
We welcomed our visitors into our living room, where they had to step around blankets and Sonic wrappers, and little boys having a picnic dinner on the floor. Normally, I’d be mortified by the mess; this time, I didn’t care one bit! Something big was going to happen and I could feel it.
Indeed, that night, December 3, 2003, was a night I’ll never forget. That’s when I finally understood what it meant to accept Christ into my heart. I finally understood that being a Child of God is more than going to church, and it’s not about “working hard” to secure a place in heaven. It’s about recognizing that God sacrificed His very own son so that I and other believers can spend eternity with Him. And it’s about accepting His grace, His gift, and letting Him into my heart.
That night, and my walk with God since then, has transformed how I see everything in my life. I used to look for personal fulfillment from my husband, my children, or my job (depending on the day), but now I understand that no earthly person or thing can really be my “everything.”
The fire lit that night continues to burn brightly today, even when the world feels dark and scary. In fact, my greatest blessing actually occurred during a period of heartbreak, when I had the privilege of leading my dear mother to Christ after she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. For nearly two years, she and I grew together in our walk with the Lord. My heart is full, knowing I’ll be with her again someday.
God’s timing is perfect timing
I used to wonder how I came to be 37 years old without understanding what it meant to be a Child of God. I see now that even as I searched for God, I was still creating barriers, too. Most importantly, though, I understand now that God had a plan for me, and His time schedule wasn’t (and still isn’t) the same as my own schedule. My job is to persevere and to never give up, while continuing to trust in God’s timing.
I’m thankful God came knocking on our door that cold December night. And I’m thankful that this time…we finally opened the door.