Not every Christian has a dramatic conversion story to tell. God draws some people to himself so young they can’t remember their lives before Christ. Others were born into the church and attended for decades before making a profession of faith and submitting to baptism. Ask them when they first believed, and they may not have a clear answer because the transformation was too slow, lacking significant contrast between a subtle before and after.
Many Christians, however, can tell riveting stories that rival the world’s greatest novels. They were once thieves, adulterers, and murderers, loving their sin and hating even the notion of God when a light from heaven suddenly flashed around them (Ac 9:3). Like Saul of Tarsus, Christ’s glory instantly, inexplicably, and irrevocably pierced their hearts. The scales fell from their eyes, and they never gave the old life another glance (Ac 9:18).
My conversion story is all of the above.
My conservative Christian parents weren’t especially flexible regarding Sunday morning routines when I was a child. Unless the roads were impassible or I was deathly ill, we were going to church. Once I was reasonably old enough, they also expected me to sit up straight, keep my mouth shut, and pay attention no matter how long-winded the preacher.
I lived a sheltered childhood. I was probably older than most kids before I knew anything about divorce or broken homes. My parents were strict, though always tender. They taught me a clear distinction between right and wrong while never failing to reflect God’s kindness and love as they did. In the years following my puberty, they also managed to demonstrate his long-suffering.
Mom claims she always knew I’d become a pastor. I believe her, but she must have received supernatural revelation because I scarcely resembled godliness for the next decade. If we were to show my teenage years on the big screen, the film would be rated R. I smoked, drank, cursed, lied, cheated, disrespected almost every authority figure in my life, fornicated, and blasphemed. I’ll admit now what I couldn’t understand then. I was a depraved wretch who deserved death and the eternal torments of God’s holy wrath. While I was a nice enough kid most of the time, I merely hid my hardened, rebellious heart behind a thin layer of pleasantness.
High school graduation afforded me the freedom to take my sin on the road. I gathered together all I had and traveled to a distant country, the southern state of Georgia, and squandered my estate in foolish living (Lk 15:13). Aspiring to rock stardom, I fled my home, family, and responsibilities to start a band on the Allman Brothers’ old stomping grounds. Since honest work hindered my chosen lifestyle, occasionally, I had to write bad checks when my gas tank was dry or I needed a fresh carton of cigarettes. Even the prodigal son was willing to feed pigs for a buck when he had nothing, but I was too proud and lazy for that (Lk 15:14, 15).
You should know, however, I did not lack a conscience. I fell asleep many nights to Bob Dylan singing, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” Thoughts of God and my guilt before him weighed heavy on my mind. Thoughts of my mother, no doubt wondering what I was doing and where, broke my heart. Even so, I was able to suppress the truth with more unrighteousness (Ro 1:18). Two or three beers usually did the trick, but most any short-term distraction would suffice. Never mind tomorrow. I only had to survive the present day’s miseries, which I couldn’t bring myself to admit were self-inflicted.
Eventually, I returned to my home state with a week’s worth of clothes. I planned to slip into town without my parents knowing and brag to my friends about the band’s success before leaving again as quietly as I came. As it happened, though, my old friends weren’t interested in my wildly exaggerated stories from the South, and providence insisted I confront my family whether I liked it or not. The county judicial system agreed. Police surrounded my car late one evening, arrested me for check deception, and locked me in Ward 8 for the better part of a week.
As a person who already suffered the occasional migraine, the caffeine and nicotine withdrawal I suffered was painful. I slept as much as I could, but it’s hard to stay unconscious when it feels like someone’s smashing your head with a steel hammer. Unable to sleep, I thought about my current mess and considered my options. After a few days, I reluctantly called my parents.
You might think this incident was enough to send me running to the foot of the cross. At the very least, it should have moved me to apologize to my family, and if life were an after-school special, it certainly would have, but it didn’t. Mom and Dad bailed me out, the judge sentenced me to community service and one year of probation, stipulating I stay with my parents for the duration, and I changed very little. Before my time building parks and collecting trash along the highway was complete, I had already escaped to live elsewhere.
I have skipped large, even significant swaths of this story for brevity’s sake. One doesn’t need every detail to get an accurate sense of my lostness. I was an average kid whom two loving believers raised to know God and his word. They gave me every advantage and a thousand second chances, yet I spurned them all for reasons I can no longer comprehend. As a dog returns to its vomit, so also a fool repeats his foolishness (Pr 26:11). I was a fool. Enough said.
Recently, I quoted John 15:16 during a funeral message. Jesus told his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Following the service, one gentleman asked me about this verse. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Doesn’t God tell us to come, choose—you know, open the door?”
“Sure,” I said, “but you’re asking the wrong question. Christ was speaking to people who had already come, and none of them asked, ‘Lord, did we choose you?’ Clearly, they had. Instead, he answered a question they perhaps never thought to ask. Why had they seemingly chosen him?”
During the troubled years of my life, which I’ve abbreviated here, I was not seeking God. I thought about him. I ran away from him. I stitched together my best fig leaf garments, and when the wind blew those away, I stitched together some more. I wanted the world and made deal after deal with the devil to get it only to discover God wouldn’t let him have me. Whether I was seeking him or not, Yahweh prepared an otherwise unremarkable whale to spit me into his bosom when I least expected it.
I was still on probation, sharing an apartment with a high school buddy of mine, who got me a full-time job running paint booths at a small factory in town. I had steady employment for once and a steady paycheck. I had a place for which I actually paid the rent on time. As long as one didn’t know about our stolen cable TV or light drinking on the weekends, he or she might have thought I was becoming a respectable adult. Even I was beginning to think my life had turned a corner, though the evidence was purely superficial like lipstick on a pig.
A typical day was ending as I moved through the apartment to turn off lights before bed. I flipped the last switch, then paused in front of the large windows of our living room. Just across the street, I could see the spot where police handcuffed me less than a year prior and hauled me to the county jail. I remembered my despondent resignation. I was tired and empty, replying to the officers’ questions with one-word answers.
“Are you Jeremy Sarber?”
“Do you know we have a warrant for your arrest?”
The entire scene replayed in my mind. However, what struck me was not the crime or the circumstances of my arrest but the way I felt as it all happened. I didn’t feel anything, not fear, regret, shame—nothing. Staring out the window, reliving the past, that cold indifference terrified me. Where had I lost my humanity? Maybe the devil robbed me of my soul after all. If so, could I get it back?
The apostle Paul describes the unregenerate person as dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). The sensation was strange, like an out-of-body experience, but I was suddenly and painfully aware of my spiritual deadness. I was without hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:12). Furthermore, I had unknowingly been there for as long as I could remember. Panic ensued, and I collapsed to the floor. Instinct, no doubt instilled in me by my upbringing, compelled me to start praying.
I don’t recall my entire prayer, but I know my tone was desperate. I did not thank God that night or politely ask for his blessing. I threw myself at his mercy, hoping against hope my parents were right about his abundant grace. I pleaded for forgiveness, not yet understanding why I felt I needed it but certain nonetheless. “Lord, I surrender,” I repeated over and over again through violent sobbing, the kind that makes your body ache after a while.
I prayed for nearly thirty minutes, pounding on heaven’s door with all of my might, determined to get an answer. Whether God chose to exact his rightful vengeance right then and there or grant me a measure of mercy, I couldn’t leave my knees until I knew one or the other was coming. It was as though every sin I committed since childhood paraded through my mind, and each one tortured me more than the last. “I just can’t do this anymore,” I cried out loud. “Lord, save me from me.”
Then, I stopped. I stopped praying. I stopped rocking back and forth. I think I even stopped breathing for a moment as a cool, pleasant sensation washed over my entire body. As unlikely as it may sound, I could physically feel myself changing, transforming into a new creation in Christ (2Co 5:17). Just as I thought I was about to break once and for all, God answered my prayer with profound relief. I had worn a yoke weighing a thousand pounds for years, which got heavier by the day, and in an instant, it fell to the floor behind me. I was free.
Every now and then, the church will sing a Charles Wesley hymn that goes:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Whenever I hear that particular stanza, the words transport me back to my former living room floor.
Today, even in hindsight, I can’t tell whether my conversion was a long, slow process or instantaneous. Though I lean toward the latter, some Baptist theologians of the previous century believed one’s regeneration could last years before culminating in new birth. Perhaps God takes his time gradually moving sinners to the places where he will finally capture their hearts. Regardless, that perspective contains at least some truth. Looking back, I can see God’s hand at work, from the lessons my parents taught me as a child to the much harder lessons I learned as a young adult. He was preparing me for salvation long before I knew I needed it—before the foundation of the world, in fact (Eph 1:4).
May he who started a good work in me carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Php 1:6). All glory be to God.