Grace at 30,000 feet

I am a lawyer. Lawyers like questions. In fact, in the law school we learn that questions are more important than answers.

Jesus asked the best question I know. One day in the last week before His crucifixion, He was interrogated by the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees who were seeking to trip Him, and destroy His authority.

Tired of the game, Jesus asked the Pharisees a question: “‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:41, 46, NIV).

“What do you think about Jesus Christ?” is the ultimate question. Pat answers won’t suffice. What our parents, grandparents, spouse, or friends think won’t cut it. No one can stand in for you or me in answering the ultimate question, because either Jesus Christ is our personal Savior and Lord, or He is nothing to us.

Jesus said that doing good deeds—even as excellent as preaching the gospel, prophesying, and exorcising demons—won’t save us. The answer to the ultimate question and the key to the kingdom of God is found, He said, in personal relationship with Him (Matthew 7:21-23; John 17:3). I know this to be true.

I grew up in a Christian home, went to Christian schools, married a Christian. My efforts were rewarded with scholarships, awards, and a good job. In 1989, I was a busy young attorney on the rise—managing partner of my law firm, civic leader, father of a precocious 2-year-old son, and restoring an old home with my spouse. This is the stuff of the American dream.

But there was a sinkhole underneath. For one thing, I was totally consumed with work, oblivious to everything else. For another, I was spiritually bankrupt. I represented a Christian denomination and its flagship university, my alma mater. But the institution was in a civil war over its future, and as its legal counsel, I was right in the middle. Religion was a business to me, and it was bad business.

There were warning signs of problems. Flare-ups of anger. Tears of unnamed sadness while driving from appointment to appointment.

Dealing with the inner world

I needed to travel to the church’s headquarters for a meeting. On my way out of the house, I picked up a book to read on the plane. My first choice was a novel. Something in me said No. The next book in the pile was one my brother had told me about—Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald (Oliver-Nelson, 1985). Thinking it was a time-management book, I’d ordered it through a bookstore in town. To my surprise, it was a Christian book.

MacDonald’s premise is that each of us has an inner world of the heart and soul where our self-esteem is formed and basic decisions about motives, values, and commitments are made. This is the interior space where we commune with God. It has five sectors—motivation, time, intellectual growth, spirit, and Sabbath peace. If these interior sectors are properly centered in Christ and exercised by spiritual and intellectual disciplines, our outer world of relationships will also be healthy. If this inner world is not ordered we can disintegrate in stress and dysfunction.

MacDonald contrasts the drivenness of King Saul with the calling of John the Baptist. Drivenness can trap us in a high-maintenance golden cage of success, leaving us spiritually drained, leading to a disastrous spiritual and moral collapse. It wasn’t many pages before I thought, He’s talking about me. I read on with a mixture of curiosity and dread.

When I reached the hotel in Maryland, I watched the end of the baseball playoffs on the West Coast, then read some more. Continuing my reading the next morning, I thought, I should pray. But there was a problem. Lifelong professed Christian that I was, graduate of Christian schools, son of praying Christian parents--I couldn’t pray. I mean, what do you say to God when you aren’t trying to pass a test, win a case, or make a deal? I paced the room in growing frustration. I couldn’t pray. Finally I blurted out something incoherent to this effect: “God, I’d like to talk to You, but I don’t know how.”

The day was filled with business, but not resolution to the institutional conflict. The next morning went the same way with my reading and struggle to pray. My flight home included a change of planes in Chicago. At 1:00 p.m., just after take-off from O’Hare International Airport, I read this prayer that MacDonald quoted from an old Salvation Army evangelist, Samuel Logan Brengle:

“Keep me, O Lord, from waxing mentally and spiritually dull and stupid. Help me to keep the physical, mental, and spiritual fibre of the athlete, of the man who denies himself daily and takes up his cross and follows Thee. Give me good success in my work, but hide pride from me. Save me from the self-complacency that so frequently accompanies success and prosperity. Save me from the spirit of sloth, of self-indulgence, as physical infirmities and decay creep upon me” (p. 151).

I was in the window seat. The plane was still on its ascent. As I read this prayer I heard a distinct audible voice, and God said to me: “You are convicted of sin. Your pride and busyness have choked Me out of your life and are killing your relationship with your family. Don’t you think I can take care of the university and everything else you’re concerned about? Trust Me.”

That was it. It affected me physically. I squirmed in my seat, heart racing. For months afterward, I felt tender and raw, like I had been burned out inside. Setting the book aside, I stared out the window, stunned. This was real and overpowering. All I could do was yield to the presence of a God who had just run me over with the big Mack truck of grace.

When we landed in Ontario, California, I knew I had to tell my wife, Patricia, what had happened. When I pulled into the driveway, she came out to meet me. “We need to go pick up Andrew at the baby-sitter,” she said.

“OK. But first I have to tell you something.”

“Is everything OK?” she asked.

“Well, yes and no.”

We sat down in the living room. I told her what had happened. Then I said, “Every bit of talent that God has given me for leadership and organization I have squandered. I do all these things and then, as if that weren’t enough, I start new organizations. I don’t ask God if I should do any of these things.

“I come home late and eat supper and play with Andrew awhile. Then I go upstairs and shut the door and work past midnight, night after night. No one else in the firm does that. I do it just to show I can do all this stuff and more. I come in after you are asleep, and I’m up and out before you’re awake.

“You’re ill and are fighting the loss of your eyesight. When you’re angry and upset about it, I just dismiss you by saying, ‘Don’t dump this on me.’”

I looked at her and said, “I have been so selfish, and I am sorry, so sorry that I am sick in my bones. Things are going to have to be different. It would help if you were in this with me.”

Patricia looked at me awhile, then said, “Things have been out of control for a long time. We have gone from a great marriage to an ordinary marriage. I want this, too.”

We bowed our heads and prayed together. Then we went and picked up our son.

The differences were immediate and lasting. I developed an enormous appetite for God’s Word. God left nothing in our lives unturned. From three active believers in my office at the time, 15 people since then have accepted Christ or renewed a relationship with Him. It all happened quietly without proselytizing. Prayer, encouragement, and the witness of a changed life have power. I quit eight board and committee memberships in a day. My life became centered in Christ and the quiet time I spend in study and prayer with Him every morning.

God didn’t change my life in a pew or a classroom. He changed it in the real world where I love my wife, play with my son, make deals, argue cases, and write contracts. I will tell you now after the devastation of grace that I am more sure of God than ever, and less sure of everything else. At every turn in the road God has become much greater and more encompassing than I thought before. Everything else continues to fade. I begged Him for a while to leave some things alone, but He is relentless in His changing grace. I could never go back.

You may be longing to take the same path but struggling to know how to proceed. Why not try telling God what I told Him in that hotel room: “God, I want to talk to You, but I don’t know how”?

If you ask, I think you’ll receive the answer to the ultimate question.

Kent Hansen is an attorney practicing business law in Southern California. He also serves as general counsel for Loma Linda University and Medical Center. This article was excerpted from his book, Grace at 30,000 Feet, and Other Unexpected Places (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2002). His address: Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, 92354; U.S.A.