“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).
This verse can apply to many situations, but it applies most importantly to the way of salvation. We can think we’re living a good Christian life—all while barreling toward death.
I learned this through hard experience.
Thanks to my dear Baptist mother, I grew up going to church regularly. By the age of 13, I knew that hell is a terrible reality, and I didn’t want to go there when I died. I also knew that Jesus died for my sins and that by accepting him I’d go to heaven. After talking with the pastor, I made a profession of faith one Sunday morning and was baptized that evening. I was now sure I would go to heaven when I died.
But nothing could have been further from the truth. Actually I had passed through the wide gate onto the easy road that leads to destruction, which Jesus warns about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13). It was indeed “the way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
Eventually I came to see that I was motivated by fear. Accepting Jesus had been a matter of intellectual assent, not repentance and faith. Unfortunately it took 10 years to discover that—years filled with much sin and suffering.
Very Wrong Way
The way that seems right to a man can take various forms, many of them respectable. For me, it took the form of fighting for God and country. At first blush, that sounds admirable—like noble military service. But I was in the midst of the civil-rights era of the 1960s, and in my case “fighting for God and country” meant embracing far-right extremism, with its hatred of blacks, Jews, communists, socialists, and liberals. I adopted the views of the Christian Identity movement, a virulently racist, anti-Semitic cult. (This and other racist, anti-Semitic groups are alive and well today, and gaining adherents in these troubled times.) One old saint wisely observed that “the Devil is a master fisherman. He baits his hook according to the appetite of the fish.” He had used the right bait to catch me.
The road I was traveling led to increasing hatred for the “enemies” of America and the white race. They had to be stopped at all costs—the end justified the means. One night an accomplice and I attempted to bomb the home of a Jewish businessman in Meridian, Mississippi, but the house was staked out by a police SWAT team. My accomplice was killed, and I was shot four times at close range with shotgun fire. When I got to the hospital, the doctors said it would be a miracle if I lived 45 minutes.
But God had mercy on me and miraculously spared my life. If ever there was a time to repent of my sins and turn to Christ, it was then. But I was dead in trespasses and didn’t think what I was doing was wrong. After all, I was fighting for God and country.
I was sentenced to 30 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, said to be one of the worst prisons in America at the time. I went there with one thing in mind: to escape and return to my activities. It took six months to work out a plan and recruit two other inmates, but we pulled off a successful escape. Two days later, however, the FBI found us in a wooded area, and one of the inmates was killed in the ensuing gunfire. Had he not relieved me from standing watch 30 minutes earlier than planned, I would have been the one killed.
I was taken back to prison—this time to a solitary cell in the maximum-security unit. It was the lowest point in my life, since any hope of escape was gone. Rationally speaking, this would’ve been another propitious time to repent and turn to Christ. But I still saw myself as a patriot fighting for God and country. When someone is blind and dead in sin, rational considerations alone can’t bring them to life.
It takes something more. Something supernatural.
To keep from going crazy, I occupied my time with reading. Top priority was catching up on all the racist and anti-Semitic books I hadn’t devoured before. I then read a book on neo-fascist political theory and cultural analysis, which exposed me to a much more sophisticated intellectual approach to the issues of race and culture. Many Western philosophers were referred to, and they were intriguing to me. I had never seen anything like this before, and it awakened in me an interest in philosophy. I read Hegel’s Philosophy of History and then Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, both of which were challenging for someone with no philosophy background. Plato and Aristotle were mentioned, and around that time I saw a mail-in advertisement for the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius. I had been interested in Western Civilization in high school and in my first semester at college, so this seemed like a good place to start a proper study.
I had no idea that such a study would take me away from my racist, anti-Semitic, far-right ideology. In retrospect, I see it as the Holy Spirit’s pre-evangelistic ambush. It liberated my mind and gave me a desire to seek truth, wherever that might take me and also to examine my life, as Socrates urged. Since philosophy didn’t possess the truth I was seeking, I was drawn (I now realize, by the Spirit) to read the Gospels, where I was encountered by Truth Himself (John 14.6).
Unbeknownst to me, a group of women had read about me in the newspaper—and had been praying weekly for two years that God would save and use me for his glory. The leader of this prayer group was the wife of the FBI agent who orchestrated my capture in Meridian. Not long after I started reading the Gospels, my eyes began to be opened—“a divine and supernatural light imparted to the soul,” as Jonathan Edwards said. My many sins began flooding to mind—and with them conviction, repentance, and tears of confession. One night, I knelt on the floor of my cell and prayed a simple prayer to Jesus, asking for forgiveness and offering my life to him if he wanted it. It felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted from my shoulders. Something changed inside of me, and I haven’t been the same since. I had left the road of easy religion that was leading me to destruction and stepped onto the narrow path that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14).
I awoke the next day to find that I was now spiritually alive, and God was real to me! I had an immediate appetite to read the Bible, pray, and live for God. The more I read the Bible, the more I grew. God gave me love for people I once hated and has helped me to change in many other ways. Miraculously, I was released from prison in 1976, after serving eight years. And from 1978 to the present, I have been active in ministry.
As I look back over the 50-plus years since that night in 1968 when I was given 45 minutes to live, all I can do is marvel at the goodness and love of God, who sent his Son to rescue me from the way of sin and death. He has been a gracious Father to me over the years as I have sought, however imperfectly, to walk the narrow road to eternal life. He has been kind and patient, convicting me of sin where needed, forgiving me as I repent, strengthening me for fresh obedience, showering me with blessings, and steadily fulfilling his purposes through my life. It hasn’t always been easy, of course, for Jesus said it wouldn’t be. But God has been faithful and carried me through the trials and tribulations of life—some very painful—using them for my good.
Sadly, many don’t know this grace. They still walk in darkness, even in the church. The road they’re on seems right, but it leads to death. As C. S. Lewis observed, “If you have not chosen the kingdom of God, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead.” We’re called to bring such people the light of Christ. The same grace that’s been so abundant in my life is available, today, to anyone who truly wants it. Simply embrace the gospel and turn to Christ in repentant faith.