The Peculiar Seeker of God: A Story from the Road

October 2015

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Me propped up by prayer supporters

Recently one of my faithful and generous supporters asked me to write something longer and fuller about my work.

So I am skipping past my usual brevity to relate to you this incident in some detail.

During a recent talk I gave to a big InterVarsity chapter in the Midwest, I happened to tell the story of Robert who contacted me several years after his graduation from Macalester to say he wanted to “come in from the cold.”

We met for coffee. As we talked I was reminded that Robert never really came to a full faith in Jesus Christ while at Macalester, yet was very involved in MCF (InterVarsity) at the college, and even helped me run a few outreach events along the way.

In the ensuing years we stayed in contact intermittently. I’ve always enjoyed Robert because he was (and is) a sharp thinker and engaging conversationalist, plus he was a philosophy major — just my type.

What he meant by “coming in from the cold” was that he’d faced some hard times of late and wanted to connect or reconnect with God but didn’t really know how, and he wished for me to act as a spiritual guide.

I quickly agreed. As our discussions proceeded through a look at the Scriptures and some personal topics, I began to get the impression from the Lord that I should share something very specific with Robert.

My impression was that God wanted Robert to “find rest in Jesus,” so I said this plainly to him — but qualified it by saying I don’t necessarily trust my ability to hear the Lord accurately, so I wondered aloud whether this idea of rest was meaningful to him, which he assured me it was.

Okay, the preceding story about Robert is what I told to the big InterVarsity chapter during my talk on recognizing the voice of God. At the end of the talk I made a call to faith and four students made initial commitments to follow Jesus — a stirring moment for me, the traveling evangelist.

I stepped down from the stage and headed toward the back of the room to secure my jacket and gear. A female student approached and asked if we could talk. When I said yes she immediately made a request I’d never heard before in thirty-four years of ministry:

“My name’s Melissa. I’m not a Christian. I’m wondering if you could ask God something for me.”

Caught off guard, I stammered, “Um, well . . . yes, I suppose I could. What’s your question?”

“Could you ask God if I’m supposed to be attending this college? I’m not actually sure I should be here.”

I said, “I hope you didn’t get the impression from my talk that I’m some kind of special prophet.” I could hear the doubt in my voice.”You should know I’m an ordinary sinner, same as everyone else in this room.”

She merely shrugged.

I considered her question for a moment, then invited her to sit with me. I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down a few time-honored methods for discerning God’s will. Nothing you haven’t heard before:

You seek God, I said, through prayer, through Scripture and the wise counsel of others. You consider circumstances, your spiritual gifts and natural abilities, and sometimes there is a special word of knowledge or prophecy about your life.

Up to this point she hadn’t shown any emotion at all. Strangely stoic, I remember thinking.

I suggested we pray together, and when she agreed I led out, thinking that as a nonChristian she’d probably leave the praying to me, which she did.

During my petitioning of God something hit me. The word “softening” kept coming to mind. I didn’t know what it meant. I said, “Melissa, I’m hearing a word that might be from the Lord, but I’m not sure. Could be last night’s pizza doing the talking. Anyway, can I share it with you?”

A nod of affirmation.

“The word softening is stuck in my head. I don’t know if it means you’ve been softening before the Lord of late and he is pleased, or you’ve been resistant and he wants you to soften more, or it’s simply a random, pointless reference. But is the word ‘softening’ meaningful to you in any way?”

There was a pause as she thought it over. Then she looked away and her face contorted in apparent anguish. I heard a quiet “yes” slip out from behind two hands which now concealed her eyes as she began to weep.

For a minute or two there was silence between Melissa and myself save for some faint sniffling. She looked up, finally, and apologized for crying. I said it was OK.

“I have to go now,” were the next — and last — words she spoke in our conversation. I had expected she’d share with me the reason why the prophetic utterance softening was so moving to her, but she did not. Nor did I ask. She promptly left the room.

A week later I’m emailing with the InterVarsity chapter president from the same school. She lives in Melissa’s dorm. She writes in her email that she’d invited Melissa to Bible study and, as it turned out, the non-believer who’d wanted so badly to hear a word from God (through me) about her future, agreed to attend.

And that’s how it frequently goes for me on the road. I have this long series of smallish, muted encounters with college students that seem important, even profound at times, but I’m not always precisely sure why.