“What would you do if you were 22 again?”
I was recently asked that question as part of a conference on world missions. I turned 22 in the middle of my senior year at Wheaton College. I was an English Literature major and headed to Fuller Seminary. I got engaged to Noël five months after I turned 22, just before I graduated. God’s call on my life, as I discerned it, was clear but broad: I felt called to the word of God. What I would do with it, I had no idea.
As I asked myself this question, I pondered whether to go in the direction of, “What would I do differently?” But that didn’t seem helpful because what I would have said was, “I would try to do everything better” — pray better, worship better, love my wife better, witness to unbelievers better, study better. So instead, it seemed to me I should go in the direction of, “What are the most important things I would do at 22?” Not in the abstract, but the real me where I was and who I was in 1968. What if I started over with all the same circumstances in place? Well, I would do six things.
1. I would marry a radical, risk-taking, go-anywhere-for-Jesus, world-Christian woman. In fact, I would marry my wife, Noël Henry.
Not long after we met, when I was 20, and we were head over heels in love, and already thinking about marriage, I asked her, “If God called me to be a missionary to Africa, would you go with me?” She said, “Yes, I would see myself called to be by your side and support you.”
We married when I was 22, and my first job was teaching for six years in a college in St. Paul. But when I was 33, God made his call into the pastoral ministry irresistible, and I asked her if she would support me in this. She said yes.
One year into that pastoral ministry, I was so discouraged one Sunday afternoon that I put my face in my hands and said out loud at the dining room table, so that she could hear me from the bedroom, “I think I’m going to go to Africa.” Without missing a beat, she said from the bedroom, “Tell me when to pack.”
Four years into that pastoral ministry, God touched us powerfully for the cause of global missions and I asked her, “What if we invite everybody in the church who’s seriously interested in pursuing missions to join us in our living room Friday night?” She said yes. And twice a year (usually) for the next 20 years we had around 100 people packed into our living room and dining room with all the furniture moved to the bedrooms upstairs.
So if I were 22 again, I would marry this woman.
The lesson for you: Pray that your future spouse, or your present spouse, be a radical, risk-taking, go-anywhere-for-Jesus world Christian.
2. I would take that young wife of mine and join a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-structured, Bible-obedient church.
I would attend the corporate worship of that church with my wife every Sunday.
We would seek to throw ourselves into the ministries of the church in the hope that this community of believers would guard and grow our faith, and would help us identify our spiritual gifts and our calling, and would catapult us into a lifetime of ministry.
At age 22, as newlyweds, Noël and I joined Lake Avenue Congregational church in Pasadena, California. Noël discovered a gift for working with mentally disabled young adults. And I discovered a gift for teaching as I taught seventh grade boys, and then ninth grade boys, and then the Galilean young adult Sunday school class.
Where is your calling to ministry or missions confirmed and nurtured? In the local church.
I came under the care of the deacons at Lake Avenue Church, and was set on a path toward ordination. Glenn Dawson stayed in touch with me for three years during seminary, and for three more years during graduate studies in Germany, until in 1975, seven years later, when I was ordained to the gospel ministry in that same local church. An amazing relationship.
The lesson for you: Find a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-structured, Bible-obedient church. Join it, serve it, discover your gifts, and be accountable to the community as you follow God’s call.
3. I would go to seminary.
I would go to seminary and spend three or four years totally immersed in the most rigorous study of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, with a view to laying a foundation for a lifetime of seeing the glory of Christ in his word so clearly that I would never waver in my commitment to believe and speak whatever the Bible teaches, wherever in the world God puts me.
I would not prioritize practical courses, but every chance the curriculum gave me, I would prioritize exegetical courses, on the assumption (which I still believe at age 72) that, in general, practical skills are learned better on the job in the church; but the deepening and sharpening of exegetical skills for a lifetime of fruitful reading are best accomplished in the rigorous give-and-take of a class, under the watchful eye of a skilled teacher.
I would put the highest priority on learning how to penetrate to the original meaning — the original intention — of the biblical writers, because those are the very meanings and realities that will be relevant among all the peoples of the world — any time, all the time. My ideas about the modern Western world, and my assumptions about the application of these meanings to my situation, are not the main issue when God puts me in a people group with a radically different culture than mine. But the original meanings of the paragraphs of the Bible are of paramount importance. This is what I would pursue above all things.
The lesson for you: Whether you attend seminary or not, become as Bible-saturated as you can, putting yourself under the influence of the most insightful Bible-teachers, dead and alive.
4. I would resolve to read my Bible every day for the rest of my life.
I would make Bible reading more important than eating, and getting exercise, and kissing my wife.
There have been about 18,340 days since I turned 22, and I think I have read my Bible on more of those days than I have eaten. I have certainly read my Bible on more of those days that I have watched television or videos. I have read my Bible on more of those days than I have kissed my wife, because I have been away from my wife often, but I have almost never been away from the Bible.
But I have learned a few things about reading the Bible, and if I were 22 again, my Bible-reading resolution would sound something like this:
I resolve every day, in reading my Bible, to push through the haze of vague awareness to the very wording of the text itself;
and I would push into and through the wording of the text to the intention of the author’s mind — both human and divine;
and I would push into and through that intention to the reality behind all the words and grammar and logic;
and I would push into that reality until it was an emotionally experienced reality, with emotions that correspond to the nature of the reality;
and I would push into and through this proportionately emotional experience of the reality behind the text until it took form in word and deed in my life;
and I would push through this emotionally charged word and deed until others saw the reality and joined me in this encounter with God’s word.
Nothing is revealed more quickly on the mission field than a superficial encounter with the living God and the glorious realities he has revealed in Scripture. Superficial Bible reading that does not penetrate through the words to the intention to the reality to the experience to the deed will be of little use when faced with the massive demonic forces of unreached peoples.
The lesson for you: Read your Bible every day of your life. If you have time for breakfast, never say that you don’t have time for God’s word. Don’t get your Bible-reading pleasure from the fact that your conscience is clear when the Bible box is checked, but get your pleasure from the living, supernatural encounter with God-revealed reality in Scripture.
5. I would become a Christian Hedonist.
That is, I would seek to find more joy in God than anything else in the world, for the sake of personal holiness, perseverance through pain, and the promotion of the glory of God.
I would get clarity and certainty around the sentence: God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him.
Which means that, by means of savoring the sweetness of the promises of God, I would put to death every rising quiver of pride, and self-reliance, and lust, and greed, and fear, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because, unless these sins die, I will be dogged by fruitlessness in this life, and damned in the next.
I would recognize at age 22 that the fight for joy in God, through every bright and dismal circumstance of life, is the essential key in my mission for a life of authentic holiness, and fruitful perseverance, where God gets the glory.
The lesson for you: Become a Christian Hedonist, whether you call yourself that or not. Don’t aim at fame. Don’t aim at sexual gratification. Don’t aim at wealth. And don’t aim at safety. Aim at all-satisfying joy in God which will empower you for humility, and chastity, and simplicity, and risk-taking, sacrificial love.
6. I would recognize that I am not my own, that I have been bought with a price, and that I belong, body and soul, to Jesus Christ for his use and his glory in this world.
And I would offer myself up to God and tell him that he may do with me anything he pleases, at any time he pleases, anywhere he pleases.
And I would memorize Psalm 25, and trust the amazing promises of guidance that are given in those precious verses.
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way. (Psalm 25:8–9)
The lesson for you: Memorize Psalm 25. Pray it as your own. Give yourself wholly up to God and his mission. And trust him.