When I was really small, my dad would take me to villages in the deep interior of northeast Brazil where people would gather from miles around to hear him preach about Jesus. He used to preach to small gatherings of twenty to forty people beneath the light of a single Coleman lantern, and I would sit in the dark background and listen. When Dad would talk about Jesus coming back to the earth at any moment, I would lay back and stare into the deep, starry black, expecting to see Him, shining brighter than the largest star. At those moments, I was full of awe and wonder. Could it be now, this very second? I sat through many preachings, and although I heard many, many times that He was coming at any second, He never burst through the skies like I thought He would. I never doubted He would, though, until later on in my years, when I began to see a little of why He might not want to come back.
Another thing that never really occurred to me until later was that if He did show up, I might not be one of the ones He was looking for. I didn’t exactly spend a lot of time looking for Him because, well, I was too busy with life, and life didn’t seem to relate too much to Him anyway, since He was up in the sky waiting for His Father to give Him the go ahead to come back to the earth. I knew He was there because Dad said He was. All I knew was that we were all supposed to be ready for Him when He came back, and wasn’t I? My mom tells me I was a good boy back then.
When I was seven years old I didn’t feel too good. At that age I saw that my life and the lives of those around me at boarding school were filled with contentions, strife, and sin. I felt a need for Jesus. He could change my life, I thought, and somehow I would come to the end of the way I was. I said the sinner's prayer and I did change, for two days. The life I lived in missionary boarding school didn’t change. I found myself totally uninspired about Jesus, and although I never thought I lost my salvation (once saved, always saved), I despaired of ever being able to change.
I remember being taught that reading my Bible, praying, and meditating about Jesus would change me, but the Bible was difficult to read, being written in the days of King James of England, and I couldn’t concentrate on praying, much less thinking. I couldn’t go to any of my friends for help (you really couldn’t admit weakness to them if you wanted peace in your life); and besides, they were as bad or worse than I was. Going to an adult was unthinkable. You never told adults anything you didn’t have to. Yes, they were good Christian people, but what I wanted was true friends. If there was only a way to change me from within and change everyone around me...
Love was a word that I had begun to notice many times in my Bible. The more I read the New Testament, the more I saw that word. One day I read that God is love1 and the one who loves is born of God, a son of God. I became convinced that somehow love had to be the most important thing in the life of a Christian. I even read that the mark of those who love and follow the Son of God would be a recognizable love between them and others who love and follow Him. What, then, after reading these things, was I to do with the lack of recognizable love I saw all around me in my Christian boarding school and the churches I attended? I knew that a lack of love had to be grievous sin, since the very nature of God is love. I didn’t just want to be a "sinner saved by grace." I didn’t just want to go on sinning and asking for forgiveness, sinning and asking for forgiveness, sinning and asking for forgiveness. I wanted to change! When I talked about it with people, the message was always the same old dead message: "Even though Christ died for us, we’ll always be sinners, we’ll never stop sinning." So what was I supposed to think? Was I supposed to be hopeless about a real change in my life? Because I was forgiven and Jesus makes up for my faults, was I supposed to go on sinning, living selfishly, lacking in love?
I didn’t think so. It seemed like defeat to say that we’re all just sinners; we’re going to sin. And worse yet, we must live in sin because we’re too sinful to be totally obedient to the Master's words. This would seem to require a constant state of forgiveness for which the Scriptures2 make clear there is no provision — no provision to go on sinning once I knew the truth and knew His way. The power of Christ's death had to be more than just washing away my sin. It had to change me!
When I was seventeen, I had a Bible class on the book of Acts. Our teacher was a Calvinist. She taught us that one day God walked through a field of dead human beings, and according to His unfathomable reasoning, He chose some to live forever and some to go to eternal damnation; and since all were worthy of burning forever it didn’t really matter. I sat there wishing that His reasoning was a little more fathomable because it left me feeling bad. Was God really that way? If all men deserved the sea of fire and He could save all, why didn’t He? I wasn’t too attracted or inspired by the idea. It got to the point that I was upset at the teacher and wanted to tear the book of Acts right out of my Bible.
In the process, though, I did read Acts 2 and 4. I was amazed. There they were — the disciples all together! What an amazing love they had for one another! They sold large tracts of land and brought the proceeds to the apostles to meet the needs of the new community of believers. They were all of one mind, learning and obeying the apostles’ teaching, eating their meals together. Love must have filled them to be able to act like that. I thought we Christians should all be that way, but when I presented the idea to my teachers, they said, no. Living in community was really a mistake the early church made. God had to send persecution to destroy that kind of love. It made them inward and selfish, and they didn’t go out to evangelize the lost souls beyond Jerusalem. My Dad had another answer — human nature is too strong, man too selfish to live that way for very long. Probably they got tired of each other and started yelling about each other's kids, and bang, it was all over! Ah, the power of the Devil and the flesh, I thought, they hold the church in bondage still. Somewhere, though, I had read that even the gates of Hell wouldn’t prevail against the gathered community of saints. What was the matter? Were we living in sin? I really couldn’t figure it all out. Things seemed one way, but I was told they were another.
By the time I was eighteen, I had sunk into life's many problems. During my first year at a Christian college in Tennessee, depression set in. Yet in the midst of all that I cried out in desperation to the God of heaven. I wanted so badly to change, to be rescued from my personal sins. I needed to be around people that would have hope, a hope that was real enough to admit that loving as the Master loved was possible.
Well, we met. They found me purposelessly studying to be a missionary. They gave me hope and showed me that it was possible for us to love one another as He loved us. I’ve been with them for twenty years now, and our love for our Master and each other does nothing but grow. Our life has a purifying hardship and an abundance of joy, and we are together. I discovered that people who are Christians don’t love other Christians like they know they should because they are afraid they’ll get hurt. And they will. There has to be a container for love, a protection of peace where love isn’t denied, but instead is planted in the good soil of the bonds of commitment, much as in a marriage. The marriage covenant is God's provision to protect and nourish the love between a man and a woman. In the same way, the New Covenant establishes the community of saints, the special environment where our love can be planted and nourished. As a man must leave his father's house to be joined with his wife, so too one must leave his old life behind and share all he has with his fellow disciples.
Here I received faith to give up my life and possessions in obedience to Luke 14:33. Here I can literally deny myself and be a disciple. I found the Son of God dwelling in my brothers and through them I have real contact with Him. I still wait for Him to come out of the sky, but I discovered His Spirit right here on earth, His very own person right here in His body. He is making us into a faithful bride, purifying us, removing every spot and wrinkle. True love, with nothing withheld, is His way.
~ Robert Brooks