Philip Yancey has long been a leading voice on faith and American culture, helping more than fifteen million readers engage some of the deepest questions of life. I have read many of his books over the years, studied his writing, and benefitted from his unique ability to cherish faith while wrestling with so much of religion. With the release of his memoir, Philip is, for the first time, generously giving us a look into the story, the painful memories, and moments of grace that have shaped everything he has written. This honest story from a leading Christian writer gives each of us, no matter our spiritual familiarity, permission to acknowledge the damage the church can cause and encourages each of us to seek the grace of God in spite of it. In an age of deconstruction, divisive politics, and cancel culture, Philip’s story is a deep exhale. His account of a remarkable life inspires questions and thought for us all. As he says, “I’ve experienced some of the worst that the church has to offer, and some of the best.” It’s a grace to share part of his story with you on the farm’s front porch today…
God hangs like a mist over the Bible college campus—sung to, testified about, studied, feared.
Yet for me, whether in family, church, or college, the motions of faith have always proved unreliable. I have proved unreliable.
Too many times I have adopted the guise of a Christian, only to have the reality vanish like vapor.
“Too many times I have adopted the guise of a Christian, only to have the reality vanish like vapor.”
I resign myself to an identity as the campus apostate. Bible college students don’t know what to do with someone like me, a sophomore who argues with their beloved professors, reads Esquire in chapel, and disdains prayer meetings.
Mostly, they avoid me. My girlfriend Janet gets painted with the same brush: she is the only woman in her dorm not assigned a roommate, lest she wrongly influence some impressionable young soul.
In late February of my sophomore year [at a Bible college], Mr. H. gives an assignment to his class: “Write an essay about a time when God spoke to you through a passage of the Bible.”
I have no idea what to write. To my knowledge God has never spoken to me, let alone through the Bible. At times I have parroted the correct answers and prayed the right words, but always with the sense that I’ve memorized the part for a performance. I can’t distinguish the authentic from the fake.
Mr. H. sets the essay’s due date for the following week, and I start reviewing my Sunday School past in order to contrive something acceptable.
A few days later the university team gathers for a prayer meeting, as we do every Wednesday. We follow a consistent pattern: Joe prays, Craig prays, Chris prays, then all three pause politely, waiting for me.
I never pray, and after a brief silence we open our eyes and return to our dorm rooms.
With the essay deadline looming, I join the team grudgingly. Joe prays, Craig prays, Chris prays, and they wait the usual few seconds. To everyone’s surprise—most of all my own—I begin to pray aloud.
“In the middle of my prayer, as I am admitting my lack of care for our designated targets of compassion, the parable comes to me in a new light.”
“God . . . ,” I say, and the room crackles with tension. A door slams down the hall. “God, here we are, supposed to be concerned about those ten thousand students at the university who are going to Hell. Well, you know that I don’t care if they all go to Hell, if there is one. I don’t care if I go to Hell.”
I might as well be invoking witchcraft or offering child sacrifices. Even so, these are my friends, and no one moves. I swallow hard and continue.
For some reason I start talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, which one of my classes has just been studying. “We’re supposed to feel the same concern for university students as the Samaritan felt for the bloodied Jew lying in the ditch,” I pray. “I feel no such concern. I feel nothing.”
And then it happens. In the middle of my prayer, as I am admitting my lack of care for our designated targets of compassion, the parable comes to me in a new light.
I have been visualizing the scene as I speak: a swarthy Middle Eastern man, dressed in robes and a turban, bending over a dirty, blood-stained form in a ditch. Without warning, those two figures now morph on the internal screen of my mind.
The Samaritan takes on the face of Jesus. The Jew, pitiable victim of a highway robbery, also takes on another face—one I recognize with a start as my own.
In slow motion, I watch Jesus reach down with a moistened rag to clean my wounds and stanch the flow of blood. As He bends toward me, I see myself, the wounded victim of a crime, open my eyes and spit on Him, full in the face.
“In my arrogance and mocking condescension, maybe I’m the neediest one of all.”
The image unnerves me—the apostate who doesn’t believe in visions or in biblical parables. I am rendered speechless. Abruptly, I stop praying, rise, and leave the room.
All that evening I brood over what took place. It wasn’t exactly a vision—more like a vivid daydream or an epiphany. Regardless, I can’t put the scene out of mind. I have always found security in my outsider status, which at a Bible college means an outsider to belief. Now I have caught a new and humbling glimpse of myself.
In my arrogance and mocking condescension, maybe I’m the neediest one of all.
A feeling of shame overwhelms me. Shame that my facade of self-control has been unmasked.
And also shame that I might end up as one more cookie-cutter Christian on this campus.
Part of me—a rather large part—expects this to pass. How many times have I gone forward to accept Jesus into my heart, only later to find him missing? I feel a kind of sheepish horror at regaining faith. But I also feel obliged to admit what has taken me unawares, a gift of grace neither sought nor desired.
I date my conversion from the tiny prayer meeting in a sparsely furnished dorm room. Some five decades later, it still stands out as the singular hinge moment of my life.
That Wednesday evening the sand gave way beneath my feet and I had no clue where the next wave would sweep me.
Sometime later I recounted the experience to a skeptical friend. He pointed out that there are, of course, alternative explanations for what happened. For years I had been reacting against a fundamentalist upbringing, and undoubtedly that repression had created a deep “cognitive dissonance” within me.
Since I had gone so long without praying, should it surprise me that my first prayer, no matter how untraditional, would release a flood of emotions that might induce a “revelation” like that of the Good Samaritan parable?
I smiled as he talked, because I recognized myself in his words.
“In the end, my resurrection of belief had little to do with logic or effort and everything to do with the unfathomable mystery of God.”
I had used similar language to explain away the personal testimonies of scores of my fellow students. Conversions only make sense from the inside out, to the fellow-converted. To the uninitiated they seem a mystery, or a delusion.
Years later, I received a letter from a Christian philosopher researching conversions. I gave him an abbreviated account of mine, and he wrote back, surprised that I had not responded with convincing rational arguments.
Are you a fideist? he asked. I had to look up the word in a dictionary: One who believes based on faith rather than scientific reasoning or philosophy.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“All I know is that the event happened, the surest event in my life, and one that I had neither planned nor orchestrated. I cannot possibly erase those moments from my life. I felt chosen.”
In the end, my resurrection of belief had little to do with logic or effort and everything to do with the unfathomable mystery of God.
Philip Yancey wrestles in print with God, with the church, and with fellow believers. In the process he has authored more than two dozen books, including the bestsellers The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace, and Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church. Yancey’s books have garnered thirteen Gold Medallion Book Awards from Christian publishers and booksellers. He currently has more than seventeen million books in print and has been published in over fifty languages world- wide. Yancey worked as a journalist
Where the Light Fell is Philip Yancey’s long-awaited memoir, a gripping family drama in which Philip describes his journey from a fear-based faith to one of grace. Along the way, he shares unforgettable stories from his fundamentalist southern upbringing while reflecting on the nature of love—how a mother’s love can be twisted into its opposite; how the love of a community can be turned against outsiders; how the love of God can be obscured by those who speak in God’s name; and how love yet manages to find us against all odds.
[ Our humble thanks to Penguin Random House for their partnership in today’s devotion ]