Even a casual reading of history makes it obvious that there are pivotal events where everything changes. Consider just a few of the turning points in our modern era. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the nature and threat of warfare. The advent of electricity was more than shocking. The discovery of germs, penicillin, anesthesia and minimally invasive surgery has forever changed health and medical care. The birth control pill separated sex from babies and was largely responsible for spawning the sexual revolution. The development of the automobile has shaped the world and its economy. Think about airplane travel. The Wright brothers dramatically changed how we travel and, in the process, shrunk the world. It was only 113 years ago that the first brief manned flight at Kitty Hawk took place. As I write this I am preparing to fly to London. The flight will take a mere nine hours (plus 7 hours to get through TSA checkpoints!). And then there is the digital-internet-computer transformation of our culture. Whether you walk the streets of New York City or hike the jungles of Costa Rica, these days everyone is connected twenty-four seven.
The history of God’s work in the world and in the church is also full of dramatic turning points. The rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden was certainly a game changer. Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land still has political reverberations today. The rise of Israel’s monarchy under kings Saul, David, and Solomon changed how God’s people were ruled. The breakdown of that monarchy and consequent civil war between the north and the south rent the unity of God’s people. Then, of course, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus stands as the definitive fulcrum in the story of salvation. When the Holy Spirit descended on the early church, the nature of Christian living was radically altered.
Church history itself is full of turning points where the trajectory of the church was altered and reshaped. Mark Noll, a history professor at Wheaton College, has written an intriguing book chronicling some of these events. Turning Points — Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, explains twelve events or movements that he believes were critical for the shaping of the church. He also adds a chapter suggesting what may be some of the turning points in the future.
It is fascinating that many of the turning points in church history were not intentional and, while history shaping, could almost be described as accidental. Think of the young Augustinian monk Martin Luther who in 1517 unceremoniously nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg. Luther could hardly have envisioned the spiritual revolution he ignited that day. The Reformation of the church swept all of Europe. It was a theological tsunami that brought war and changed the political landscape of the continent and beyond. The Reformation,however, began in a relatively insignificant town with a young man who simply wanted to debate a few theological issues. Some turning points are not always easy to see at the time they take place.
There are turning points in our own personal lives, too. Some of them are planned, like marriage, and some of them just happen, like pregnancy. When Donna told me that she thought she was pregnant I was casually happy, thinking it would be fun to have children. Little did we know what a wonderful and monumental turning point this would be in our lives. The intentional move to a new city or change in career can have enormous consequences that may not be fully understood for decades. Likewise, the unintentional and sometimes unwanted change in health or financial standing will re-shape our lives.
There are also turning points in our spiritual lives where the course of our journey with Christ is shaped. I believe that many of these personal spiritual turning points can and should happen intentionally. Here are a few turning points I have experienced in my life that have wonderfully shaped my discipleship.
Bible reading. I don’t remember the exact day or moment, but somewhere as a young man I decided I would be a consistent, life-long reader of Scripture. If indeed God had spoken in the Bible it would be foolish of me to remain ignorant and not immerse myself in what he had revealed about himself. At times Bible reading has been a discipline and at times an exciting joy. That turning point in my life, though, has changed everything for me. My thinking about God, our world, and myself has been formed in the steady reading of the Bible.
Giving. I do remember when I reached the turning point of giving of money as an act of thankful worship. I was a teenager and got my first job as a bus boy and then later as a waiter at a restaurant called Chuck’s Steak House. The money was very good for a young man. Almost all of it was in the form of tips, and after each shift I went home with cash. Due to the example and teaching of my parents I understood the importance of giving in the Christian life. But I was young, not very disciplined, and for the first time in my young life flush with cash. So I made the turning point decision that has stayed with me all my life. I would be a giver.
Church life. This may be a bit of a surprise coming from a pastor of almost four decades, but there was a time in my twenties that I was so disillusioned with the local church that I thought about giving up. Some of the hypocrisy, immorality, legalism and phoniness that I was witnessing, was more than I could take. I was having a genuine crisis of faith. Not in God, but in his people and his church. The turning point for me was deciding I would never give up on what God had established for his glory and my good.
Looking back on these (and other) turning points in my life reminds me that decisions have consequences. Turning points will shape us. These personal turning points all transpired many years ago. But there are and will continue to be turning points in our lives until the day we die. Again, many, or most, of these turning points will not happen by accident. I believe that many of these personal, spiritual turning points are like a fork in the road. We have the option to turn to the left or to the right. My encouragement is simple. Look for definitive moments, turning points, where you can direct your life in a more Godward direction. You will be forever different, and thankful.