Newsletter for Nov 2008
As many of you are aware, I not only pastor a church but am also the founder and president of Grace Ministries Bible College. Because of this and the fact that so many of my sermons are available on the internet (www.jmmgrace.com), I am frequently contacted by people with questions. What I have noticed is that many Christians struggle to believe that God can use them "the way He uses me" because they don't have a good "Bible College education" or because of their sin-filled past.
Well, it might be quite shocking to some people to learn that I wasn't born with angel wings. In fact, there are those who knew me years ago who may have thought that I had a good set of devil's horns. You see, I haven't served God all my life and much of my past was anything but Christ-centered. In spite of it all, the Lord still had a divine plan for me, along with an abundance of mercy, grace and forgiveness
My birth mother got pregnant when she was only fourteen years old, and gave birth to me when she was fifteen. Just a few weeks later I was adopted by a wonderful, loving Christian couple. As I grew up knowing I was adopted, I could easily have given in to deep feelings of rejection: Why didn't my mother love me? Why didn't my mother want me? What did I do that was so bad that she didn't want me around? Why didn't the rest of her family want to help raise me? What was so wrong with me?
Instead, I made a choice to refuse those feelings of rejection and embraced the love shown to me by my adopting mom and dad. This is a point I want to stress: It may seem as though your parents, spouse, children or whoever have rejected you, but it is your choice to accept or refuse the depressing feelings of rejection. You do not have to live in that prison. Besides, even if everyone else turns away from you, God has not rejected you!
My earliest memories from childhood include attending church every time the doors were open. Mom and dad were Southern Baptists, firmly committed to God and their church. Both were involved in many activities; as a result, I (along with my younger brother and sister) ended up at church more than most of the other kids. One thing I learned for certain was that a person absolutely must accept Jesus Christ as Savior if he had any hope of going to Heaven.
One warm, August Sunday night after we got home from church and I went to bed, I got on my knees, pulled the sheet over my head and prayed to receive Jesus as my Savoir. I was fourteen and why I did it that way, I have no idea. But I can still "see" the image of that moment very clearly and remember that I meant that prayer with everything in me; I truly wanted to be born again.
From childhood I had always been quite an inquisitive thinker and, let's just say, a little bit "independent." After I was born again, those "personality attributes" carried over into my Christian life. I didn't drink or do drugs, but some people, especially other parents in our church, felt I was something of a wild child. As I got older, got my driver's license and a car, it was rare that I would ask a girl for a date and not have in mind some "back seat fellowship." You see, even though I meant it when I prayed to receive Jesus, I still had not yielded all of my life over to Him.
This is why so many Christians struggle: they want to live for Jesus, but do not fully commit every aspect of their lives to Him. What you end up with is a house divided. Such Christians may go through bouts of depression, confusion, frustration, feelings of defeat, uncertainty, and cycles of up and down emotions.
But I am telling you from experience, there is complete stability in Christ. The more of your life you yield to Him, the more of His peace you will have each day. You cannot hold anything back; you must surrender your time, your habits, your relationships, even what you believe doctrinally. When you do, He will establish divine order and balance in your life the likes of which you have never known!
When I was 21, the girl I had met at church and had been dating for quite a long time made one of the best decisions of her life: she broke up with me. Though I was never abusive, I was aimless regarding a career, immature, and, most importantly, not committed to the Lord the way she needed in a boyfriend. That breakup hurt because I was very much in love with her and thought we would end up getting married. At the same time, I knew in my heart that she had made the right choice.
After we broke up, I remember thinking that, since I had lost her, I no longer had a reason to "live right." This began a horrible downward cycle that took me miles away from a relationship with God. Please don't think that I am blaming her breaking up with me for my wrong choices; if she had been a "party girl" I would have started making certain wrong choices while we were dating. The truth is I was living much of my life just to please her, not God.
Therein lies the problem for many Christians: they are trying to live in a way that will bring approval in the eyes of friends and loved ones instead of seeking God's will for their lives and living according to that will. In Luke 14:25-33, Jesus makes it very clear that serving Him means you run the risk of not getting the approval of those closest to you. Our responsibility is to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; we cannot do this if we are trying to please others and get their approval. I can assure you that getting God's approval means far more and produces more joy in life.
I turned my back on both God and church and started going to bars on two-for-one beer nights. I can still remember the first time I got really drunk. Seeing two friends from college, I sat down at their table. They asked me if I had ever had the mixed drinks they were drinking. I told them no, so they got me a glass and started pouring half their drinks into my glass. I have no idea how long this went on, but I was definitely under the influence when I finally went home.
Eventually, I started going out almost every night. My goal was to get "manageably drunk," meaning, I could still walk straight and drive home. It got to the point that I simply could not drink enough beer to get drunk the way I wanted, so I focused on mixed drinks. The problem with mixed drinks is that the sugar from the orange juice, Coke, or Seven-Up combined with the alcohol could produce a terrible hangover. So, I went from mixed drinks to straight whiskey or vodka poured over ice (I didn't like booze at room-temperature). My tolerance for alcohol grew and getting drunk at bars got expensive. To help remedy this, I began getting half-drunk at home before going out. I actually filled a glass with whiskey and put it in the refrigerator before leaving for work in the morning so it would be cold when I got home.
Along with the drinking I began smoking marijuana and taking prescription drugs. Since I worked in a hospital and came in contact with doctors every day, it was easy to get them to write prescriptions for pain killers to "help with my severe toothache until I could get to the dentist." During all of this I had moved into an apartment with a friend. This new-found freedom led to more drinking and drugs, not to mention my on-going search for a "girlfriend-for-the-night."
After a year in the apartment, I moved into a house a friend owned in an affluent part of town. This only served to increase my drinking, drugs and girl-chasing. Looking back on it, I can only imagine what the neighbors thought as some of our parties resulted in cars being parked the entire length of both sides of the street. Throughout all of these "sin years" my vocabulary was extremely colorful and laced with four-letter expletives.
But the drinking and drugs were only a part of what I was doing. A friend and I began doing some things that were quite illegal and made money in the process. Also, I figured out a way to bypass the doctors in order to obtain prescription drugs. I'm leaving out many details about these things so as not to be an "inspiration" to someone to try what I did. But had I been arrested and convicted for everything, it is possible that I might still be in jail.
Some people might say that if I had truly been born again I could never have done all of these things. But this is one of the greatest deceptions taught in many churches. As I shared earlier, I clearly remember the night I prayed to accept Jesus as Savior. The memory is so strong that I even remember trying my best to "pray hard" so God would know I was serious.
What many Christians fail to understand is that being born again does not mean we lose our free will to make choices. If God were going to violate a person's free will, He would have done so the moment Adam reached for the forbidden fruit. The Lord would have knocked Adam down or done something to keep him from eating that fruit and subsequently opening the door for sin and death to corrupt humanity. Think of all the people who could have been saved from Hell if God had violated Adam's free will.
But free will and the ability to choose is very valuable to God. This is one of the reasons He sent Jesus to die on the cross. Because of the completed work of Christ, we can now exercise our will and choose salvation through faith in Jesus, or Hell through rejecting Jesus. The choice is ours and God will not make it for us.
This is very important for Christians to keep in mind. If you want to choose sin, you can do so. But you can also choose to live the life Jesus died to give you. It really is your choice; God will not make you go to church, pray, read your Bible, worship, or serve Him. He also will not tie you down to keep you from acts of sin. It has been my experience that many Christians are not living victoriously simply because of choices they make.
I was 24 years old when, on July 3rd of that year, I was in a bar and met this incredibly beautiful girl named Kathy. I couldn't believe someone so gorgeous would pay any attention to me, but she did. My heart was pounding, my respiration was accelerating, and my eyes were spinning (yes, I was drunk, but not that drunk). After that night we began dating, sharing a mutual interest in drugs and alcohol…and falling in love. Five months later, in December, we became engaged. (By the way, after almost 27 years of marriage, my heart still pounds, my respiration still accelerates and my eyes still spin!)
Throughout my years of rebellion I had known that my mother and her prayer partners had been praying for me. But what I didn't know was that Kathy had been searching for a real meaning to her life and had occasionally been talking to God in her car on the way to work. She and I visited my parents quite often and while there one night, mom led Kathy in a prayer to accept Jesus. We started attending church and I rededicated my life to Christ.
Kathy and I were married on February 6, 1982. We were immediately faithful in church attendance. Every time the doors were open, we were there. We were involved in many different activities and had wonderful fellowship with others in the church. In 1989 we were attending another church and it was in that year I finally acknowledged that God had a call to ministry on my life. Later that year, I preached my first sermon, "Who's Influencing Who?" In 1994 I began pastoring; and in 1997 I went full-time in ministry.
It was also in 1997 that God began dealing with me about going back to college to get an advanced degree. I knew He meant a doctorate and quite honestly, I had absolutely no desire to go back to school and get such a degree. I am not impressed by how many degrees a preacher has; I want to know about his doctrine and walk with God. Nevertheless, I knew what God wanted, so I obeyed.
It was after I had received a Master's Degree in Pastoral Ministry and was working on my Ph.D. in Christian Theology that God began speaking to me about opening a college, and that this was the reason He had told me to get an advanced degree. In September of 2001 I opened Grace Ministries Bible College, a very unique school in that we do not charge for either tuition or course material - it is strictly a walk of faith. Something else that separates GMBC from many other Christian institutions is that we not only tell students what to do to discover, become equipped and fulfill their ministry calling, we show from scripture how to do these things.
One thing I want to make very clear is that my college education and degrees have not "made" my ministry. While I obviously am not opposed to a person going to college, the school you attend is not helping you at all (in terms of ministry and spiritual growth) if it does not teach you God's word in a line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept manner. The bottom line is that your ministry has been determined for you by God, and it is only through intimate fellowship with Him that your ministry will develop in you and flow out of you.
In a few short pages I have briefly covered over 52 years of living. The point I'm making is this: I truly accepted Jesus as my Savior, but I turned my back on Him and chose to spend years in a despicable life of sin. It wasn't just that I lived in sin, but that I willingly chose sin over the life He had given me…yet when I called out to Him in repentance, He was there to take me back. Praise God! Not only that, but the whole time He was waiting for me to get my act together so He could impart to me His ministry calling on my life. And you know what: Not once has He ever held my past up before my face and condemned me!
I don't know what your past is like, but I am a perfect example of how God can use a person no matter what he or she has done. He is more interested in your future than He is your past. In Hebrews 8:12 He states that He will not remember our sins and iniquities. If you continue to believe that God can't or won't use you because you lived in sin or were a terrible backslider, you are right - because you will keep focusing on what you have done instead of what Jesus has done for you.
But I can tell you from experience, God will put the broken pieces of a life back together and when He is done, the end result will be the image of Christ, not a portrait of a sinful past. Don't limit God; leave your past where it is and press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. People may criticize and try to hold you back, but God will strengthen your heart and exalt you in due season…He is NOT finished with you!
Yours in His grace,