I was raised in a 'conservative evangelical' bible-believing family and church environment. From a young age I was exposed to preaching which emphasised the authority of the bible and the importance of prayer, but viewed 'charismatic' gifts and behaviour (e.g. raising hands in worship) in a fairly negative way.
When I was aged 11 I was at a Christian camp which included an evangelistic talk with a 'call' for folk to become Christians. To be honest, I'd never really thought about becoming a Christian up until that point, I'd kind of assumed that I was one by default. But that night I made a decision... I decided not to be a Christian. I realised at that point that I believed in Jesus and all that stuff, but that being a Christian was more than just a matter of belief, it was a matter of action as well - doing things for God and denying things for yourself, so I opted out.
For what its worth, I still believe that I truly was a Christian (by default) up until that point and I chose to opt out. Over the years since then, some folk have insisted to me that I couldn't have really been a Christian before I was 11, because if I was I wouldn't have opted out. While others have tried to explain to me that I really have always been 'on the right track' and therefore I didn't cease to be a Christian when I decided not to be. I still maintain that I was raised a Christian and it wasn't until I chose to opt out that I ceased to be one.
Anyway, I made the mistake of not telling my family about the choice I had made, so for most of my teens I lived a double life - at school and with my friends I was just a normal teenager with no 'religious' belief, but to my family and at church I still appeared to be a Christian... If anyone reading this is in the same situation (and I have met several folk who have been there) please just be who you are - don't try and be something you are not just to keep your family happy. It'll make life easier in the long run, I promise you. Towards the end of my time at school it became harder and harder to keep the two sides of my life seperate - i.e. hiding the Christian side of my life from folk at school and hiding the 'secular' side of my life from my family.
1988 brought a few changes to my life - I moved away from home to university, in a town where I knew almost nobody, so I didn't have to do the double life thing anymore (or so I thought) and made lots of new friends - almost all of them outwith church circles. However, for the first time in my life I began to see a reason for actually chosing to become a Christian.
In October 1988, about a month after starting university, I was at a Scripture Union camp reunion. I saw the stark contrast between the Christians at the camp and the non-Christians at uni, and realised what the difference was: it was plain to me that there was some connection between these Christians that I didn't share in. There was a dimension to their lives that I didn't have. Quite simply, I finally saw the additional quality of life that the Spirit of God brings to Christians. It wasn't just a small difference, it was like the parable of the merchant who finds the pearl of great price - it was worth giving some things up in order to gain the Spirit.
And so, on the train on the way home from the camp reunion, I prayed the prayer that I had rejected about seven years earlier. And, having been raised in the church I was raised in, I knew that that was it - I was a Christian and shouldn't need any sign or manifestation to confirm this.
Nothing happened for a whole day. And (I must stress this) I really didn't expect anything to happen at all. But the following night the Spirit really did come with power and great joy. I really did feel like the Spirit filled me up so much that I would burst. I find it really hard to put this into words, but I felt like someone had emptied a well of joy into me, and had left it there - from that point on I could (and can) tap into that well and find joy in even the hardest of situations.
And so, to summarise, my outlook on God, His Spirit and the Christian life really starts with two main observations:
- The Spirit of God is real: even non-Christians can see His presence and the additional quality of life that He brings to the lives of Christians (notably, when they are together, not so much as individuals - this is important for effective evangelism!), and
- The Spirit of God is real: I experienced Him in an amazing way, even when I wasn't expecting it. And this is a lasting thing, not a transient one - He is still in me and that well of joy hasn't run dry.
I have experienced God, so I know He is there. Exactly who He is, is another matter entirely...