I wrote earlier about the mission team that came to Romania from my home church in January 2001. Hosting 40+ Americans in my own territory was a blessing, but also burdensome, not because of the American team, but because of my struggles with the language. Things weren’t working out. I felt stretched to the max as I tried to help my home church accomplish their mission work in the Romanian villages. But many good things were also taking place.
By far the most important event of the week for my long-term ministry in Romania was a conversation my brother and I had with one of the teenagers in my home village. Valentin was one of the teenagers who had been coming to our services for a while now. He was actively participating in our youth meetings. His dad had just gotten baptized the summer before, and his mom and sister were already believers.
One thing kept Valentin from becoming a Christian: he didn’t think he could give up everything from his old lifestyle. He told my brother and me one that he could give up the parties and drinking and all that went along with that lifestyle. But he didn’t think he could give up a certain vice that had a grip on him.
Valentin was afraid that if he decided to live for Christ and then went back to even just that part of his old lifestyle, he would make his family, his church, and the Lord ashamed. So, he told us that he would try to rid himself of the vice first, and then decide to become a Christian.
I told Valentin that day that I didn’t think he could give up the sin. A strange expression flashed across his face. He had expected some encouragement or some words of advice that would help him make his decision. Perhaps he had expected me to say, “You have to give it up! It’s not God’s will for your life.” But I didn’t say any of those things. I agreed with Valentin that he would probably never be able to escape the clutches of the sin that held him captive… by himself.
I shocked Valentin by agreeing with his assessment in order to change his mindset, a typical Romanian perspective, that sees works as preceding faith. You have to do this or stop doing that before you can trust Christ for salvation. I wanted Valentin to understand that this was the wrong way to think. You can’t do good and you can’t stop doing bad until you have trusted Christ. God takes the first step towards us; not vice versa. In order to be a Christian, you don’t work your way to a decision. You merely say “yes” to the transformation that God wants to bring in your life.
There was no doubt that Valentin wanted his life to be changed. He wanted to be saved. He wanted to be baptized. Even then, it was clear. But he was held back by the gnawing sense of unworthiness and helplessness. I tried to get Valentin to understand that the unworthiness and helplessness that he was feeling was precisely the sign that God was doing a work in his life! He had to understand his state before God as helpless, sinful and unworthy – and in the brokenness that came from that, begin to experience God’s healing.
Valentin later told me that our conversation that day radically changed the way he looked at salvation. Instead of looking at salvation as something to attain by “doing something,” he saw salvation as something God “has done” and that our “doing something” follows salvation. The next evening, at the evangelistic service my church held in the village, Valentin trusted Christ. He was baptized that summer, and he entered Emanuel University as a Theology student a year later. Over the years, he became one of my most trusted friends and co-workers, often helping me lead worship and preach in other churches. God did do a mighty work, but it only came after Valentin entrusted his life into God’s hands.
The week of that mission trip, even though there were times of frustration and doubt, God still worked! I sometimes feel like from an organizational standpoint, He worked in spite of us rather than through us. Some of the details turned out to be disastrous during this trip. But God still moved in a mighty way. And for that I was humbled and grateful.