November 7, 2014

Personal Reformation 5: Mike’s Testimony

by Mike Riccardi

IMG_0373 - CopyI grew up in an Italian-American family in Central New Jersey, hearing the Gospel and going to church. And as long as I can remember, I mentally assented to the Gospel. It had always made sense to me: if I broke my parents’ rules and disobeyed them, I was punished; similarly, I had broken God’s rules and disobeyed Him, and so I would be punished on a much greater scale. But because God loved us, He sent His Son Jesus to earth, who didn’t deserve to be punished, and He took our punishment by dying on the cross. And if I believed that, I wouldn’t have to be punished for my sins. I can’t recall a time that that message didn’t make sense to me. And because it did make sense, I thought that I was saved at a young age.

But I really hated church. It was boring. Every Sunday morning, my brother and I used to pretend that we couldn’t be shaken from our deep slumber, hoping that our parents would throw in the towel and let us stay home on Sundays. When they managed to get us in the car, church was still at least 15 minutes or so away, so it was plausible for us to once again be sound asleep by the time we arrived in the church parking lot.

I don’t know if the fake sleep routine ever actually worked, and so despite our commitment to stay out of church, we were there pretty much every Sunday. Usually, I would endure the singing and the preaching and then do my best to get my parents out the door as quickly as possible. But one Sunday when I was 11, I was particularly pricked in conscience as a result of something the preacher was saying. I don’t have any idea what it was, but it made me realize that though I thought I had been saved since I was 4 or 5, I hadn’t been. At the end of the service, “with every head bowed and every eye closed,” I “slipped up a hand” to indicate that I believed I was saved that day. But I didn’t tell anyone about it, and soon after that I reverted back to my old pattern of feigning sleep and living for myself.

The next few years—11, 12, 13, and 14 –were those key, formative years when one becomes who they’re going to become. As I was “coming into” my identity as a young man, I denied by my life whatever profession(s) of faith I had made in my childhood. Though I was respectful to teachers and other adults, I was characterized by being “disobedient to parents” (Rom 1:30; 2 Tim 3:2). I was an angry kid with very little to be angry about. And I was enormously self-absorbed, and would employ every faculty in my being to manipulate people until I got what I wanted from them, which was mostly attention, agreement, and applause. I lived my life for the praise of myself. I derived my identity in other people’s opinions of me. I was wholly and thoroughly self-centered. Nevertheless, throughout this entire period of my life, I thought I was a Christian because I believed the facts of the Gospel. On my better days I even evangelized my openly-nonbelieving friends, even though I wasn’t saved myself. I was entirely self-deceived.

During the summer just before I turned 15, my great aunt and uncle were planning their yearly summer vacation to southern Italy, where my uncle had grown up. For years I had begged them to take me with them, and in the summer of 2000 they finally did. I spent three weeks in a small town in Calabria, and I had the time of my life. I got to meet family that I had never met before. There were a number of kids my age that all hung out together every night, and I, being the American kid, was a novelty. I really enjoyed getting to know them and learning about life as a teenager in Italy. On top of that, I had always been one to admire the beauty of creation, and the wide open valleys, rolling hills, and starlit skies in this small town in southern Italy were exponentially more beautiful than what I had grown accustomed to in densely-packed Central New Jersey.

One night as I lay awake in my bed, looking out the window at those brilliant stars lighting the silhouette of a small mountain range in the distance, I found myself thanking God for the good things I had the privilege of enjoying. Thinking I was already a Christian, I knew that these good gifts were from God’s own beneficent hand (Jas 1:17). And so I was overwhelmed with the kindness that He had shown to me in allowing me to enjoy the pleasures of family, friendships, and a beautiful creation. I had even begun reflecting on how good I had it as a kid growing up, with a family who cared for me and who provided me with everything I needed. Kindness of GodAnd at the very same time, I was confronted with the reality that my life before God did not match those good gifts that I had been given. I did not live in a way that was commensurate with the mercy that God had shown me. He had given me all these good things, and I had given Him nothing worth writing home about. And I felt terrible about that. On that quiet summer night in southern Italy, God’s kindness led me to repentance (Rom 2:4).

When I got back from Italy, I had a renewed interest in going to church. By God’s grace, the church I had been attending for the past two years had a dedicated layman serving as the youth group leader. Alan was a 26 year-old guy with a wife of four years and his first kid on the way, who (because of the influence of his own youth leader when he was in high school) wanted to do nothing more than spend time with annoying teenagers who thought they knew everything, and to teach them how to love and follow Jesus. It really was an amazing providence of God, because what Alan had at 26 was exactly what I wanted for myself by the time I was his age. I had always wanted to get married young, be able to work hard to support my wife, and raise a family to enjoy life with. Alan had just that, and yet what he wanted to do was spend time with kids like me. He was the best living example of Christ’s compassion, dedication, self-sacrificing love, and patience that I’ve ever witnessed. He helped me see the priority of reading Scripture, helped me interpret it when I didn’t understand it, and guided me in making the practical applications that Scripture prescribed so that I could be the young man that Christ wanted me to be.

Over the next year and a half, I began reading the New Testament, and I was absolutely blown away by the Jesus that I found revealed in its pages. This Jesus whom I had always heard about—this Jesus whom I had always said I believed in but had never truly known before—this Jesus was glorious. I was floored by how compelling He was. Night after night, I devoured chapter after chapter, hoping to catch a fuller glimpse of Him—looking forward to getting to know Him even more. And it wasn’t long before the testimony of the Pharisees’ officers became my testimony: “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks” (John 7:46). Christ had captured my affections. I was hooked.

And as I continued to read through the New Testament, I had never felt so found out before. I recognized that this Book wasn’t like any other. This Book was alive. This Book knew me; it saw right through the façade of self-righteousness that I had erected for myself and exposed me for the helpless sinner that I was. But as fast as it was wounding me, it bound up those wounds with revelations of the glory of my Savior. While I had used to find my greatest satisfaction in my own self-exaltation, I had now come to desire nothing more than that He should increase, and I should decrease (John 3:30). I had never known what it was to find joy in the exaltation of another’s glory, but by the grace of God I had found out; and I loved it.

And from that time, I’ve wanted nothing more than to understand what Scripture says, so that I could have an accurate picture of the Savior that I had come to trust and treasure. By His grace, that desire still drives me today. And it’s a privilege for me to spend my life as a shepherd of His sheep, laboring to display the glory of Christ to others, for His honor and their joy. May He get what He is worthy of in me.

But whatever things were gains to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Brian Morgan

    Amen! I have enjoyed these testimonies, It refreshes the soul to both read and write them.

    • Indeed, Brian. Always refreshing to remember God’s grace not merely in the abstract, but in the personal, practical, and real-life ways that He actually has dealt with us.

      Thanks so much for reading!

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    Mike, your love and passion for God’s Word is so apparent in everything you write! You seem to have this tenderness when speaking of God, and yet this “fiery Paul” side when defending His Word. It’s wonderful.

    Thank you for sharing how it all began and may God continue to fill you with His wisdom, zeal and love.

    • I appreciate your consistently kind encouragement, Jane. Thanks for reading!

  • Wonderful testimony, Mike. I can see why you and Jake became good friends at TMS. May God continue to use you mightily in the lives of those with whom you minister near and far, known and unknown..and may He raise up many many “Alan’s”! 🙂

    • Thanks Suzanne. I appreciate your prayers. And yes, many, many Alans. There really aren’t words to describe how powerfully God used a guy who was just willing to put in the time and serve people who were hard to serve. A good example and motivation for all of us!

  • tovlogos

    Amen Mike — Fantastic, Soli Deo Gloria.
    I certainly wouldn’t judge you for the self-centeredness of your youth; that’s normal. Those teenage years — too old to be called children; too young to be called adult — the most awkward time. You believed in Jesus, and, in retrospect, you were on your way to the Light. No problem.
    I love the differences in people. You gentlemen at Cripplegate, the gospel writers, everyone on earth. However, our differences will be optimized in the kingdom. Thanks, Mike. Blessings, brother.
    Mark

    • Thanks Mark. I appreciate your encouragement.

      I’m glad you wouldn’t judge me for my self-centeredness. 🙂 And while it may be normal for kids that age, it was certainly sinful, and so that means that God surely would have judged me for it. That made it a big problem.

      By His grace, He showed me that my “belief” in Jesus was not the saving faith that the New Testament describes. It was little more than “believing in” Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I mentally assented to certain facts of a story, but I had never truly turned from my sin or trusted Christ alone for my righteousness.

      Praise God for the sovereign power of regenerating grace to quicken a dead heart — even a dead heart that thought it was living!

      • tovlogos

        I hear you, Mike — Amen.

  • pearlbaker

    I was ok until I got to the little graphic of Romans 2:4. Then, upon reading that verse and reflecting for about a nano-second, I burst into tears all over my keyboard! I was pierced through immediately. That never gets old, at least I pray it does not. For, indeed, “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any tow-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I thank God for Alan in your life, but most of all for the Lord Who provided him to love you and teach you. We pray for you often, Mike, and although we may never meet, my husband and I have a deep love for you as our brother in Christ. It is our hope and desire that God uses you mightily there at GCC, or any other place He so chooses. Thank you for your candid and powerful testimony.

    • pearlbaker

      Oops, “two-edged” sword…difficult typing through a “veil of tears”. (Forgive me, I can be prone to the dramatic…:-) )

    • 🙂

      Thank you so much, Pearl, for your support, your encouragement, and especially your prayers. What a blessing to be a part of the body of Christ!

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “And I was enormously self-absorbed, and would employ every faculty in my being to manipulate people until I got what I wanted from them, which was mostly attention, agreement, and applause.”

    Almost sounds like Mark Driscoll.

    (jus’ kidding, jus’ kidding!)

  • Dennis HC

    I absolutely love this series. Thanks for posting this, it’s just as great to read as it was to hear!

  • Brent Johnson

    Gives this crotchety middle aged guy hope to read all these stories of God’s grace.

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  • Warner Aldridge

    Mike,

    Whats a way to get in contact with you to ask you some questions post conversion including transition to seminary etc?

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