Rebel turned evangelist
How God’s amazing grace saved a former Archbishop’s wayward son.
Dave Jensen is a big bloke with a ready grin and an earthy manner. But the youngest son of former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney didn’t always cut such an imposing figure. As a teenager he was so skinny that he was an easy target for muggers. So when young Dave joined the army, the keen footy player took pride in his beefy build and his ability to brawl.
By the time he was 28 and living in Darwin, Captain Jensen of the Australian infantry was infamous for drinking, fighting and womanising. And he relished his tough reputation, which only enhanced his credibility within his circle of mates.
“People looked up to me for it and I loved that,” Dave, now 34, recalls. “Because I used to be so skinny, when people started calling me Big Dave I loved it. Having the ability to punch someone out – I loved that. Most men will know the adrenalin that comes in the middle of a fight when things really get dangerous. It’s addictive – you love it.”
The constant drunkenness and swearing had shocked Dave when he first joined the army. But within 18 months, the social expectations and temptations of army life burned away any residual affection for his childhood faith. Rather than feeling guilty, he embraced the culture and “had forgotten who I was”.
He had become the black sheep of one of the most prominent Christian families in Sydney, not because of any trauma in his upbringing – which he describes as “loving, happy and sports-filled” – but through a strong desire to do his own thing and place himself above God.
“I certainly wasn’t born again and I never felt anything more than a slight sense of guilt towards my parents if I lied.”
“I never had a moment where I said ‘I don’t believe’ because my whole life I would have identified as a Christian,” Dave told Eternity. “But I certainly wasn’t born again and I never felt anything more than a slight sense of guilt towards my parents if I lied. I never felt any residual effects of sin.”
Dave sees that he always had a problem with telling the truth. “My mother’s catchphrase to me was always ‘Love the Truth’. She would say it over and over. She wouldn’t say it to the others but she knew I was a liar about everything. And that started to become a big part of my character – rather than flee from it, I embraced it.”
At 15 or 16, Dave started going astray in fairly typical teenage ways, such as “doing things with girls I shouldn’t”, and by the time he was 20 his girlfriend, a non-Christian, was pregnant. His father had just been elected Archbishop when Dave broke the news.
“It wasn’t solely telling my parents ‘We’re pregnant’ but telling my parents, ‘Hey, I’m having sex.’ I was terrified of letting down my parents more than anything, I wasn’t terrified of their anger, more their disappointment. My innocence was gone. So telling them was a huge moment.”
Their loving and gracious response had a lasting effect on Dave, and carried great weight with him years later. “My mum stood up and walked into the pantry and banged her head against the wall. Dad just sighed, but then literally 30 seconds later they were saying ‘How is she? How are you? Are you OK? What can we do? How can we help?’ ”
Being just a “kickabout” unfocused uni student, Dave decided to marry his girlfriend and apply to join the army. After 18 months of officer training at the Royal Military College Duntroon he was posted to Townsville in north Queensland as an infantry officer and lieutenant.
By his admission, Dave was a “terrible husband” who was wrapped up in his work and didn’t give much to the marriage. When he was called to go to East Timor in January 2006, his wife told him the marriage was over and she was going to take the kids and leave. His son was then one month old; his daughter aged five. “My mindset at the time was ‘I’ll miss my kids terribly but good, good – I’m sick of hiding who I am; I want to be my own man.’ I was jealous of the guys who didn’t have any responsibilities and could just do what they wanted.”
But when Dave returned from East Timor eight months later, it hurt that there was no hero’s return for him but only an empty house.
After his divorce Dave became an even more committed drinker and fighter. “There had always been a part of me that had been violent … and I started to get into a lot of pub fights and a lot of almost culturally acceptable casual violence … I was the biggest womaniser and the worst part of it, looking back, was I was proud of it.”
Finally, one morning in 2009, Dave woke up in the Robertson Barracks in Darwin with a hangover. He had nothing planned for the day, so he opened up the laptop his twin sister had given him for his birthday. Instead of looking at pornography as usual, he clicked on links to some sermons his sister had previously looked up on YouTube.
“One of them was by John Piper and it was his famous Don’t Waste Your Life sermon … As I was watching, I was really overwhelmed that I was wasting my life. I was doing everything that I’d ever wanted to do but it all meant nothing.
“I realised that no matter what I had done, no matter how far I had walked, no matter how much I’d rejected God, the cross of Christ was for me.”
“I remember going and looking in the mirror and saying ‘What are you doing?’ I must have watched four or five hours of sermons. Even though I’d heard the gospel a hundred, a million times before, I realised that no matter what I had done, no matter how far I had walked, no matter how much I’d rejected God, the cross of Christ was for me. He’d done it for me and the love of God shining through Jesus was more powerful than anything I’d done.”
The years of unbridled hedonistic living had finally caught up with him, and he wanted to stop lying about his guilt. “When I turned around and confronted what I’d done, I saw that without the love of God I was completely and utterly stuffed. I was gone. Not only was my life a waste but I was going to go to hell.”
Dave called up army chaplain Tim Booker, whom he had known since he was a teenager, and tearfully confessed what he’d become – “a whoring, womanising piece of work.”
“Tim said, ‘Dave, I know.’
“I said ‘What do I do?’
“He said ‘Get on your knees and repent before God, beg him to forgive you and come into your life.’
“I said, ‘I’ve prayed. I’ve asked God to become a Christian and he’s never answered. How do I know he’s going to answer?’
“He said, ‘Well, pray until you know that he’s answered.’”
So Dave got on his knees by his bed and cried out to God for forgiveness. After praying for a very long time, he fell asleep in tears on the side of his bed. “There was no lightning, there was no thunder. But I awoke the next morning having the greatest sense of being loved and forgiven. And it wasn’t like times in the past when I appeased myself thinking, ‘Oh, everyone’s doing it, it’s fine, it doesn’t matter.’ This was a genuine feeling of release that God had set me free.”
As he walked to work that morning, it was as if the scales had fallen from his eyes and he looked at the trees and felt the breeze, thinking “I know who did this.”
After 28 years, having grown up listening to amazing Bible teaching every day, he was no longer blind and deaf.
“Nothing can harness your appreciation of grace like having rejected it for years and then realising it’s still there.”
“It was amazing to think if Jesus had walked into my room when I was 27 years old with holes in his hands, and said ‘I am Jesus Christ the Messiah, I have died for your sins, I am true and I am real, I have come back from the dead so that you might live, follow me,’ I would have said ‘Jesus, thanks but no thanks. I do believe you but I want to follow myself. I want to do my own thing.’ It wasn’t a lack of evidence or a lack of belief that was stopping me following God, it was sin. God’s light had shone and I would not see … Nothing can harness your appreciation of grace like having rejected it for years and then realising it’s still there.”
For about a year after his conversion, Dave continued to fall back into his residual sin but with a newfound awareness of it. He also developed a deep longing for Christian community and, unable to find a church in Darwin that felt right, he took a professional step backwards to be posted to Sydney, where his father pointed him towards Church by the Bridge in Kirribilli.
“I really committed myself to going to church and going to Bible study because my word had meant nothing, I was such a liar, so I resolved for that to change, let my yes be yes and my no be no.” He became best friends with two men at church, who met regularly and supported each other.
Even then, he would still get drunk with his army mates from time to time and occasionally get into fights. But God gradually began to show him, through his Word and the example of others, what living with Christ as his king meant – sacrifice, putting others first, putting God first, saying no to things, and trusting that he’s in control.
“I remember drunkenly calling one of my friends at 2am screaming obscenities at God – ‘Why is he in my life? I don’t want him; I want to do what I want to do.’ This guy drove halfway across Sydney to pick me up from this pub at 2 o’clock, drunk. That was seeing the love of God in action.”
About 12 months after becoming a Christian, Dave experienced a second conversion – this time, to mission. “I realised how desperately I wanted to tell people … I feel I’ve got to tell people about this. That wasn’t a hard sell for me because I knew how bad my life was compared to how good it is now. Realising this is what I want to do, live with Christ as my king. Still sinning hourly but not unrepentingly, really trying hard to obey God in everything.”
As he invited his footy friends to church and talked to people about Jesus, he realised this was what he really enjoyed doing and was the best part of his week. So about three-and-a-half years ago, Dave left the army for a job as youth minister at The King’s School in Parramatta, where he still lives with his second wife and their two small children. “I discovered that ministry is what I really want to do.” So this year he began a theology degree at Moore College, the same institution that his father was principal of while he was growing up. And, in his efforts to honour God, he gave up drinking.
“I still daily struggle, I’m daily reminded of God’s grace,” he says. “In the end it’s amazing that God has used my evil and my sin from the past in order to speak to people from a similar background.”
But his struggle with sin continues. “I sometimes hear people say, ‘Oh I don’t struggle with lust or I don’t struggle with anger.’ I said ‘I’ll be six feet under before they’re not a problem for me.’ I was born into sin, they’re intrinsically part of my nature, but I love God more now than I have ever before and, God willing, despite my ups and downs, that will keep growing.”
Images: Dick Sweeney/dicksweeney.com