The Story of Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey was raised as a pastor’s kid, the third of four children. Or was it fourth? For years he believed he was born 30 seconds before his identical twin, Josh. But Josh recently challenged this 33-year-old fact, turning the Bailey family world order upside-down.
Bailey and Josh were adventurous and independent twins who made the suburbs of North Dallas their playground. The flame of their adventurous spirit was fanned by their older brother, Jeremy.
Together they wanted to take risks and experience them firsthand. Bailey wasn’t content to just watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He had to be Indiana Jones. He needed to wade through the creeks behind his house, build rope swings, and explore sewers. And not with a flashlight, but by tying his shirt to a stick, dipping it in gasoline, and lighting it on fire.
As a boy, Bailey listened intently to his dad recount some of the greatest adventure stories ever told: Noah and his ark, David defeating a giant, and Joshua shouting down walls. These men experienced wild adventure, and God, firsthand. His longing for intimacy with God was born from story time with his dad.
Bailey’s father pastored a non-denominational, charismatic—or, as he liked to say, Happy-Baptist—church. It was their family’s second home. BB gun shootouts commonly took place in the vacant sanctuary. Bailey and his brother Josh raced the petting-zoo miniature ponies around the parking lot after the fall carnival and learned how to do donuts in their youth pastor’s car before they could legally drive.
Active without a personal experience
When Jonathan Bailey got a little older, he threw myself into the behind-the-scenes work of their youth group. He made announcement videos with Josh and hooked up lighting and fog machines for their Wednesday night services. He insisted on working the sound booth, because it permitted him to avoid worshiping and watch others worship instead.
Undoubtedly, as a teenager, he was pretty sure he believed God existed, but without firsthand experience of him, “Christianity,” whatever that meant, went in one ear and out the other. He knew facts and Bible verses and how to say, “Thank you, ma’am” to the old ladies who said they were praying for him.
The altar call
Then there was Bailey’s arch nemesis: the altar call. In his opinion, he had never experienced any meaningful or long-lasting change after raising his hand and repeating a prayer. Therefore over time, he came to loathe phrases such as “walk the aisle,” “come forward,” “raise your hand,” and “repeat after me.”
Each attempt at getting saved to him seemed to take life rather than give it. By high school, Bailey’s belief system was that he didn’t want to go to hell but wasn’t too psyched about heaven, either.
Just as Bailey’s contempt for all things Christian deepens, his church involvement actually inclined. At age 22, he became a summer camp counselor alongside one of his best friends. They played sand volleyball, slung frogs into the lake, and played pranks on their youth pastor.
The final night of summer camp, the guest pastor ended his sermon with an emotional altar call. Here we go again, Bailey thought.
He began to zone out, until out of the corner of his eye, he saw his friend walk forward. More stunning than him walking the aisle was the later evidence that something had occurred to him that night.
Bailey’s friend stopped drinking and partying. He began to study the Bible. In addition, he voraciously read Christian books, and started attending church.
Furthermore, his whole behavior seemed to come not from obligation but from love. He seemed to want to know God and learn from him and be like him. His countenance said it all. He possessed joy.
This was the opposite of what Bailey had experienced growing up. The cycle usually went something like this: get saved in a burst of emotion, commit to Jesus for a few days or weeks, then let the devotion fade away. Everyone in their church seemed to sputter out, digressing into their old way of life until the next camp or special church event.
Change is possible
But not Bailey’s friend. Each month, like a flower in spring, he grew. Bailey spent the next five months closely watching him study and pray and seek Jesus. His commitment and love for God were unwavering, and soon, a waterfall of hope washed over him. The thought seized him: “Change is possible. It’s actually possible.” It gave him hope that Christianity could effect something real in his life.
One morning, a candid prayer began to spill out of him: “God, I don’t love you. But I want to.” He wasn’t mincing words anymore. I
He knew what love felt like because he loved his mom, dad, brothers, and sister. He felt nothing like that for God but wanted to. He shared that prayer with his dad, and he prayed with him, never judging, accepting him where he was.
Power in the word
He lived with that prayer for weeks, hauling it around with him everywhere he went, his dry heart soaking it in. Then one night everything changed.
It was early and still dark outside. Bailey was in a deep sleep, when suddenly his eyes opened. He remembered feeling confused about why he was awake at 5 a.m. He lay silently in the dark for a few seconds. Then he heard something in his mind, distinct and clear. It was like no other thought he had had. It didn’t shout and it didn’t whisper. he heard these words:
“Get up, pick up your Bible, and sit down at your desk.”
His eyes widened and his pulse sped up. He just lay there paralyzed, and after a few moments, the rational side of his brain convinced him that he was making it up. He closed his eyes, trying to get back to sleep, but he couldn’t. The silence in the room was deafening. The thought came again:
“Get up, pick up your Bible, and sit down at your desk.”
Jonathan Bailey had heard enough Bible stories and listened to enough sermons to know it was time to pay attention. He got up, embraced the early morning chill, and found his Bible, which had been collecting dust under a lamp on his nightstand.
He grabbed it and sat down at his desk. He stared at it for some time. Not sure of what to do next, it seemed clear he needed to open it, so he picked a random spot.
In this instance, Bible roulette seemed to be God’s way of getting his attention. He peeled back the pages. There he was, with his heart and the Scriptures wide open. In this moment everything around him blurred, and life seemed to come to a halt. He looked down to see the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verse 37 and read:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Flood waters of love
Like the destruction of a great dam, the flood waters of God’s love crashed into him. In that moment, his secondhand spirituality became firsthand. His knowing about God was replaced with knowing God, and like his friend’s experience, the change was permanent.
Shortly after his rendezvous with God, he developed a new routine of waking up early to drink coffee and read. He was thumbing through some of his father’s books when he opened Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines and read a line that pinpointed the pain and disconnect he had felt growing up in church:
“Spirituality wrongly understood or pursued is a major source of human misery and rebellion against God.”
Yes. he had it all wrong. Christian faith wasn’t about going to church, being a morally good person, believing the right things, or having some emotional experience. It was about God’s love filling and freeing him.
A free man
Since that day 13 years ago, Jonathan Bailey has read everything written by Willard (eventually becoming board chair of Renovaré, which provides practical resources for cultivating a life that makes us like Jesus from the inside out) and have dedicated his life to apprenticeship with Jesus.
That doesn’t mean faith has been easy, but it has been the most thrilling adventure of his life. Battling habits of pride, anger, lust, and gluttony has become an adventure, so much so that creeks and sewers pale in comparison.
Jonathan Bailey has started successful businesses with his twin brother, always the risk-takers. He has a beautiful family; He has also buried a child. Through the joy and the pain, Jesus has shared his eternal life with him, filling and freeing him.
He writes: “Today I not only feel the fierce and unflinching love of God but in some small measure, I’m making my own advance into love—becoming love, drawing ever closer to that sweet society we call the Trinity. That’s it. That’s what my life is about. That’s the adventure I’m on.”
Source: Jonathan R. Bailey