On this day, 46 years ago, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, I prayed a prayer that set me on the path to being a lifelong follower of Jesus.
I had no idea what I was doing.
It was a rather bland, undramatic moment. I was a kid who had grown up in a middle-class suburb. I wasn’t being pulled out of the gutter, or rescued from a life of violence. No voice thundered from heaven, and the sky wasn’t split by flashes of lightning. I don’t even remember my heart being “strangely warmed,” as John Wesley once described his own conversion.
No, it was a rational decision by a teenager with the temperament of an engineer and terrible sales resistance. God has a wonderful plan for my life, you say, and all I have to do is pray this little prayer? Sure, why not. It’s free, right? Might as well have my bases covered.
I had no vision for what the prayer meant, for what the consequences of that decision might be, decades later.
The prayer itself guarantees nothing. If we learn anything from Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees, it’s that you can get all the external signs of religion right, and still have a heart that’s closed to God — so much so that you can’t even recognize God-in-the-flesh standing right in front of you.
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock” (Rev 3:20), said Jesus, in his best King James English. Many artists have painted the scene, depicted with a very European Jesus who would look a bit out of place in first century Palestine. But the paintings tend to have one important feature in common: there is no handle on the outside of the door where Jesus stands knocking.
It has to be opened from the inside.
And I believe it’s possible to mouth the words that invite Jesus in without actually opening the door, as if we were standing on the other side with our arms folded across our chests.
Some teach (e.g., in the prosperity gospel movement) that saying the right words in prayer, or with the right kind of faith, guarantees the result. Such ideas feed our need to be in control: I can make things happen; I just have to get it right.
The problem is, such beliefs can rob God of his sovereignty. Imagine Jesus hearing a modern Pharisee’s prayer and saying, “His heart is not at all in this prayer. He just wants something for himself. But he used the right words. Oh, well. I have to give him what he wants.”
It’s a profane thought. Prayer is not a magic spell, and a free and sovereign God is not obligated to us in any way.
“Then how can we know if Jesus really came in?” someone might anxiously object. “If the outcome isn’t certain, how can we know the prayer worked?” Note that the very language of prayer “working” already betrays the idea that we can manipulate God with our words. But Jesus’ own answer to the question is this: “You will know them by their fruit” (Matt 7:20, CEB).
And fruit takes time to mature.
Here’s the thing about believing in a sovereign God: we have to give up our illusions of control, our hunger to determine our own destiny. I’m not saying that the decisions we make don’t matter. No, the words we say and the things we do have real effects in the real world. If this were not so, there would be no point in the biblical call to holiness, to grow in Christ.
But following Jesus is not something done all in a moment, in one heroic decision. It’s a lifetime of decisions, of following Jesus right here, right now, in this situation and conversation and relationship.
There’s still a part of me that feels like a geeky, clueless teenager, like the boy who sat outside the university’s Arts building and prayed a prayer whose true meaning he couldn’t fathom. But God is sovereign even over my clueless lack of vision.
And I am astonished at what he has done, at what he continues to do. It’s all of grace — wonderful, surprising, incomprehensible grace.
To him be the glory, forever.