I knew from the moment I read about Jesus getting punched in the face in a Portland coffee shop that Matt Mikalatos is not one to write cautiously. No, both in his wonderfully zany narratives and his choice of themes, he avoids the easy path. I especially appreciated him taking on transformation in his latest book, Night of the Living Dead Christian, because I think it’s one of the thornier issues of the faith.
Sometimes people change behaviors in conjunction with coming to Jesus, but their underlying motives and heart postures remain the same.
Other times, there’s a genuine repentance and change of heart, but behavior shifts are more gradual and slow to happen.
Or in some cases, a few major things happen in the beginning, then the drama quiets down and sometimes things are so quiet behind the window shades, you’re not sure Jesus is even in there working, aside from his initial improvements.
Of course, that’s not a question we like to admit to, but when you’ve been in the church a while, you can start to wonder. I was born into this, which means I’ve spent more than 30 years around Jesus’ followers, but I can probably count on one hand the conversions I’ve seen from before to after. Maybe even one finger.
Sometimes that’s left me doubtful God is really real or makes much difference. But then I always come back to the example of my father, who became a Christian at 19, when he was in Tennessee for boot camp, and went on to become a person who, by the reports of his own siblings, is completely different from the troubled adolescent he was before Jesus.
One time I got to sit there with him at a meal, while he explained to a colleague how he used to live. The man’s disbelief was visible as my responsible, clean-cut father described his former self. “You were like that?!! How did you change?”
Others who’ve heard me tell Dad’s story have suggested that maybe the reason for his transformation was not so much Jesus as him figuring out that certain behaviors worked out much better than his old ways.
Certainly, the discipline and self-control that the Christian life encouraged in him have proven beneficial. After he married my mom at 25, Dad went on to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering, to which he recently added a Ph.D. If you count their happy, 34-year marriage, that’s at least four major accomplishment that all require significant, short-term self-denial in service of long-term goals.
But in some ways I think of my dad as weak man who’s done many things requiring strength not because he was or thought himself to be strong, but because he went out every day and tried to be obedient to God and his responsibilities that day.
Maybe it’s like he’s a man who’s been walking a tight rope across a river for several decades. The people who come to see him might ooh and ah at his experience and surefootedness, but if they stood close enough to watch him get on the rope each day, they’d hear the words of someone attempting it for the first time.
“I want to cross,” he’d say. “I believe I can, and I hope I will, but I can’t say for certain I shall, so I’m just going to do my best and move my feet one step at a time.”
I think it’s the faithful power of Jesus in him that’s produced a life of such consistency, but that has prevailed because of Dad’s humble, constant acknowledgment of his own frailty and need for God. A man more confident in his own strength and resolve would be too proud to depend so greatly on his savior … and would have probably taken a lot more dunks in the river.
But it isn’t just my dad’s life that gives me hope in the power of God to make a difference. I can think of other friends I’ve known who are now quite different people than when I first met them. The cause was not always conversion, exactly; sometimes they just started to take God more seriously.
There are things that happen only when you give up your right to say, “yes, but” and start just saying “yes” to God. I can think of many moments past where everything hung on my willingness to give up what He was calling me to sacrifice. It was often something quite small in an objective sense, but because of what I truly worshiped, that small thing had become ultimate.
More recently, though, I’ve had chances to say “yes” not to a sacrifice but an opportunity. One night last November, I got an idea to organize a Valentine’s day of prayer for the men who buy sex: Pray for the Johns Day. The main work to be done was clearly pretty quickly. But would I do it?
A part of me was hesitant. I’ve had ideas before, some of which I even pursued, but often those attempts came to nothing. To pray for the johns is to ask for transformation on a very large scale indeed. We’re asking not just that God turn men from their sin and bring repentance, but that He transform them into men who take up what good works God may yet have for them to do.
At the very least, to ask that risks disappointment. And yet, I think such a prayer is to take the heart of the gospel seriously. The Bible says sin cut off man’s life-sustaining connection to God, without which we become increasingly monstrous (as Matt describes so creatively in his book), and the world around us overgrown and menacing. Jesus came so that we could be rehumanized and the whole creation restored to God’s good purpose for it. If that’s true, then transforming lives is a central part of the plan. That change may not come easily or quickly — as in the case of Matt’s friend, the vampire — but it’s possible.
So if you have five minutes or ten or even a lunch break free this Valentine’s Day, would you consider praying for the johns with me?