To everyone’s surprise, in 1960 God made me. Suddenly there I was, like an uninvited guest, greeted by two bewildered parents. Growing up under the high ceiling of our huge church, hard wooden pews supported Mom in pretty dress, Dad in suit, and sandwiched in between was a tiny boy. The Sunday message to my small ears was that Big God judged everything I did, but his Son, Jesus, was nice. Both Jesus and God were somewhere past the high ceiling. That was an image I would spend a lifetime unlearning.
Things were not so nice at home. By the time I was 13 years old, Mom and Dad had split up and were getting a divorce. Christians did not get divorced, not in our church.
Divorce hit hard, so I escaped into childhood fantasy and detached and withdrew from people. I was profoundly insecure and did not make friends easily, therefore childhood was marked with deep loneliness and isolation. I was skinny as a rail, so school days were spent running from bullies who loved to pick on easy prey. This resulted in failing all my grades at school. But when I was old enough to discover alcohol and drugs, things improved. Both were used to provide the courage to come out of my fantasy world and connect with people. At first it worked beautifully.
At 15 years old, getting drunk felt awesome. Heavy metal music, throat-burn of whiskey and weed were the only times I felt free from crippling self-consciousness. In the woods behind my house, I became an alcoholic. I would sit in dead leaves, plug my nose, and wash down the aftertaste of a childhood filled with loneliness and despair. Warmth would spread upward, quieting a raging mind. Angry faces, broken trust and hot tears of abandonment fell among the brown leaves. Dark unseen shadows that circled above the trees landed.
Alcohol and drugs held out their hands like a mother and father. But alcohol and drugs made poor parents. When the summer of 1979 hit, I was an 18-year-old drug addict, with a criminal record and three attempted suicides. Almost setting the house on fire while stoned, dad could no longer trust me. Jobless and kicked out of high school, my drug use became so serious that I started stealing from my father to support my addiction. I had hit rock bottom. That’s when HE stepped in.
It was the second week of August; I was forced to spend seven days with my family at a Bible camp because Dad could not trust me alone in the house. As the week progressed, I ran out of drugs. Going through withdrawals, I was angry and trapped among a bunch of freaky Christians. Wednesday night came, and for reasons that I still do not understand, I dragged myself to evening chapel.
The beautiful people in the chapel surrounded me like condemnation. Long, stringy hair fell lazily across small shoulders. Not trying to hide my thinness, I flaunted it like a declaration of leprosy. An unusually thin body covered with a black, faded t-shirt and acid washed jeans. I hadn’t shaved for a week. Never had I been so uncomfortably aware of how haggard I must look. I felt like an alien—a fish out of water, surrounded by people who were doing their best not to notice.
The service consisted of boring announcements, singing, and, finally, the speaker. A nameless preacher droned on. I had heard it a thousand times. There was nothing special or different about what he was saying. In fact, I cannot not recall a single word. But in that moment, God forced His way through my insanity, and spoke to the very core of my being right there in the back of the chapel. Penetrating words that snapped the ice age of my heart. “Ron, I love you and I want you to be my son.”
I heard Him! And knew He meant it. I began to shake. It felt like everyone must be staring; I didn’t care. Everything became unimportant. For the first time, I knew I had always wanted God. “I want you to be my son” wakened the deepest part of my soul, a place I had been too afraid to go. Standing to my feet, I ran out the back door of the chapel, flew down the hill, breath escaping through racks of sobbing, not caring about the strange looks on passing faces. There was only one thing I had in mind: get to my tent. The weightiness felt unbearable. Grappling with the zipper, I threw myself on the tent floor, rolled over, staring into eternity. The tent became a holy place, filled with Presence. There was no blinding light or voice; it was something more real, beyond feeling or emotion. The very source of my life was awakening to meet God.
The change was altogether painful and joyous. Walls of stony protection fell. Things I held important were swept away, leaving the sensitivity of a newborn heart. All these years, I had worked hard to callous myself, and was appalled at how vulnerable I was in this moment, lying helplessly on the tent floor. But I never resisted―never pulled away. Instead, I relaxed my will, aware of what this would initiate. In that moment all the countless messages I had heard about Jesus dying on the cross and taking my punishment for sin all made sense. I knew I needed to be forgiven for a lifetime of sin. Oh, how I wanted forgiveness! Unspoken words that hung over my head came hoarsely to my mouth. "I give you everything. I give you my screwed-up life. . . Jesus, I’m sorry."
The first year of my new birth was all about discovery. With the bedroom door shut I gorged on the Bible, hour upon hour. I could not get enough and spent so much time reading the Bible that my father was concerned I was going overboard. Through much convincing, I was allowed back into high school on a probationary condition. I remember the first weeks walking through the student-packed common area of my high school carrying a Bible under my arm. These were the same students I used to sell drugs to, but now everyone who would listen heard about Jesus. At first teachers and students were shocked and thought I had lost my mind. But over time, many became followers of Jesus.
Bursting with joy, I was unstoppable. My church put me in charge of the youth ministry. I began reaching out to other churches with a vision to bring youth groups together, no matter what their denomination. I envisioned all churches working together: Pentecostals, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, the way it was depicted in my Bible. Who cares about big, fancy buildings. Let’s hit the street and help people just like Jesus did. This brought strong pushback from church leadership. But the more I studied, the more I believed we were doing it wrong. My church was doing it wrong. I spoke boldly about what I was reading, and like a child questioning their parents, I started asking: Why does the Book of Acts look so different than what we are doing in our church? Why does Jesus’ life look so different than how Christians are living now? Why do we have denominations? The more I read the Bible, the more disturbing the questions and less satisfying the answers. Slowly a divide began to occur between myself and my pastors. Was I the only one seeing what seemed so plainly written in Scripture?
After completing high school, I was off to Bible college with the intention of becoming a full-time pastor. Expectations soared. The months before moving to campus, I would often lay in bed imagining the next five years studying under the finest Biblical scholars. But what really happened was Bible college created more questions than answers. Every passage of Scripture was analyzed with scientific precision. Is the Bible the Word of God? Is Genesis literal or just figurative? Is the Book of Acts just history and no longer relevant for today? Debate was encouraged. The professors seem to relish watching each freshman’s naïve, childlike faith harden into skepticism and cynicism, as if spiritual maturity were more about education than a changed heart. Any student who claimed to have answers was viewed with suspicion, especially those who believed they were guided by the Holy Spirit.
All of this planted seeds of doubt and confusion. I was not alone. Wandering the hallways was a remnant of disillusioned students who had come to Bible college to grow closer to Jesus, only to find lifeless doctrine and endless debates which resulted in doubt and confusion, or worse, a shipwrecked faith. So, I fought back. I began a small prayer group on Tuesday nights. It began with just two or three hungry souls, but quickly grew into a huge mob of students packed into a small room crying out for the Holy Spirit. Fire came to that room. We started busing to downtown Toronto witnessing and preaching the gospel. New converts were brought back to our dorm and baptized in bathtubs. We had communion and fellowship. This was what real church felt like.
Of course, the ripple effect got the attention of the college administration. Things came to a head when a homeless man we baptized pitched a tent in the trees on the college property. The proctor called me into his office, and his message was loud and clear. This is a college, not a church. We must cease and desist having communion and baptizing on campus property.
I dropped out of Bible college disillusioned. Feelings of distrust created an even greater divide between my church and I. Secret doubts about God and the Bible started to plague my thinking despite running small church groups out of my apartment. Eventually, I stopped going to church altogether. Street ministry and gathering in homes continued as people gravitated to my leadership, but gradually, I isolated myself from the other spiritual gifts essential for accountability. Drifting away from the protection of my church led me into the company of marginalized Christians who fed off each other’s resentments, creating a sub-culture of superiority.
I justified forsaking my church and even my family by creating a “me and Jesus” theology. I viewed criticism as persecution. Unaware at the time, this provided the perfect environment for two demonic strongholds to quietly assemble in my heart. Brick by dark brick, the towers of Pride and Bitterness were built, providing a haven for demonic forces. Pride and bitterness would result in 35 years of spiritual instability. Pride breathed life back into a crucified flesh, reanimating lust, addiction, and depression. To compensate for all of this instability, I created another theology: “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” I had forsaken the full message of the Gospel: forgiveness and freedom from sin.
For the next 35 years I became imprisoned in a cycle of sin and repentance. But I was never good at sin, just like I was never good at drinking. Both spiraled me down to depression. When I hit bottom, I would cry out to God, and He would graciously answer and restore me. Three times I fell into sexual sin―resulting in two devastating divorces―and three times I repented and was restored. I was locked in a cycle of going from fruitful ministry, authoring six books and a thriving Christian website, to plummeting back into marital unfaithfulness, porn and alcohol. Over the years this created two well-developed opposites. At work I was the arrogant cool guy everyone wanted to be friends with, a womanizing man who demanded all the attention in the room. At night alone, I wept, making worthless promises to God that tomorrow would be different. To justify this instability, I developed a theology of excuses: blaming my parents, a dysfunctional childhood, rejection issues, anxiety disorder, and ADHD. Instead of crucifying the flesh, I spent years trying to heal the flesh through counseling and deliverance ministries. Repentance was more about quitting drinking or white-knuckled purity. Never did I think that below the surface of this cycle of instability were two demonic strongholds constructed 35 years ago. Tall, black towers of Bitterness and Pride.
You can only hold together this kind of fractured identity for so long before finally a storm comes along that causes the whole thing to fall apart. In the spring of 2018, I received a major job promotion supervising the operations of 36 schools, including four high schools, totaling 130 staff. My internal life could not hold up the weight of this new responsibility. Within weeks of the promotion, I suffered a terrifying anxiety attack that brought me to my knees. What followed were waves of recurring anxiety attacks where I lost a sense of time and place. These attacks began to damage simple brain functions like short term memory and speech.
I prided myself in being a smart, articulate person, relishing the opportunity to speak in front of audiences. Yet every attack progressively crippled my ability to communicate, causing slurred speech and inability to remember names. Coworkers, who had no idea the suffering I was enduring, made fun of my jumbled words and names. Staff meetings became a terrifying challenge. I avoided eye contact, stopped taking elevators, and became withdrawn and quiet. Insomnia set in. I endured hour after hour of sleepless nights, lying in bed, heart pounding, mind racing with fear of how I was going to function at work the next day.
The first few months of my promotion, I comforted myself that this would pass. I would recover. Things would go back to normal. But my appetite continued to diminish and working out at the gym became impossible. It didn’t take long before I transformed into that frail, nervous guy no one takes notice of. Attention from women disappeared. Passion for camping in wilderness turned to dread. My once prized aquariums turned green with algae and neglect. All my escapes turned on me like mad dogs. For some reason, alcohol and porn started triggering anxiety attacks; even a lustful thought would trigger anxiety. Netflix felt empty and meaningless. Finally, four months after my promotion it became clear this was not going to pass. I was going to be like this for the rest of my life. That was when hopelessness and depression moved in like a shroud. Messages in my head taunted, “You will never enjoy anything again. This is your new life so get used to it. You are slowly going insane.” I couldn’t even walk out on my 15th floor balcony, afraid I would jump off. My doctor, after 15 minutes of questions regarding our family history of anxiety, OCD and depression, declared this was genetic and I would have to manage it with prescription medication.
For years I had run from the demons of guilt and regret, so I kept life fast and distracted. But now all my friends were gone. Alcohol, lust, even desire was gone. I had no escapes to get me through the lonely nights. Nowhere else to turn. I laid face down on my living room floor and cried out to God. Instead of finding comfort and relief, 35 years of lies and broken promises paraded before me. I saw how two divorces had damaged two women I had once cherished. I saw how my actions had propelled two daughters into years of painful recovery. I saw a young son from my second marriage living in Texas without a father. I saw how I used God-given gifts and talents for popularity and seduction. I was being crushed on my floor and there were no excuses to ease the shame. When I was 18 years old, I received everything needed to live a life of freedom. But then I did the very thing the Bible warned against. I willingly “offered myself to sin as an instrument of wickedness” in the form of pride and bitterness. I chose to walk back into the bondage of sin as a free man. And that willful sin created legal ground for demons. Laying on the floor I saw all this.
Another night on the floor, came: “They made their hearts as hard as flint” (Zechariah. 7:12). For years I purposely hardened my heart to God so I could sin without feeling bad. I knew I was doing it. I could feel the hardening happening. And I did it anyway. I rationalized I was becoming free of the restraints of religion but knew that was a lie. I knew Scripture enough to understand the risk. And sure enough, the longer I played with beer and porn the less guilty I felt. Eventually, there was no guilt at all, just an aftermath of dull emptiness. On the floor, vivid scenes of lude joking, cussing and flirting passed before me―and it filled me with terror.
Morning and night, I cried out God’s name. There was no answer. It felt like God had forsaken me. I became convinced I had out-sinned God’s grace and had lost my salvation. “There was no sacrifice for sin left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:26). Heavy awareness of my sin placed me in agreement with God―my sin deserved judgement. How could I ever undo the suffering I had caused?
At first, the only motivation on the floor was to get free from crippling anxiety. I begged God to heal me. A Christian friend shared how one night God had removed her depression and anxiety with the laying on of hands. Poof, gone. I prayed, “Oh Lord, please do this for me.” But instead I heard a faint whisper, “This is not your path.” Slowly, as time passed, a spark in me started to grow that displaced the desire for healing. Instead, I wanted to make things right. Make things right with God. And make things right with those I had hurt. I stopped caring so much about getting healed of anxiety and wanted closeness with God the way I did the first year after I was saved. On the floor, the dark tower of Pride trembled, shaking the second tower Bitterness, which found its strength in the first.
Four months passed since the first anxiety attack. It was mid-August of 2018, and I had just finished spending four weeks with my 11-year-old son from my second failed marriage. As every summer, four weeks ended with driving him to the airport so he could fly back to his mother in Texas. Anxiety was now a daily part of my life. Some days were better than others. But waking on the morning of the departure, I was confrounted with how challenging the busy airport was going to be. Not only were public places triggering, but my son’s summer drop-off was always one of the hardest days of the year. Watching him disappear down the on-ramp after four weeks of cycling, canoeing, and camping was heart-wrenching. There were tears as he looked back, torn between the excitement of seeing his mom, and sadness of having to say goodbye to his dad after a summer of connection. The scene was loaded with regret and failure. “That pain on his face is your fault, Ron.” Normally, I would comfort myself with a night of alcohol, but not this time. I was determined to go home sober and prayerful.
He disappeared down the ramp, and as I waited in the airport for his departure, I began to feel suffocating darkness. I sat on a bench and there came the familiar beginnings of an anxiety attack. Chest pounding. Airport sounds distorting. And passing faces detached and distant. I started to feel the terror that I would not be able to escape the airport and find my way to the car, so I laid down on the bench with my eyes closed: “Please, God, not here. Please just let me get home. Please.” Lying there, my whole life felt like a sham. The pain in my son’s face passed before me. My sin had forced this torn life on him. Again, there were no excuses. This was my doing. I agreed with God that my sin deserved judgment. Waves grew in intensity, cresting into a full-blown attack―but in that moment something else happened. I heard God speak as clear as day after months of silence: “You are my son, and I will never leave you nor forsake you.” That was it. Nothing else. It was there and gone. But there was no doubt it was my Father.
Driving home it dawned on me that I had been hearing God’s voice all along. Conviction is His voice. He was fathering me, and it was a sign of my sonship (Hebrews 12). The very fact that I was able to see my sin was a sign my heart was not hardened beyond grace. Conviction is a Father’s gift, rich with recreative truth and revelation, ushering in repentance, life, and restoration. This revelation provided fresh hope.
Back on the floor. The hardness of my heart terrified me. “I know I don’t love; I don’t even know how to―but I want to. Please Father, help me to love You with my whole heart?!” I learned not to chase perfection. Perfection is about me. My job was staying humble and yielding to the work of the Spirit. I stumbled and failed with useless guilt and shame but learned quickly to repent of the self-focus of shame and get my eyes back on Jesus. It took practice, but as time went on it got easier.
I spent the next two years repenting. For years I sought healing and recovery, but there must be death before resurrection. Death, not deliverance. Death, not healing. Death, not therapy. Instead of trying to fix my life, I died to it. Nothing was held back. I offered all my excuses. I offered all my self-reliance. And my hands that had built the strongholds of Pride and Bitterness tore them down, brick by dark brick.
Month after month the work of repentance continued. The façade of arrogance I had hidden behind was stripped away. The change was so dramatic, I started to feel as though I no longer knew who I was. This caused sensations of disorientation, which triggered anxiety. It would hit me strongest just before sleep. Who am I? Who am I becoming? But I surrendered to this surgical transformation. It demanded every ounce of trust in my Father.
I also realized that my repentance required action. During a Mother’s Day party, I stood shaking, tearfully announcing the sins of drinking and lust to a surprised family, asking for forgiveness. Both addictions were broken after that day. Hundreds of pirated movies got deleted, including all secular music. Books were thrown in the trash. For two years I stopped watching all secular media, including news and TV. Only Christ-centered teaching and nothing else. I contacted both ex-wives and repented afresh for how my sin had hurt them. My first ex-wife and I held each other, crying like babies, while waves of the Spirit fell. Connecting with my second ex-wife involved a phone call to Texas with hours of confessing and crying. I repented to my widowed mother for the lifelong bitterness I had harbored towards her, committing to be a daily support. I had the privilege to re-enter my two adult daughters’ lives and become involved with my grandkids. As names came, I would call and confess.
A year passed, and the absence of alcohol and porn began improving brain chemistry. A keto diet rich in omega 3’s and hard exercise hastened recovery. During the morning in bed when anxiety was at its worse, I meditated at least 20 minutes on the Word. I also performed a Biblical form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, labeling and replacing deceptive brain messages with Scriptural truth. Water fasting and solitude were added to praying on my floor. At first, being in a water fasting state while trying to function in a demanding job would trigger anxiety, but this taught me deeper trust in God. All these steps had a profound effect on brain health, improved sleep, lessening brain fog and memory loss. There was a measured reduction in sensations and intrusive thoughts and less slurring of my words. I confidently threw the unused bottle of anxiety medication prescribed a year ago into the trash.
While praying and meditating, I began to hear my Father’s voice and kept a journal of these wonderful events, rereading them often so as not to forget. Most importantly, I ruthlessly guarded my heart from pride, taking any opportunity to humble myself, remaining starkly honest. This destroyed any secret life. Secrets, even the smallest ones, caused anxiety.
Pride terrified me. When sitting among the supervisors, camaraderie was expressed by jockeying and joking at each other’s expense. As I began to recover and there was less slurred speech, I desperately wanted to break my silence and join in, become one of the boys. And yet even the smallest prideful joke triggered anxiety. I was discovering the fear of the Lord and welcomed it with open arms. The fear of the Lord was a gift, it was bringing life back from years of a hardened heart.
I would like to say here that I understand that there is some disagreement among Christians of whether God would send or use anxiety as a way of disciplining His children. I respect both sides of the argument. But during this time of recovery, debating that question did not bear any good fruit, so I simply did everything I could to stay in childlike faith, keep it super simple, and humbly yield myself to God. That was what was bearing the most fruit.
Repentance from pride included signing up and becoming an usher in a mega-church that I used to judge. There I was, ushering people to their seats, collecting the offerings, handing out bulletins, and assisting with communion in the middle of fancy light shows, foggers and perfectly choreographed messages. The battle of confusion and anxiety while in the sanctuary was profound. It took everything within me to remain humble and not judge. I began to understand that judging was my way of taking control, so I let go of control. The key was focusing on the people with simple love.
Another step of “humbling myself” was inviting my mom to become a personal mentor in the first two years of sobriety. She had battled the demon of alcohol and won years ago. As I opened my heart to Mom, I discovered a remarkable woman of faith. In those early days, I would call her daily, hanging on to her wise words of hope.
But the most demanding step of humility involved my intelligence. The Bible says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs. 3:5,6). Lean not on my own understanding? Even as a child I felt like I had secret insight no one else possessed. Disbelieving my own thinking was intensely personal. It felt as though I were giving up the deepest part of what made me, ME. But anxiety had revealed that my thoughts were not trustworthy at all. “My gosh, I cannot even trust in my thinking! How does a man live when he cannot even trust his own thinking?” My Father was asking me to be a child even though I was a man. Pride said, “I will believe it when I understand it.” My Father said, “You will understand when you believe.” So, I said yes without understanding. God pointed and I went. Sure enough, understanding would follow obedience. For example: after a year and a half of faithfully ushering in the mega-church, despite painful confusion, God whispered, “I have children everywhere.” This was a transformative and unifying statement that flooded my heart with repentance. Amid foggers and flashing lights, I rose to my feet and joined my voice with my brothers and sisters. Oh, how free I felt!
Another area which I dealt with was that all my life I had avoided reading certain parts of the Bible, especially the Old Testament because it triggered horrible doubts. I heard the Spirit whisper, “My son, you have a long-awaited appointment with My Old Testament.” So, with fear and trembling, I started reading. Sure enough, painful doubts, as old as my Bible college days, screamed questions in my ears. Instead of seeking answers I did something completely new: I chose to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” When a painful question arose, even if it felt deeply important, I would repent and keep reading. Sometimes these doubts felt more “real” than what I was reading. Doubts are real, but I had confused “real” for “true.” Lies are real. But a lie, no matter how long you have believed it, is still a lie. I learned the best way to deal with a lie is not reason with it, but just label it as a lie and keep reading. Through trusting, I discovered that my painful doubts about the Bible and God’s existence were nothing more than anxiety. That discovery was very humbling. I always believed that I doubted because I was so much smarter than everyone. It now made sense why God had been silent on years of questions. Answers do not cure anxiety. The cure is trust. Today, the Old Testament has come alive in my hands. I have a new understanding that is coming through faith. “By Faith we understand” (Hebrews 11:3).
As I continued to humble my understanding, something completely unexpected happened. Within three years, anxiety and depression disappeared! Simple trust had taken my brain function beyond anything I had ever experienced, even before that first anxiety attack in 2018. For the first time in my life, I could remember people’s names after meeting them just once. I was able to listen intently to someone without distracting thoughts. Passion for wilderness camping reawakened, and now I had the courage to do solo trips, a dream come true. Colors were richer. My appetite returned with a vengeance. In fact, I grew a belly because of all the delicious meals I was preparing, so I increased running, cycling and bodybuilding. Youthfulness returned to the mirror, energy throughout the day and deep sleep at night. Childlike curiosity came back, too. I delighted in wildlife documentaries and studied many other interests. I started investing more time in my neglected aquariums; the result was lush, green aquascapes full of heathy plants and fish that were the wonder of those who visited. I enjoyed doing dishes and cleaning my apartment while singing or listening to Bible teaching. My mom became my best friend. Finally, I started to find pleasure in my job as a supervisor, the very thing that triggered my first anxiety attack. As Covid-19 forced new cleaning protocols in schools and widespread anxiety amongst my staff, I was able to oversee the safety of thousands of children without fear. I enjoyed letting my light shine with encouraging words everywhere I went. The supervisors, who once mocked me, now called for my advice and support. When people asked why I was so happy, I would openly share my testimony of recovering from anxiety and depression because of Jesus. The other supervisors and staff jokingly started calling me Pastor Ron.
All this brought me to another discovery that was unexpected. This robust mental health provided a new point of reference to the last 60 years. I realized that I had struggled with some level of anxiety and depression my whole life, even before the anxiety attack of 2018. My whole life I woke up every morning and checked my emotions to see what kind of day it would be. For the first time I realized it was not normal for me to want to self-medicate on alcohol at night. It was not normal to have horrible feelings of insecurity when alone. It was not normal to have such overwhelming doubts about God’s existence that I wanted to throw up. As emotional stability established itself, a whole new world opened. Consistent peace and joy day after day became my new normal. Some mornings the joy is so overwhelming I can barely contain it. It is the consistency of this emotional state that has been so astonishing. I am no longer a man who struggles with depression and anxiety. This has transformed my identity.
“Trust in the Lord with all my Heart” revolutionized my relationship with God. When he does not answer a question, I smile and take a closer look at the motive behind my question. I trust His silence. I trust His judgements. I trust His Old Testament and agree with everything He did. I trust how He fathers me. I trust His painful discipline and ask for more because I see the fruit it’s bearing. When a doubt tries to distract, I laugh. I am ok with living in mystery. He is my Father. And He’s good! It would be impossible to ever doubt Him again. He is all around me. He is inside of me. I have a new kind of knowing. This trust has realigned my brain chemistry. It seems the brain was created to function in trust.
Regardless of all these wonderful changes, I was still avoiding leadership. There were even some in my family who believed my past sin disqualified me from handling any form of church leadership. They suggested I remove my “FreedomYou” website, which was still receiving substantial traffic. “Blow it all up” was their message, and I understood why they felt this way. Even though “FreedomYou” was born in a place of purity, there were long periods of time since its publication that my private life did not line up with my writing. I agonized in prayer and was willing to remove the site and books. But around this time, God used a close Christian friend who texted me: “I don’t normally interfere like this, but “FreedomYou” is not your website to blow up! It’s God’s website. And it is blessing people.” I felt my Father in those words and cried at His mercy to trust me enough to continue a ministry I loved so much.
While ushering, I also started attending a vibrant home church that took place in an apartment a few floors below me. Purposely, I resisted speaking and took the position of listening and serving. The leader of the home church was this 20-something skinny guy named Curtis who reminded me of my younger self. Curtis was obsessed with preaching the gospel, healing the sick and casting out demons, and he did all three every chance he got. Immediately, Curtis took it upon himself to disciple me. He would have nothing to do with this idea of disqualification of leadership and vigorously went to work on rebuilding identity around, “…old things have passed away and all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). There was no arguing with him. He said, “Ron, you are washed clean. You are a man of God. So, let’s get to work!” That was Curtis. With fear and trembling I submitted to a man less than half my age. “Ron, this Sunday you are leading the service.” Out of respect, I said yes. “Ron, come here and baptize this man.” Yes. “Ron, lay hands on this man and pray for his healing.” Yes. “Ron, I sense you have a word for our group.” Yes. As a supervisor I was the one accustomed to giving orders, but in the Kingdom of God authority is not measured by age or experience; it is measured by faith and obedience. Curtis had both. Every “yes” changed my identity inch by inch. God used this young Spirit-filled man in ways that are still hard for me to understand to this day.
These identity-building moments continued. When I first joined the home church, I was broken with shame. Head down, I could barely look at a woman. Kate and Bria were two beautiful young women who were core leaders in our home church. Both were highly effective in ministering to youth. I felt tremendous fear and shame around Kate and Bria. During the first few weeks of joining, I openly confessed my past to the church, including how I used to be an arrogant womanizer. I told them how my two daughters had expressed discomfort about going to restaurants with their dad because of how flirtatious I was with young waitresses. After a year of attending and serving in our home church, one evening I was praying with Kate and Bria, during which both felt strongly that God had a word for me. “Ron, we cannot picture you as that arrogant womanizer, nor do we sense any of that spirit in you today. We both trust you.” I cried hard that night. These words broke lies the enemy was using in the attempt to disable my ability to serve. I walked out of that apartment feeling clean.
Over time, God called Curtis and his family to relocate their ministry an hour north in Peterborough. A short time after that, Bria and Kate also moved out of White Oaks, called to other ministries. Despite many tears, I laid hands on them and prayed a blessing, but inside I felt fear and deep loss. Curtis, his wife Sylvia, Bria and Kate, although less than half my age, had played a massive role in rebuilding my broken identity. They were family. Even as I write this, I cannot contain my tears. We continue to remain close, but I know it will never be the same.
The result of their departure was the leadership of this home church fell into my hands, the very thing I did not want. Yet again another Identity moment: Curtis, Sylvia, Bria and Kate expressed no hesitation that I was ready to take over the White Oaks Church. Again, I simply said yes. I stopped ushering so I could pour myself into our church.
Curtis modeled a very different kind of leadership than the one in which I had been raised. His passion was to activate others into their spiritual gifts and identity. Leaders make leaders. Disciples make disciples. Home churches produce more home churches. It was a Biblical model that I could thrive in. As Curtis discipled me, I started to disciple a remarkable man that had lived in my building for many years. Norm now works alongside of me as a pastor and has become my dearest friend. Norm and I prayed for a female pastor who would join our team so women could be discipled. Along came Lori who has also lived in our building for many years. With three years of sobriety, Lori is in love with Jesus. We three are united in love for our community. Leadership is no longer about me. No superheroes. No pastor-kings.
And as if that weren’t enough, a new vision for “FreedomYou” ministry is reawakening. For the last 10 years, every time I sat down to write I was a dry cup, a mockery of those former years when passion flowed onto pages. The experience of trying to write became a vile reminder of how far I had fallen. So, I stopped writing. “FreedomYou” diminished. During these last four years, as I lay on the floor, vision has been restored to me. Today words pour onto page. Oh, the thrill of coauthoring with the Holy Spirit. Writing is now one of my most intimate times with God. As my Father has restored me, there will be a full restoration of “FreedomYou.”
But how foolish it would be to think my war with pride is over. “He that thinks he stands, take heed lest he falls” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Four years ago, I was thin, sick, slurring my speech, friendless and depressed. Of course, I cried out to God. What other option did I have? Today I am bodybuilding, running and cycling. My mind is clear and sharp. Sex drive has roared back, and I am experiencing greater health than I had even in my youth. Respect and influence have been rebuilt and people are attracted to my wisdom and stability. In the past, this was when I had bitterly failed. “Oh, Father how can I be strong and remain humble?” The answer came eight weeks after writing this.
I was in my car praying for more power. “Father, I want to heal the sick, cast out demons, and see souls saved and baptized.” Fire! It felt like an awesome prayer. But God interrupted my prayer with five words: “It would be about you.” I pulled the car over, bawling. He was right. Secretly, I still imagine healing a man in our community bound to a wheelchair, while Curtis, Sylvia, Kate and Bria look on in amazement, legitimatizing my leadership in White Oaks Church. Of course, I would rejoice for this dear man, but the yeast of pride would be there, ready to grow. I want to be liked. I still get high when complimented and hurt when made fun of. My mom’s praise still sends me to the moon. When listening to Bethel music I still catch myself pretending to be the lead singer. When writing, I still imagine myself on Oprah talking about my books. I like being funny, clever and creative, the center of attention. It all seems harmless, but it’s not. On the side of the road, I sobbed over the pride. But more than that, I wept over how God persists in fathering and protecting me. Later I discovered that God was not saying He would never answer my prayer for more power, but He was humbling my heart for an anointing of power that was so overwhelming I would barely be able to contain it.
It was then I understood that the answer to overcoming pride is intimacy; that is, putting things in place that will keep unbroken communication between God and my heart so I can always hear His wonderful correction. Some of the practices I have put into place for maintaining deep intimacy are fasting and solitude. I cut off all external media, turn off my phone, and humbly wait and listen on the floor for days. This preserves the lines of communication between the Holy Spirit and my heart. Water fasting is a powerful way of saying no to desire. In the Bible, fasting and “humble yourself” go hand and hand. Another action is ruthless transparency and accountability to my church leadership. Also, when it comes to giving, I practice the discipline of secrecy. This helps guard my motives. I will never hold my thoughts or opinions above the Bible. I spend many hours alone reading God’s Word, humbly saying yes and amen, even when there is no understanding.
Learning how to be both strong and humble has been a bit of a stumbling act. A few days after writing this, I went to a school with another supervisor to discuss concerns with staff. Among the other supervisors I have the embarrassing reputation of being soft and a pushover. But not so during this meeting. While the other supervisor looked on, I was stern, laying down my expectations of how these concerns would be corrected. While the supervisor and I walked out of the school, he looked over at me and said, “You were on fire!” I knew he would be communicating this with the other supervisors. I could feel my chest swell with pride. He asked, “Wow Ron, what has happened to you?” I responded: “I have grown in the role,” and never thought much more of it. After work I hit the weights in the gym with a little extra zeal. Then, like a hammer falling, for the first time in over a year an anxiety attack hit. Immediately, I became disoriented, losing sense of time, which lasted for over two hours. At home I laid on the floor crying out to God with a level of desperation I have not had in over a year. I felt the familiar sensations of fear and self-doubt, totally contrasting the swollen confidence I had experienced just a few hours before. Then it hit me. Just as Nebuchadnezzar did not give God the glory when overlooking his vast kingdom, God humbled him with seven years of insanity (Daniel. 4:28), I did not give God glory over the divine work He has done in my life. Again, I wept on the floor over how God fathers me. His discipline protects my heart. The very next morning we had our weekly supervisor’s breakfast. I asked for everyone’s attention and said: “Many of you have commented on how much I have changed over the last few years. I just want to say I give God all the glory. It is because of His work in me that I have grown so much.” No one knew what to say, but I felt the pleasure of the Lord in my heart.
Four years ago, I was on the brink of no longer being able to hear the Spirit’s conviction. Being promoted to supervisor with all that pride would have destroyed me. I was deliberately sinning, insulting the Spirit of grace, and treating as an unholy thing the blood that sanctified me. On the floor I had a taste of “fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10: 27). When reading this please do not turn it into a theological debate of whether Christians can lose their salvation. All I know is there are warnings all through Scripture about falling away. They are everywhere. Today I have the courage to read them. In fact, I search for them with a sober mind and tears of thankfulness!
I want to be disciplined, even though it can be painful (Hebrews 12: 4-13). I welcome pruning. I want it. And I pray for it (John 15). As leadership increases, I want to be more strictly judged (James 3:1). I welcome God’s judgment. I agree with it. It is His judgment that rescued me twice from the blindless and destruction of sin. I would rather die than fall away from Him. I am serous about this. I want the thorn that God sent to the Apostle Paul to keep him from being prideful over the revelations God had given him, because it will guard me from pride too (2 Corinthians 12:7). I want to be tested like the Israelites were in the desert, so I can be refined in the fire. And finally at the end of days, when the Bridegroom comes, I want to be in white; a virgin, unashamed, with a single heart. A single love.
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