If I Could Start All Over

Six Lessons for Your Twenties

CROSS T4G Preconference | Louisville

What are the most important things I would do at 22? Not in the abstract, but the real me where I was and who I was in 1968. What if I started over with all the same circumstances in place? Well, I would do six things.

1. I would marry a radical, risk-taking, go-anywhere-for-Jesus world-Christian woman.

In fact, I would marry Noël Henry. Not long after we met when I was twenty, I was head over heels in love already. We were talking about marriage three weeks into this relationship, and I said, “If God called me to be a missionary to Africa, would you go?” She said, “Yes, I would see myself called to be by your side — wherever.”

We married when I was 22, and my first job was teaching in college, and when I was 33 I felt the irresistible call to be a pastor. And I asked her the morning after that meeting with God if she would support me in that. And she said yes. One year into that ministry, I was so discouraged. I put my face in my hands at the dining room table. She was in the bedroom, and I said out loud — pretty seriously — “I think I’m going to Africa.” And she didn’t miss a beat from the other room and said, “Tell me when to pack.” This is really significant that you marry the right woman.

We weathered that discouragement, and four years into that ministry I said to her one day when God had met us in world missions powerfully at the church, “What if we invited everybody from the church who is interested in missions to come over on Friday night? We’ll put them out in the living room and dining room, and see if we can inspire them.” And she said, “Sure, let’s do that.” And a hundred people showed up. Twice a year for twenty years, we had one hundred people in our living room and dining room, and we took all the furniture and put it upstairs in the bedroom. That’s a lot of work. And women don’t like their houses intruded upon like that — usually.

The lesson for you: Unless you’re called to singleness, pray that your future or present spouse would be a radical, risk-taking, go-anywhere-for-Jesus world Christian.

2. I would take that young wife of mine and join a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-structured, Bible-obedient church.

And I would take her to church every Sunday morning without fail. And we would throw ourselves into the ministry of that local church in the hope that that community of believers would care for us, and guard us, and help us discover our gifts in our early years together, which would then catapult us into a lifetime of ministry.

“Find a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-structured, Bible-obedient church. Join it, serve it, discover your gifts there. ”

We joined Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, California, when I was 22 and she was 21. Noël discovered a gift for working with mentally disabled adults, and I discovered a teaching gift by teaching seventh-grade boys the first year, ninth-grade boys the second year, and the Galilean adult Sunday school class the third year. The group of deacons there cared for me, and Glenn Dawson laid hold of me, watched over me for three years, sent me to Germany for three years, watched me at Bethel College for a year, brought me back out to Pasadena, and they ordained me seven years later. That’s a relationship you cannot overestimate.

The lesson for you: Find a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-structured, Bible-obedient church. Join it, serve it, and discover your gifts there. Be accountable to that community as they help you discover and follow God’s call on your life.

3. I would go to seminary.

If I were 22 again, I would spend three or four years totally immersed in the most rigorous study of Greek and Hebrew that I could possibly find for a lifetime of fruitful discovery of the glories of Christ in the word of God, in such a way that I would never waiver — no matter what — in my commitment to believe and speak whatever the Bible teaches, wherever God puts me. I would not prioritize in seminary practical courses, as valuable as those are.

But every chance I got, I would prioritize taking exegetical courses because of my conviction at age 72 — and I would put it back on that 22-year-old — that, in general, practical skills are learned better on the job, in the church, and deepening and sharpening of exegetical skills for a lifetime of fruitful reading are best accomplished in a rigorous give-and-take classroom setting with the watchful eye of a skilled teacher.

The lesson for you: Whether you attend seminary or not, become as Bible-saturated as you can, putting yourself under the influence of the most insightful Bible teachers, both dead and alive.

4. I would resolve to read my Bible every day for the rest of my life.

“If you have time for breakfast, you have time for your Bible.”

I would make it more important than eating or getting exercise or kissing my wife. There have been about 18,340 days since I turned 22, and I think I have read my Bible on more of those days than I have eaten. I have certainly read my Bible on more of those days than I have watched television or videos. And I am also certain that I have read my Bible on more of those days than I have kissed my wife because she doesn’t go with me on the road, usually. And my Bible does — always does. I never leave my Bible. I might leave my wife, but not my Bible.

I have learned a few things about reading the Bible that I didn’t know when I was 22, but if I were, I would resolve

  • every day to read my Bible, and not to settle for hazy, vague awareness of it, but push through the haze to the wording itself;
  • and I would push into and through the wording of the text itself to the intention of the authors — human and divine;
  • and I would push through the intention to the reality behind the words and the grammar and the logic;
  • and I would push into that reality until it was an emotionally experienced reality;
  • and I’d push into and through that emotionally proportional reality until it became a word and a deed on my life;
  • and I’d push through that deed and that word until other people saw the reality and joined me in my encounter with God in the Bible.

That’s how I would formulate my resolution to read the Bible every day. Nothing is revealed more quickly on the mission field than a superficial encounter with the living God and the glorious realities he has revealed in Scripture. Superficial Bible reading that does not penetrate through the words and intentions and reality and experience to deed and life and an encounter with the living God will be of little use on the mission field in the face of massive demonic forces among unreached peoples. You won’t survive.

The lesson for you: Read your Bible every day. Every day of your life — no exceptions. Never say, “I’ll read it if I have time.” If you have time for breakfast, you have time for your Bible. Skip breakfast. Don’t get your Bible-reading pleasure from the fact that your conscience is clear because you checked the Bible box. Get your pleasure from reading the Bible because of an encounter — a meeting, a fellowship — with the living, supernatural reality that you meet in the Scriptures.

5. I would become a Christian Hedonist.

I would seek to find more joy in God than anything else in the world for the sake of personal holiness, perseverance through pain, and promotion of the glory of God. That’s why I would become a Christian Hedonist. That is, I would get clarity and certainty around the sentence: God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. I would nail that sentence, and I would either believe it or not believe it. And if I believed it, I would go for broke in being as satisfied in God as I could possibly be, 24/7, over everything else.

“Aim at all-satisfying joy in God, which will empower you for humility, chastity, simplicity, and risk-taking, sacrificial love.”

By means of savoring the sweetness of the promises of God in this precious Book, I would put to death every rising quiver of pride, and self-reliance, and lust, and greed, and fear, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, seek to kill all those sins by the superior pleasure that we have in God. Because unless those sins die, I will be dogged by fruitlessness of life, and damned in the next. I would recognize at age 22 that the fight for joy in God, through the bright and dismal circumstances of life, is the essential key in my mission in life for authenticating holiness, fruitful perseverance, so that God gets the glory. Being happy in God more than you are happy in anything else is the key to holiness and fruitfulness to the glory of God.

The lesson for you: Become a Christian Hedonist. Whether you call it that or not doesn’t matter. Don’t aim at the pleasures of fame. Don’t aim at the pleasures of sexual gratification. Don’t aim at the pleasures of wealth. Don’t aim at the pleasure and contentment and comfort of safety. Aim at all-satisfying joy in God, which will empower you for humility, and chastity, and simplicity, and risk-taking, sacrificial love for other people.

6. I would recognize that I am not my own, that I have been bought with a price, and that I belong, body and soul, to Jesus Christ for his use and his glory.

I would offer myself up to God at age 22 and tell him that he may do with me anything he pleases. He may kill me. He may torture me. He may send me anywhere. He can do me no wrong. He owes me nothing. And I would tell him that any time he pleases, anywhere he pleases, I am his — at his disposal.

And I would memorize Psalm 25, which had a very crucial role for me in seminary. I would memorize Psalm 25 and trust the amazing promises of guidance that are in those precious verses:

Good and upright is the Lord;
   therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
   and teaches the humble his way. (Psalm 25:8–9)

You don’t have to be left to your own wisdom as to what you spend your life doing. If you believe those verses in Psalm 25, he’s going to teach you his way for you.

The lesson for you: Memorize Psalm 25. Pray it as your own, and give yourself wholly up to God and his mission. Trust him.

I would do a lot more things at age 22, but here are six things I would do if I only had twenty minutes to tell you.