“Are you sure he was a Christian?”
I get this question when telling others about my brother’s death. Though he had learned to rely on Christ and on scripture in the decade before his death, he lived as an alcoholic in his last years. In the small town in which he lived, he stumbled to the liquor store daily, much like the “town drunk.” The reasoning of those who question me about him goes like this – how could he have been a Christian and live that way?
Substance abuse, mental illness, and brain trauma haunted him for decades yet late in life he experienced a profound conversion that turned his trust from himself to God. He became sober. The raging rebel began to consider faith, grace, and forgiveness. As an unemployed felon with brain damage, however, he became isolated and picked up old habits again while crying out to God for a way of escape from his misery. His appearance, his criminal history, and his slow mind worked against him and he did not fit easily into any local church. His paranoia and poor social skills made matters worse.
Aside from the debates about “once saved, always saved” and “you must show evidence of conversion,” the following quotes have helped me when I consider my brother’s ravaged life. First, the preacher Donald Barnhouse, in his sermons on Romans 3, said that at the moment of conversion (belief and trust) we become accepted in Christ even while we act in the most ungodly ways. Christ’s love compels us toward growth, he said, and “the long slow progress” of Christ’s life in us will begin to become visible.
Initially, though, the new life might barely show. “As in the case when an acorn falls into the brush,” said Barnhouse, “the annual growth of grass may hide it for several years, but eventually it will be seen for what it is – an oak tree that will dominate the countryside…But in the beginning, the whole oak is in the acorn…”¹
My brother did not have much time to grow yet I believe during his ungodly hours he still belonged to Christ.
The second quote by Rene Vermeulen came my way recently in a story called “She was strong in the Lord.”² A woman in Australia, prone to fear and worry, relied heavily on her husband to help with their many children. At age 39 she became a widow. With 10 children to raise alone she appeared (to others) destined to fail.
Vermeulen said the woman did not appear to grow much over the following years. “No, she did not become a super woman,” he said. “In fact I don’t think she changed that much at all during those years…She remained very much the person she had always been.”
Even though she lacked outward signs of a changed life, she survived because she did not waver from prayer and belief that God would take care of her, like a husband. She trusted God to make a way for her and he did.
I believe he made a way for my brother, too.
Neither you nor I can fully understand anyone else’s heart, or gauge their level of faith while they suffer. Considering that tares sit among the wheat in our churches and we cannot tell the difference, we probably can’t assess the heart of those suffering from mental illness very well. Is he or she a Christian? Maybe the better question is this: what would you do for any “slow grower” in your church? Feed and water, gently.
Resources: (1) Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans, Volume 2, Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959, pg. 49