by Bob Lupton
As a young person, I was serious about pleasing God. From the moment I responded to the invitation to go forward at a Billy Graham crusade when I was seven, I had a consistent desire to do what was right. My dad was a preacher, so I was in church a lot. From sermons, Sunday school lessons, and dinner table conversations I learned all about the things that made God happy, as well as what displeased Him. I learned, too, that God would forgive me when I misbehaved, if I was really sorry.
By the time I was in my early teens, my naïve, little-boy faith was starting to mature. I was learning about larger doctrinal issues like predestination and free will. I was learning about the mystery of the Spirit and how God speaks personally to people. I was told about fasting and how it would help focus one’s attention on what the Spirit was saying.
I had never fasted before. I had occasionally missed meals, but not for any spiritual reasons. But I was now fourteen and starting to consider more grown-up disciplines of the faith. I was learning to listen for the “still, small voice” of the Spirit.
As I pondered this teaching about fasting, a voice seemed to be urging me to do it. For three days, the voice seemed to say. Out of a sincere desire to hear and obey God, I privately committed to a three day fast. I didn’t tell anybody. I had read that Jesus said to do your fasting in secret. I’m sure my parents wondered why I didn’t come to the dinner table. They doubtless assumed it was a part of my spiritual journey and were supportive, but didn’t pry.
The first day wasn’t bad. I did think a lot about eating, but I was able to restrain my hunger urges without much difficulty. By the second day, however, my adolescent appetite was beginning to consume much of my attention. But I was determined to be faithful – to win this battle over fleshly desires. Day three was Sunday, and I was terribly hungry.
I walked to church and slipped into a back seat. As worship began and the congregation rose for the opening hymn, I was so weak I held onto the pew in front of me to steady myself. I could feel my resolve weakening. I needed a sandwich – bad! A spiritual battle raged within me. A tormenting voice kept saying, “I fasted for 40 days and you cannot last for three?” I struggled mightily to stay strong. I did not want to fail my Lord.
Finally, by verse two of the third hymn, I caved. Fearing I might lose my soul, I nevertheless made my way out the front church door, headed home, and in ten minutes was voraciously consuming an egg and cheese sandwich. Strangely, as I gulped down the food in blatant violation of the commitment I had made to God, I experienced no sense of separation from God. Not then, not later. I felt neither condemned nor commended. I was just relieved that it was over.
Had I sought the counsel of older, wiser saints, I would have known that not every voice one hears is from God. Some voices are not to be trusted, like those that pressure, impose guilt, or condemn. Other voices, I would learn from my own painful experience, will actually lead one astray.
So how was I to decipher the difference between the trustworthy and the misleading voices? I looked for a foolproof formula without success. In time, however, the Trustworthy Voice became more recognizable, like a lamb learning to recognize the shepherd’s voice. Not that I always heeded that Voice of course. After all, I was a teenage boy. But at fourteen, I was beginning to understand that there is wisdom in the counsel of many.
So what does this childhood episode have to do with urban ministry? Well, for one thing, it was a formative lesson about seeking the counsel of experienced saints when facing important decisions. At FCS, that means surrounding our leadership with a mature, trustworthy board of directors who embrace our mission and provide wise guidance. Their collective wisdom helps us avoid unnecessary pitfalls.
But perhaps more importantly, this early experience in my faith journey acquainted me with the realization that life – even spiritual life, even with good counsel – is not free from risk. There are no failsafe formulas that guarantee success. No one can accurately predict what lies around the next corner. Anyone who claims to is suspect. Faith and risk are two sides of the same coin. The faith/risk journey beckons me to listen as best I can, make well informed decisions, then leap headlong into the unknown.