I found myself reminiscing yesterday of how blessed and thankful I was to have a Christian mentor when I was coming to the faith. I look back and realize just how much time and energy (and food) it cost him to educate a professing atheist and catechize me into the faith. God bless him for his faithfulness.
While the foundation that my mentor had set forth for me through God’s grace proved to be sufficient to get me through secular college without making shipwreck of my faith, there are several things I’ve learned from firsthand experience that have been significant in the trials of life and the continuous threatening of sin. In no particular order of importance:
1. I had the understanding very early on that bad things would inevitably happen to me as a Christian and that God would use it for my benefit and growth. My mentor, Richard, did not give me a false impression of what being a Christian was going to be like. In fact, much of his efforts seemed to be trying to convince me OUT of making a quick decision to follow Jesus. Thus when I finally managed to convince him that I was ready to be baptized, I had the expectation and understanding that it would be anything but easy, that it would cost me everything, and this (I believe) was pivotal to my perseverance thus far.
1. A mentor is an invaluable resource when you have questions or objections and need a safe place to ask the tough stuff. Having someone who can help you in times of struggle, hold you up in prayer, and shed light on situations when you are in the dark is worth more than all the gold in creation.
3. Sin left unrepented of will slowly kill you. Having gone to government school and meeting several outspoken Christians during that time, I’m often surprised to find that many of these people are no longer on fire for the Lord, or worse, have left the faith completely. Richard spent a lot of time with me going over the Parable of the Sower, and I remember being horrified of the possibility that I was the plant that grew quickly without root! Scripture told me that the downfall of those without roots would come from trials and from offense because of the Word itself. This caused me to consider often what trials could potentially shatter my faith, and guard against them.
4. Zeal without controlled focus can cause more harm than good. Young Noel was excited for Jesus, zealous for the truth, and didn’t understand that his words and character would have negative effects on those around him. I look back and am sometimes embarrassed but remember that I truly did have the best intentions at heart. I found other zealous Christians who were very dogmatic about particular scriptural interpretations as well which in a sense helped sand down the rough edges. I was now 2 hours away from my home church and had no true pastoral covering to help me in this long season. What could have been honed and directed in a godly manner through a discerning pastor within a short amount of time, I obstinately learned after a decade of online debates, campus free-speech lawn conversations, arguments with friends and family, and door to door evangelism. Fun times.
5. God has never once dealt with my sin to the extremity I feel I deserve, but is always gentle with me which breaks me even more. This is a much newer revelation for me, thus I don’t have much more to explain it through, however, I bet this could have profound effects on how I go about parenting and disciplining my children as well. Stay tuned.
6. God uses my spouse and children to develop my character. Not to say that they are difficult to deal with, but simply that marriage and children force you to think of others before yourself, and that is on purpose. It’s not good for a man to be alone, mainly (I’m convinced) because he is a selfish creature who seeks to gratify his flesh by any means possible. A good wife is a gift from God, and a great way to gently learn how to live a more selfless life. You find out very quickly that she has opposing desires, and that they are divinely designed to chip away at your selfish inclinations. Children, on the other hand, teach a man to not just give of himself fully, but to find joy in the sacrifice.
7. Telling myself “NO” often in little things that are otherwise good in and of themselves conditions me to say “NO” to the big things that could destroy me. At some point, Paul’s emphasis on beating his body into submission came alive in me. I recognized that the Spirit was truly willing, but the flesh was not. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sophisticated enough early on to understand how to make the Spirit in me louder than the flesh, and often times, even with all my willpower I could muster, I would fall into a sin after much struggle and find myself not only unwilling to escape immediately, but WALLOWING in the sin to “cool my flesh”. Willpower will only get you so far, but the flesh if not crucified will still burn for its sinful desires and overindulge itself in times of weakness. The secret sauce I discovered from the desert fathers is denying your flesh blessings today so that your are equip for the temptations tomorrow by continuous prayer and fasting. I don’t eat until I’m full, that would train my body to overindulge. Instead, I eat until I am barely satisfied and desire nothing more than to take another bite. That is the point I have determined to say no, and the fruit of this practice has been significantly better self control in the bigger things.
8. The times I feel least like praying are the times I recognize I need to pray the most. Times when I’m harboring anger and unforgiveness towards someone for example, I feel my blood burning, my desire to exact justice seeks an outlet. What a fantastic opportunity to die to self and pray for that person instead until that fiery hatred dissipates through painful humility.
9. Recognizing that sinful thoughts and temptations themselves are not representative of my weaknesses, but it’s what I do with those passing thoughts that reveals my heart. This was a life changing realization for me. Jesus shows us that while He was tempted in every way, He was without sin. The temptations He experienced were not due to inward weakness and sinfulness, but came from outside influences. The fiery darts of the enemy come as depraved thoughts in an attempt to cause you to stumble and fall. The demons know that if they can get one of those darts to stick (get you to meditate and savor the sinful thought) that it will cause you to stumble. Many Christians unfortunately understanding these thoughts to be because of their wickedness and thus forfeit the fight when it matters the most.
10. I choose to do the hard things at the very moment I don’t want to do them. Like the feeling of applying isopropyl alcohol to a freshly shaved face, it burns like crazy, but the purpose is to disinfect and kill the unwelcomed guests.
11. If I could go back in time and give myself advice, I would say, “There is always someone smarter that will convince you of an opposing position, so instead of trying to figure it all out, take that time and pray. It’s always more fruitful.” So much time I’ve wasted trying to intellectually discern theology that we’ve been told is spiritually discerned. I found I’m very susceptible to trying to learn about God without committing to getting to know God. Thus, in my particular situation, I have to purposely overemphasize prayer over study to balance out.
12. Repent immediately while you have the will to do so, the next time that thought comes might be too late. This was already semi-mentioned earlier, but probably most important. In the last 12 years, I’ve known many Christians who had pet sins that they believed they could control. They could have never imagined how that same sin would have lead to complete shipwreck and apostacy within just a few years. It’s been these examples that have acted as a sober reminder to me to not think too highly of myself, not to think that I’ve somehow merited the grace and blessings God has poured out on me these 12 amazing years. It simply reminds me that I am at all times just one compromise away from sacrificing all of this for a moment of selfishness.