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Closer to God

by Anthony Okeke Ifeanaejelu

(Twenty-six year old Anthony Okeke Ifeanaejelu is a dealer in motor parts in Gusau, Nigeria. He is a member of the Jesus Is Victor prayer group.)

I was born in a small bush village in southern Nigeria. My father was a polygamist, and I was one of many children. Although my parents were pagan, in some mysterious way God had already chosen me for his own, and I had the opportunity to attend primary school at the Catholic mission in neighboring Okwe. It was there that I first heard about the Christian God.

When I was about twelve years old, the teacher asked me one day if I wanted to become a Christian. He explained that in baptism I would be cleansed from sin and would become a child of God. This was thrilling news! And so I was introduced to the catechism and studied under the village religious instructor for five or six months.

When I was baptized, my parents were pleased. Somehow, they saw this as another step ahead in my education, the golden calf before which most of us bent the knee. At the same time, however, they began giving me heavier responsibilities on our farm, often doubling my portion of the work, so I wouldn't always be running off to the mission.

Meanwhile, I started attending a series of classes to prepare for the sacrament of confirmation. For me, each of these trips to the central mission meant the certainty of a beating from my parents, and the possibility of being kidnapped (the route was very dangerous after dark). Despite the risks, I persisted because I wanted to grow in my Christian life.

After confirmation, my faith grew stronger, but so did my conflict with my parents. I didn't want to disobey them, yet I was hungry for prayer, the sacraments, and the company of fellow Christians. Whenever I wanted to go to the mission, I was first forced to do heavy work on the farm. But the Lord helped me, for I always to do the work faster and better than before.

Then my parents sent me to assist my elder brother, who was a trader in Gusau in the far northern section of the country. It was painful to leave my village and all my friends but I rejoiced in the thought that I would finally be free to serve God as I wished. However, Gusau was worse: my brother forbade me even to attend mass. In this strange place, and without the support of my Christian friends. I was miserable. Whenever I got the chance though, I would steal away on Sunday morning, only to pay dearly for it upon my return. Still, I preferred a flogging to missing mass.

I lived this way for almost four years, went back to Asaba for a while, then returned to Gusau and began to trade on my own. In that interval, something happened to my religious convictions. I was no longer interested in being transformed by Christ; rather I was being conformed to the world. As a trader, I wanted to succeed at any cost. I very often cheated my customers and berated them when they pleaded with me to reduce the price of an article. I had mercy on no one.

B ut some time later, a Catholic friend told me about a group of Christians who prayed on the mission compound every Sunday evening. As he spoke about God's love and the power of the Holy Spirit, I felt deeply convicted about my way of life. I agreed to go with him to the prayer meeting the following Sunday. On the way, I explained to my friend that I wanted to come closer to God. I didn't want anything else, not even the gifts of the Holy Spirit my friend had mentioned; only God.

At the prayer meeting, I found myself enjoying a way of prayer that was strange, yet somehow satisfying. I began attending the prayer meeting regularly. After about a year, I noticed a change in my life; little by little, the old was disappearing and something new was taking shape.

Other people in the prayer group were changing too. One man was so deeply touched by the Lord that the effect was powerful and noticeable. In particular, he began radiating love and concern for everyone, no matter what their tribe. His example moved me very much because we in Nigeria suffer greatly from tribal animosity.

Some months later, again while we were gathered in praise, I felt as though a powerful current of electricity passed through my body. In that instant, I knew that Jesus' promise to give everlasting life to all who believe in him was real; and knowing that, I realized I could never be the same. Two months later, when I took the first Life in the Spirit Seminar offered in our group, I recognized this experience as the time when I had been baptized in the Spirit. Later, when I was praying to discern the Lord's will for my life, I suddenly received the gift of tongues.

E verything has not been easy since I was baptized in the Spirit. One immediate and surprising change was an intensifying of temptations. Maybe I was insensitive to them before, but now it seemed the devil was desperate to destroy my new life in Jesus. Fortunately, I wasn't left defenseless. I shared these trials quite openly with the members of the prayer group, remembering that we are to resist the devil "strong in faith, knowing that your brothers all over the world are suffering the same things" (1 Peter 5:9). I found great strength in their prayerful support.

Another difficulty has been the misunderstanding of my family. In Africa, a man is constantly under pressure to marry - even to have many wives - so as to enlarge the family and strengthen the tribe. When my brothers (in the sense of my extended family) saw how my life had changed, they became anxious, fearing I would become a priest and never marry. So in various ways, they tried to dissuade me from my new way of life. I was the only son of my mother, they argued, and I had a responsibility toward the family; they would never allow me to become a priest. What my brothers could not understand was that I had no intention of becoming a priest. I only wanted to live the normal Christian life.

One area where this normal Christian life meant a great change was my approach to business. I used to consider money more important than anything else. Cheating in business was one way to get ahead, and so I charged exorbitant prices, especially if an article was in great demand. It was also my practice to issue false receipts. For example, if a messenger was sent to buy something that cost five pounds, I would mark seven pounds on the receipt; then I'd split the difference with the messenger, thus cheating his employer and enriching myself.

But God showed me a better way. I learned that all the riches in the world would leave me miserably poor if I didn't have Jesus. I changed my practices, but not without difficulty. As I charged fair prices, other traders began to attack me, claiming that I was destroying their business. With God's help I stood firm, and now some of those traders have joined me in an attempt to control prices so that our customers are not treated unjustly. Meanwhile, many of the messengers, unaware that I have abandoned my practice of issuing false receipts, come in expecting to make some quick money at the expense of their employers. It's the perfect opportunity to witness about the Lord. While many customers leave to buy elsewhere, others stay, and I am always blessed.

Once, I had a reputation for being angry and irritable. Now, thanks to my new joy and light-heartedness, I am never without a song in my heart. Whatever the difficulties, I know that with Jesus, this joy can only increase. Oh, that everyone might come to know it!