I was 18 and had just dropped out of college after my first semester as a music major at the University of Northern Colorado. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life—I just knew I probably would never make a living playing the trumpet. So I moved out of the dorm, joined a small house church, and shared the living quarters in its basement with three equally directionless young men.
I found employment on the janitorial staff of an elementary school across town. Each day I would walk the two miles to work, stopping at a convenience store to grab a cold sandwich on the way.
But one afternoon the sandwich was well past its expiration date and I ended up in bed sick with food poisoning for three days.
What does one do in bed for three days? There was no TV in the house. This was before the age of home computers and Internet. My housemates were all at work. So I grabbed the only book I had available—my Bible.
On the second day of my convalescence I read through the entire New Testament. On the third day, I settled on the book of James. In fact, I memorized the first chapter. Why James? I’m not sure. I guess it just spoke to me in a special way at that time.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). What 18-year-old trying to figure out his future would not relate to this verse? At what point in life does one feel less wise than during that transition between adolescence and adulthood? So I prayed for wisdom.
For the next several months I prayed that prayer almost nonstop. That summer, an opportunity arose for me to join a short-term mission group in France. I spent nine weeks on the Brittany coast using my substandard French to preach in the streets (much to the consternation of the French people), lead Bible studies, and sell Christian books door-to-door.
But things did not go well. The French resented us, and I came to realize the problem lay with us, not them.
Few of us had the biblical or cultural understanding we needed to do what we were doing effectively. Open-air preaching and door-to-door sales went so against the grain of French culture that we seemed to be inviting people to slam their doors in our faces.
I could tell I needed more thorough preparation before I could be a decent missionary. So I pulled out James 1:5 again and renewed my prayers for wisdom.
I wrote my folks to tell them I thought I needed to go to a Bible college. Three weeks later I received a response with the names of three schools.
Not having any means to make an informed decision, I flipped a French franc twice and ended up going to Northwest Christian College. There I not only met the woman who would become my wife, but I came under the influence of some wonderful Christian scholars.
Eventually I went on to seminary, then a PhD program, and, in 1991, with my wife and two sons, returned to the mission field to work with Pioneer Bible Translators in Papua New Guinea. For 15 wonderfully difficult years we lived with and ministered to the needs of a small people group who had never had the opportunity to hear the book of James, or any other part of the Bible, in their own language.
Now here I am, back in the States, sitting behind the president’s desk at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. I never expected to be here. It was never my goal. I certainly do not feel like the kind of person who should be in this office. But for 36 years I have relied on James 1:5 and the wisdom God provides to those who ask for it.
Never have I been able to discern more than one step ahead. Frequently, over the years, I have found myself at a crucial junction without a clue how to proceed. And yet, God has always come through.
In my Bible, you will find James 1 is an especially worn page. I turn to it frequently as I deal with the stresses of ministry. I stare at the words and view them as longtime companions. They hold a special kind of power and meaning for me.
Perhaps you can make them your companions too.
Michael Sweeney serves as the fifth president of Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.