Why do some people come to faith and others do not?


In our mid-week church community, from time to time we reflect on some tough questions that others have asked us or that niggle at us ourselves. Recently one of the members asked the question:

Why do some people find ‘faith’ (believing in God) easier than others?

There are several different dimensions to this question. The theological: is it reasonable that some find faith easy, whilst others struggle? Philosophical: is it the case that we actually have free will when factors of situation and personality appear to be so significant? Apologetic: can we believe in a God of justice when contingent decisions might have eternal consequences? Ecclesial: are Christians distinct from others in terms of personality? Missional: what factors actually bring people to faith? But of course the one at the forefront of most people’s minds is the pastoral: why does my spouse/friend/family members find the idea of faith so difficult or unappealing? And is there anything I can do about it?

A quick bit of online research on differences between those who believe and those who don’t yielded nothing much more than atheist websites, who came to the conclusion (not surprisingly) that Christians were more gullible and less rational, though they did also suggest that those finding faith were more sociable. This last point is interesting—though it is difficult to say whether this is cause or effect. Churches remain almost unique in modern society in offering an all-age, multi-cultural social space where there is serious encounter between people from different strata of society. If there is some research out there about why some find faith easier and others harder, let me know in the comments.


To reflect on this issue in the group, we did three things. The first was to reflect on our own stories of finding faith, and on the factors involved, in two stages:

Think for a moment about the process by which you came to faith. What were the factors you were aware of at the time? As you look back, what other factors can you see?

Now compare your story with someone else. How much is there in common, and how much difference?

Doing the exercise for myself, I identified four important factors which were at work.

  1. An immediate sense of welcome and acceptance by those I met. As a struggling teenage boy in a large all-boys public school, where competition was everything (those in the school sports teams even had a different uniform!), this was probably the biggest factor—but it was not something I could have articulated at the time. I only came to realise how important this was as I reflected on my journey several years later in order to share my testimony during a mission week.
  2. The chance to explore questions of faith and the difference it makes to everyday life. This was the most important felt issue at the time; even though I had been brought up church going, it was as though someone had turned the lights on. One of the earliest experiences was watching Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth including the blue-eyed Robert Powell as Jesus (‘plot keywords: resurrection; epic; religious sword and sandals…’)—but there was plenty of exploration of every aspect of what it meant to be a Christian, and how that worked out in practice.
  3. I now wonder how important it was for me to have had a background experience of church and faith, even though that did not connect with my everyday life at all. It meant actually going to a church service was not alien—though I remember thinking how odd, sloppy, casual and unpredictable Anglican services were compared with the Roman Catholic Mass that I was used to, and in which I was an altar server.
  4. My strongest reflection on looking back is not really a human factor at all, but simply a sense that God wanted me to know him, and so the series of encounters just happened without me seeking them specifically at all. A friend from primary school, whom I kept in touch with, was struck by how many of our primary school class came to faith, and wondered whether one of our teachers was particularly praying for us as a group.

When we compared stories with one another to see similarities and differences, some interesting things emerged. Welcome and acceptance were important for many in their faith journey, though not for all. Much more consistent was the importance of some sort of explanation: what did it actually mean to be a Christian, and what did you have to do to become one? I have a suspicion that, for most non-Christians, this is something of a mystery—it just seems to ‘happen’ to some people! (This feeling is expressed in the occasional wistful reflection ‘I wish I had your faith…’) Background understanding was very important for some, but not for others, and my ‘sharing buddy’ Mike (in the group meeting we exchanged our stories in pairs) came from a completely non-Christian background to faith very quickly—though he was aware of an interest in the ‘spiritual’ in quite specific ways, which suggests factor 4 was at play.

But two additional factors consistently featured. The first was invitation; Mike starting going to church because his schoolfriend (who was bigger than he was!) said ‘Are you coming to church then?’—and it turned out that his friend was only going to go if Mike agreed to come with him! Invitation was important for me too; I only went to the CYFA group because the people I met invited me back to their ‘coffee bar’ (the mention of ‘bar’ sounded quite alarming to me at the time…). The second factor which featured often was noticing change in others (friends, family) who had come to faith, and their sharing of testimony of why being a Christian had made a difference.

Given the differences in experience, as well as some common factors, it was not clear that we had an answer to the pastoral question—but we appeared to have been able to answer the missional one. How can we help people find faith more easily?

  1. Actually think that this is important. That might seem an odd thing to say, but research has shown that ‘intention to grow’ amongst leadership in the local church is the single biggest factor correlated with actual church growth, that is, seeing people come to faith.
  2. Pray. If the work of God in an individual is key (!) and if prayer makes any difference (and there are some big philosophical and theological questions raised here) then actually praying that people come to faith might be rather important.
  3. Create a relational culture of welcome and acceptance. With the culture of most churches, and the things many Christians take for granted, now at such a remove from wider culture in the UK, lower the cultural barriers in terms of our assumed expectations of behaviour and social norms is more important than ever.
  4. Offer clear explanations and explorations of faith and how to become a Christian.
  5. Invite people. One of the striking things about many of the new Church of England church plants is how much more invitational they are than the average Anglican church.)

In other words, if we are going to see people come to faith, we need to be intentional, spiritual, relational, rational and invitational.


The second thing we did in the group was look at the stories of Nicodemus and the women of Samaria in John 3 and 4. (Actually, we ran out of time to do this, as hearing one another’s stories was so interesting! So individuals did it afterwards at home.) John puts these two stories together in a way which highlights the differences in two very different journeys of faith through encounter with Jesus. The contrasting factors are relatively easy to tabulate—you might want to read the chapters and identify the differences you find before reading any further…

Done that?

Great—here is my list.

John 3John 4
Who is involved?A respectable named Jewish manAn outcast unnamed Samaritan woman
Who initiates the encounter?The person themselvesJesus
When does the meeting occur?In the eveningIn the broad daylight
What is the literal significance of this?In a hot climate, it would be natural to meet to discuss things in the evening—and Nicodemus might have been wanting to keep the meeting secret or at least discreet.In a hot climate, you would normally collect water in the morning or the evening. Only someone avoiding the company of others would come in the heat of the day
What is the symbolic significance of the timing?Despite his learning and high office, and even meeting the ‘light of the world’, Nicodemus is still dwelling in the shadows of understandingDespite being marginal in her social context and evasive in her conversation, the woman comes to see things as clear as daylight in recognising who Jesus is
Who asks the questions?The discussion is led by Nicodemus’ implied question in his opening statement, and is given movement by his two subsequent questionsAlmsot every turn in this conversation is led by Jesus’ questions or his challenging statements
What is the nature of the conversation?It focuses on theological ideas and questionsIt focuses mostly on practical questions of thirst, worship and relationships
What is the immediate result of the encounter?The conversation disappears into what seems to be John’s own reflection, and the narrative is never concluded. Nicodemus remains in his shadowy understandingThe woman comes to a startling realisation about both Jesus and herself
What is the longer term result of the encounter?Nicodemus is mentioned on two further occasions, both of which refer back to this encounter. In John 7.50, he tentatively questions the opposition to Jesus, but by John 19.39 he accompanies the women to Jesus’ graveThe woman is a model witness (a key theme in John) in that she goes back to those in her village who had shunned her, tells her story, and invites them to come and meet Jesus too

The contrasts here forbid us from offer any kind of formula for how and why people come to faith, and illustrate the diversity of situations and issues that are involved.

There are two further things to reflect on alongside noting this diversity. The first is that the preaching that we find in the NT (and especially in Acts) appears to be very different from much of the appeal that we tend to make in contemporary preaching. John Stevens, questioning the centrality of the contemporary message ‘God is love…‘ notes:

Both Jesus’ kingdom proclamation and the apostolic gospel message have the same basic call to “repent and believe” ahead of the coming judgement. Both Jesus and the apostles perform signs and wonders of healing and deliverance from demons which reveal the liberating power of the in-breaking kingdom, and in both cases the new community of the church (nascent in the gospels and inaugurated in Acts) is a hermeneutic for the gospel in the care for the poor and needy. The apostolic preaching in Acts is not in a vacuum but against this broader background. Even when he performs miracles of compassion and deliverance he turns back to challenge personal sin and the need for forgiveness (eg Mark 2.5; John 5.14).

Much of Jesus ministry is amongst people who already know that the are “unclean” and unacceptable to God and are outsiders to Jewish society (eg skin diseases, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, Canaanites), so his focus with them is the unexpected possibility of God’s compassion in mercy/cleansing/salvation, whereas his message to the self-righteous religious people is a warning of judgement. Overall it is striking that Jesus does not seem to speak of the love of God as the basis of his proclamation – I can’t find any verses where this is directly the case.

The question then is how we integrate this perspective with the felt importance of relational connection, which appears to be a consistent feature of effective engagement and seeing people come to faith.

A second challenge is how we handle the idea of being ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in coming to faith. Many people have a strong sense of this—but only retrospectively—whilst the idea of being lost and needing to be found could well be quite alienating to many outside the church.


The third thing we did in the group (and we did do this!) was to watch some of the testimonies on the excellent EA website Great Commission. We picked several at random, and it was interesting and inspiring to hear the different perspectives; in most of the ones we watched, change was quite sudden, though that is not true for all of them, and the testimony of others featured quite strongly. The site also include reflections on sharing faith, as well as testimonies of coming to faith.

So, what factors were important for you? What factors were important for those you know? And can you answer the question as to why some find faith easier, and others harder?

(Previously published in a shorter form in 2018.)


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44 thoughts on “Why do some people come to faith and others do not?”

  1. Invitations can take many forms. The turning point in my life came with the immortal words, “Isn’t it about time you became a Christian, then?” I suspect that this isn’t in any textbook on evangelism, but it is still working nearly 50 years later.

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  2. Andy Economides said to J John:
    ‘Are you a Christian?’
    ‘Me? No….’
    ‘Then you: are stupid.’

    My sister was challenged by a rather immature character about the genuineness of her saved state. However, the actual *words* that he spoke needed pondering not a whit less. The words were independent of the vessel/vehicle. Very good fruit came as a result of that directness.At her affirmation service a year or so later, the sermon happened to be on how packaging is nothing and message is everything. Brilliant topic. Delivered by a nondescript person whose name was not well known and I have forgotten it. Certainly one of the best and truest sermons I ever heard.

    Directness.

    Cynical teens play the odds. The more people you ask to be your bf/gf, the more will say yes. It is exactly like that with asking people to come to church or talking to them about becoming a Christian or about how things are with their inner life. Most people appreciate being prayed for. But, more than that, many also appreciate an invitation, which is a sign of friendship (except in those instances where it is a sign of chalking up conquests). Many also appreciate, for natural reasons (a) directness (because we all like straightforward people rather than manipulative people), (b) people recommending something that has worked for them (thus William Temple, Michael Green); (c) people who care enough not to fob them off with platitudes: people who will also challenge them, and love them enough to want the best for them.

    Early life is absolutely crucial, because that sets one’s idea of who one really is inside. Leave it too late, and Christianity will be an unacceptable deviation from that. Look at the stats for what proportion of children attended Sunday School even 2 generations ago. Its’s not as though the parents don’t appreciate the opportunity for a restfrom looking after their children, nor is it as though the children don’t enjoy clubs and being with other children. Smith Wigglesworth had the drive to travel round the neighbourhood and invite all the children to jump on the trolley/cart: we are fortunate enough to have had a next door neighbour who did the same, including for my wife when she was growing up.

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        • Yes, I think so – the Pentecost crowd were convicted, cut to the heart. And that conviction seems to be an key winning component. Comparable might be admitting (admit-believe-receive) that one had squandered the gift of life, or one’s talents, or that one had not even lived up to one’s own standards let alone God’s, that one had not been honest about one’s true sins, etc..

          Of course other people had other perspectives. Some Calvinists (given the sort of Areopagus-like wild division in the reactions of hearers) put this down to election and non-election; whereas others put it down to whether different people have religiously responsive brains or not.

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      • Umm. I’m not saying ‘That’s how to do it!’. However, the fruit speaks for itself. I think they were probably friends already.

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      • J John does tell several different funny and telling stories which boil down to the power of directness and directness’s refusal to be inappropriately moderate on topics that are of extreme importance (like the cosmetics-counter lady he accosted suggesting her life was too cosmetic, and like his wooing of his wife who would not come to the event she was invited to with repeated ‘Come anyway’. The hound of heaven approach.)

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  3. I think an interesting parallel question to ask is why do some people lose their faith and others do not?
    Is it to do with the way they came to faith in the beginning -or other factors?

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  4. Ian, re the EA website, at first glance – https://www.eauk.org/great-commission/stories – appears to be a website of sermons about how to share your faith under the generic title of “Story Bearer Sessions”. But the stories are there. It just so happens that the 10 *most recent* “stories” aren’t stories, they are “Story Bearer Sessions”, and these are the ones that any website user will see first. Readers have to page down to get the actual stories. Just try – for example – https://www.eauk.org/great-commission/stories/all/page/3 & you will be fine.

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  5. Factors in conversion of 47 year old (me)
    Unchurched family life.
    Horror death of mother.
    Meaning of life? Is there a God?
    Brokeness. Master of own destiny? -dark comedy.
    Death of Dad – Gideon’s NT/Psalms: death bed answered prayer (mine). Longing for what Dad had just before he died (beatific peace beyond understanding) and raising simple questions; do I have to wait until just before I die!; What happens if no one is there to pray for me?; What happens if I get knocked over by a bus? Dad’s funeral Vicar’s invitation to Alpha.
    Looking back, Sunday school, afternoon attendance at very local CoE and Methodist church next door to primary school, but can’t recall how long I lasted! Must have been about 9 when on a Good Friday, alone in bedroom, I wept my heart out the killing of Jesus; “There is a Green Hill far away beyond the city walls, where our dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all.”
    School assemblies, state school, with Lord’s prayer recited by heart. All, perhaps, subliminal influences. So different now.

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  6. People who disobey the gospel do so because they do not consider themselves worth of salvation.

    And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.

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      • Sorry for not remembering the citation – the second paragraph is Acts 13:46 ESV.

        Isn’t this verse about why at least some people don’t come to God? Isn’t that the issue being discussed?

        I said that the verse meant what seemed to me to be its obvious meaning. If others think that it means something other than what I interpreted it to mean then by all means chime in with your belief as to how it ought to be interpreted.

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        • I think Paul is pointing out what the consequence of their rejecting the message is rather than implying that they really see what is at stake – eternal life – and humbly consider themselves unworthy of it. Because of hardness of heart they don’t see, and as John says in ch. 3, they bring judgement (= forfeiture of eternal life) upon themselves.

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          • Hi Steven,
            How people interpret the passage will no doubt be influenced by their soteriology. Calvinists will probably see it as you suggested – that those who are said to judge themselves unworthy of the gospel aren’t actually doing any such thing – that they are blind – that instead they were predestined to be unable to respond to the gospel before they set foot on the planet.
            I am not a Calvinist and I see it as a straight forward statement consistent with people not just being sinners but also have the ability to specifically disobey the gospel – see 2 Thess 1:8 – or why would 2 Thess 1:8 exist?

        • Philip – it’s an odd verse to use given that it’s explicitly about the rejection of the truth of the Jewish Messiah by the Jewish people. I wonder if Paul is being rather sarcastic about their rejection of that truth?

          Peter

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          • Hi PC1,
            If this verse was intended to be a poke at those refusing the gospel I believe it would say something to the effect of “Since you consider yourself to be too worthy for eternal life” or similar – but it does not.
            If as part of seeking to establish why people who don’t come to God don’t come to God I quote scripture – and this is odd – I put it to you that listing various sociological and circumstantial factors for why people will be eternally punished is extremely odd (although I only raise the issue now in defence of my being allowed to quote the Bible instead of focus on these things). For us to have a defensible view of who God is the answer to this question must be founded in who God is – who we are – and the fact that our ability to make choices is not illusory. Of course Calvinists believe our free will is illusory – but I am not a Calvinist (more on why Calvinism won’t help to free us from pride in respect of our salvation below).
            It seems that the offensive part of my quoting a passage from the Bible which suggests people play a role in their salvation or damnation is that it suggests that our coming to God might say something to our credit. If this is not the case then presumably we are required to believe that whilst scripture says that the person who says there is no God is a fool the person who does say there is a God should not be considered to be something other than a fool. I think that a right understanding of scripture sees us humbled by the fact that there is no part of our salvation which doesn’t rely on God’s grace. But this isn’t the same thing as saying we play no part in our salvation.
            My answer to what role we do and don’t play in our salvation is simply “whatever makes all of scripture make sense”. To those who say we play NO role in our salvation and sanctification I ask – why will God reward us for our faithfulness in the age to come?
            Those who fear attributing any human role to our salvation do so because they believe that the inevitable result of doing so will be pride. But here is why that is not true. It is in fact the opposite – those who say we play no part in our salvation will fall into pride. Why? Because the price of believing that we play no part in our salvation is that we must also believe that those who will be eternally punished play no part in their being eternally punished. A person who is one of the elect must believe that God’s action towards them is mercy while God’s predestining people for eternal punishment says nothing about him at all – why not? – because according to Calvinists God says we should think it doesn’t. But the problem with this idea is that God has revealed to us ideas about him which mean we have no choice but to consider God’s predestining people to hell as evidence of who he is. God – in order to be God – must be unchanging in all his attributes – independent – above – not subject to any external factors. This means that he must be unchanging in mercy – which means he must be merciful towards all people and in all events. This means that not only must God’s saving the elect be mercy but so must his predestining people to eternal punishment be mercy. Whilst God doesn’t have to save anyone to be merciful the problem is that God’s mercy is not influenced by any external factor – the Bible makes clear that none of us is more worthy of salvation than any other – and yet here God is acting differently to different groups of people.
            So why does Calvinism often lead to pride? It does because for the reasons I just explained the mind of the Calvinist cannot be honest when believing that their salvation as they understand it is evidence of God’s mercy. They have no way of relating to this Jesus as more than a thought in their mind. This leads to those who let their Calvinism reach their heart doing the only thing they can honestly do – rejoice not in God but only in the fact they are saved. This can only be done by trying to forget what God is doing to those predestined for damnation – by focusing on oneself (selfishness). Rejoicing in one’s status instead of in the character of God then leads to self-importance.
            And so – for these reasons I don’t apologise for quoting a passage from scripture which I believe shows what some say is offensive – that we play some part in our salvation. While believing that our part is never not supported by the presence of the grace of God. THIS is the reason why salvation should keep us from pride.

          • My last few words should have been (it really matters!)

            “our part is never not FULLY RELIANT on the presence of the grace of God”!

  7. An interesting discussion of important questions.

    But I’m not convinced by the John 3/4 contrasts. Why is the time of day significant for the Samaritan woman? Jesus and the disciples had been walking all day. The ‘climate’ does not seem to have bothered them, and it’s a good deal cooler in the winter than the summer. The temperature in Nazareth as I write (mid-afternoon) is 19 degrees.

    Was the woman really a social outcast? We read this into the story, but the first thing she does after the conversation is open conversations with other people in the town. And does she see things as ‘clear as daylight’? Impressed by his insights into her past, she gets as far as to ask, “Can this be the Christ?” But if that’s conversion, there are many clearer instances in the gospels. Nicodemus naturally goes to Jesus at night because, as a senior Pharisee, he does not want to be seen. Simple. The woman begins in the ‘shadows of understanding’; the respectful Nicodemus is clearly seeking at the beginning and ends, one suspects, like her, a good deal more enlightened. All credit to him for taking the initiative.

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    • I forgot the time difference between the UK and Israel. Still, looking at forecast average temperatures for the week, they vary from 16 deg to 29.

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  8. Let’s get direct and personal, Philip and Steven. How about you? What is your testimony of conversion?
    Let’s have it.

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    • Hi Geoff,

      Do you mean me? I presume so as there is no other Philip.

      I’m wondering why you are asking about my testimony of conversion. I don’t mind contributing but I would rather know what relationship my testimony has to what we are discussing.

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  9. I used to believe that the Church was somehow necessary for living out the faith. Now in my 60s I am discovering that so many people find themselves repelled by the Church but still attracted to, and convicted by, their faith in Christ. This adds a further complication.

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    • I’m torn on this one. It was mainly people’s kindness and acceptance that drew me into church in the first place and relationship was always a big part of my church life.

      However it was misunderstandings with people that has contributed to my current distance from church (along with chronic illness) and I’ve been very put off looking at the historic behaviour of certain churches. It makes me feel that those much maligned little WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets should have been standard issue to all Popes, Bishops, Abbots and Priests from the get go.

      And as for us Evangelicals, every time we’re self righteous and patronising instead of kind, compassionate and slow to anger, we should have the sobbed repetitive words of 1 John, (which ever poor elderly apostle or elder or bishop he actually was) tattooed all over us!

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  10. Re 2 – Pray. Im not so sure. I dont think (correct me if Im wrong) there is any instruction or even an example in the NT of believers praying for the salvation of an individual. I find that odd if it is indeed part of the equation.

    One could view it on an unseen supernatural battle level, but it’s not as if the NT writers werent aware of that – they were more aware than us.

    I get the impression reading the Gospels and Acts that it comes down to the individual and God.

    For myself, I ‘became a Christian’ during my time at university (which seems quite common) through reading the books of the likes of John Stott and Michael Green, particularly pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus. That latter fact is my anchor. I also had an ’emotional’ experience, so both my intellectual and emotional sides were satisfied. I remember the CU holding a ‘year of evangelism’ and me arguing with some Christians about the nonsense of Genesis 1 & 2 (more than one of them said they believed in a literal 6-day creation, which I still think is nonsense) and basically laughing at them for holding such a belief. Ill always remember the look of suspicion in the face of one of those Christians when I appeared at the CU after the summer holidays, and his nearly falling off his seat when I told him Id become a Christian.

    But things have been far from easy since then, hence my constant return to the resurrection.

    Peter

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      • Phil – that’s unconvincing. It’s similar to wishing for world peace, which many do. It is referring to a people group in general, not praying for a specific individual to be ‘saved’ as per my post.

        Peter

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        • Peter
          Romans 10:1 is a “request to God on behalf of them [is] for salvation”. It is a prayer not a general wish. Paul’s “kinsmen according to the flesh” is made up of individuals. I think this verse endorses the principle of praying for the salvation of others.
          Phil Almond

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  11. I distinctly remember that the motivating emotion in me giving my life to Christ was jealousy..

    I was 8, at Stoneleigh bible week (which would make this 1996). It was the final day of the children’s ministry that week and I had been there with my friend Annabel throughout. At the end of the session that evening someone had made a call from the front for people to come forward for prayer (I don’t remember what for) and while I was wasn’t interested and loitered at the back, she went forwards.

    I remember watching her being lowered to the floor, shaking and having (what I now understand to be) an encounter with the Spirit*. I stood around waiting as the room cleared and people started leaving and I remember, to my shame, being irritated with her. Eventually she sat up, looked around for me and told me that she’d had a ‘vision’, and explained what she’d seen to me.

    It was an incredibly vivid image, perfect in it’s simplicity for us 8-year olds, and I won’t recount what it was here, but I distinctly remember thinking these words as my response to it; “I want what she has, I want to know Jesus too”, and nothing I’ve seen or heard since has convinced me that that impulse has not been worth pursuing.

    Was that the moment I became a Christian? It is, I feel, impossible to say, but I cannot think of a moment since then when I have not known of the power of God in my life, or in the lives of those close to me.

    Mat

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    • I loved reading this brief account of your conversion Mat.

      The reason for our becoming Christians isn’t important – it could be jealousy – it could be that we went to church because we were in love with a woman who was a Christian and we wanted to have the opportunity to marry her – it could be that is if we recognise that our becoming a Christian is no guarantee that we will.

      Repentance is a change of direction – offering all of ourselves to God. We don’t need to get into the issue of how pure our reasons are for repenting – the thing that matters is that we don’t knowingly hold back any part of ourselves which is rightfully God’s.

      God considers the offering of our bodies FOR ANY REASON as worship (Rom 12:1). The offering of our bodies then leads to God having access to our lives in order to then work on our motivations.

      Thanks again – an effective account allows us to picture events – and I can picture you. Glory to God for causing this jealousy to rise up in you.

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  12. I was drawn by God to Christ through troubling lucid dreams that illuminated my spiritual state and predicament. I was a young teenager and at school asked my teachers how I could stop from going to hell. God had a plan, praise Him, and a fellow pupil invited me to his church that set me on a journey of faith.

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