My road to becoming a Christian was long and winding with plenty of obstacles. To be honest, there were plenty of times when I absolutely didn’t want to become a Christian. It was the farthest thing from my mind and certainly my actions. I eventually started wanting something new. I wanted a change. I was compelled to take the leap into Christianity and I haven’t looked back since.
Growing up in rural Virginia I was subjected to church fairly often. I now understand why my parents wanted to take me. But back then, I hated it. Not because I hated the concept of Christianity or the reasoning behind attending the service. I was too young to understand it anyway. No, it was because church was boring and I was a kid. Some of my earliest memories are sitting in a pew listening to a pastor talk about things I didn’t understand and had no interest in. I was more interested in staring out the window at the monkey bars on a pretty day and thinking about what I could be doing outside instead. When I got old enough to make my own decision on whether or not I wanted to attend church, I completely stopped going. Again, not because I had anything against Christianity or God, but because I didn’t want to wake up early on Sunday mornings to go. It’s basically the same reason (albeit a poor one) that a lot of people don’t go to church. They can’t bear to pry their lazy ass out of bed or off the couch to save their own soul. Which is equal parts funny, dark, and sad.
The rest of my teenage years I don’t remember going back to church other than a service for Easter and Christmas here and there. I prayed every night out of habit but I really only meant it when we were down a few points in the fourth quarter or when I needed a little extra help on the wrestling mat. That was about the extent of my interaction or even thoughts of God until I went to college. I got accepted to several schools but I decided on Emory and Henry College in rural southwest Virginia. Emory is a small liberal arts college with maybe 1,100 students or so. Basically the size of the high school I had just left. My intentions were as follows…
1. Play football
2. Make good grades
3. Meet girls
4. Party with friends
As you can see, God and becoming a Christian didn’t make the cut. To be honest, eventually numbers one and two became irrelevant. Number four went to the top of the list and number three would get tossed in the ring every once in a while. Looking back on it, if I had put God at number one, then grades and football would’ve came shortly after. But I didn’t and things started falling apart. I was participating in behavior that was not only seriously detrimental to my physical and mental health, but could’ve landed me in jail on any given day of the week. That’s not a lie either. But I did see Christians around me at school. I’m not talking about the ones who were only Christians on Sunday, but the ones who tried to live it as best they could. I remember a couple guys in particular that I would see around campus and they were always doing the right thing. Always making good decisions. One in particular quit the football team his senior year and just packed up and left. I remember hearing from one of his friends say he had his calling and had left to become a pastor. I often thought about what happened that was so significant that it made him drop what he was doing and walk away from everything to become a pastor. Years later I would have what I would assume to be a similar experience.
As I gained a few years in college, I started thinking about God more often. I had a friend of mine named Mike Prewitt who was raised in the church and his folks were/are deeply religious. All the guys I was running around with in college were basically doing the same things. I had just taken it to another level. Mike was no angel to be sure, but I knew his background and had met his folks on several occasions. I liked his parents and they seemed to be squared away. One time, a few of us went back to his home town and stayed the weekend with his parents. I remember seeing Bibles in the home and religious texts. It made me straighten up when I was around them. I didn’t want to disappoint. I knew Mike was never going to stray too far from the way he was raised. He was going to get it together. Mike never quoted scripture or anything like that but he probably could have if I asked him. Mike didn’t know it at the time, but he was the closest thing to Christianity on a day to day basis that I had in college. I never thanked him for it. So Mike, thank you buddy. I remember on many occasions all of us coming back to the apartment after a party and hanging out. I would steer the conversations towards religion of all things. That’s right, a bunch of guys in their early 20’s sitting around wasted talking about the possibility of God, morality, and the implications they had on everything we were doing. But I wasn’t talking about it to raise everyone’s spirits or inspire us to live better. I wanted to talk about it because I had become angry with God. While in college, I watched several of my relatives die agonizingly painful and slow deaths from cancer. I kept asking myself why a just and righteous God would let this happen. Why put someone through this? I didn’t want to accept the fact that maybe the cancer was brought on by a lifetime of smoking, and in terms of my grandfather, smoking and drinking. I had to blame something or someone. So it was God.
Those two deaths were only the tip of the iceberg as to why I was so angry. Another reason was because I was young and I was angry at everything. I rebelled just to rebel. I was required to take a couple religion courses in college and I struggled with them and even failed one of them. It wasn’t because I couldn’t make the grade or because I was too stupid to understand the teachings. It was because I had better things to do than sit in a stupid religion class the school was making me take. I just wanted to go back to my place and get wasted. I was made (once again) to learn about Christianity and God and (just like when I was a child) it was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t like the idea of some grey haired old man in the sky shaking his finger at me every time I did something that was inappropriate. But unlike when I was a child, I was learning about Christianity three days a week for three semesters instead of every Sunday morning. The whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. But mainly, I had become angry with myself. I wasn’t living the life that I thought or knew I should. I wasn’t playing ball anymore and I knew that I was a very good athlete and that I had screwed up. I wasn’t studying at all or making any type of effort in class. I was in one of the best small colleges on the east coast and making C’s even though I never studied. I still wonder what I could’ve done if I had applied myself. I hated that I didn’t care about my classes. I was doing everything wrong. I wasn’t there for my family and didn’t even attend my grandfather’s funeral when he passed. I hated myself for missing it and to this day, 15 years later, I still pray for him to forgive me. I treated the people around me like garbage. I was living selfishly and I was turning into something that I didn’t recognize and certainly didn’t like. I remember it was around this time that I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror anymore. I projected my hate onto God because I was unwilling to accept responsibility for myself and my actions. I started toying around with the term “atheist” just because it seemed like the ultimate rebellion.
I don’t recall ever actually coming out and verbally identifying myself as an atheist during that time of my life, but I was certainly walking the line. Even during all of this turmoil I still couldn’t come out and say, “I’m an atheist and there is no God.” I still remember thinking that if I claimed to be an atheist then it was a line that I could never cross back. I would think it, but I couldn’t get the words to come out. It felt wrong. I pictured taking that step into atheism and it looked black, abysmal, cold, and void of warmth and morality. Even though I was angry with God and myself I was content to toe the line a while longer. Later, I would finally realize that if I was angry at God, I wasn’t a true atheist. I couldn’t be angry at something that I didn’t believe existed. It’s kind of laughable now really. I did start researching some literature on atheism. I wanted desperately for someone to prove to me that God didn’t exist or even better yet, give me some witty statements and responses to toss at Christians during a debate so that I could watch them squirm. The problem I ran into was that every theory in science and philosophy supporting atheism was full of holes. I started realizing that since we have understood the concept of God, the smartest men in the world have debated his existence. The part that now amuses me the most is that after all the finger pointing and yelling is finally over, those men are no closer to finding an answer than a five year old child. It comes down to faith. Do you have faith there is no God? Or do you have faith he exists? It’s the same faith either way. But I figure if I’m going to put my faith in something, I want a return on it. The return for being a Christian is eternal life and salvation. Atheism offered me nothing.
After college I was able to land a pretty good job and I was cleaning up my act. Things were going good for about six months. But there was still no God in my life and, as a result, everything started to crumble around me again. I was back to my same old habits. Except this time I had money to feed it. From age 24 to age 29 is pretty much a blur. They were the darkest years of my life. I had become something completely foreign to me and my family. People didn’t even recognize me anymore. I was in my mid 20’s and half the man I was at 18. I was helpless, hopeless and lost. I had no time for God and certainly not for organized religion. The only time I ever prayed was when I was scared I wasn’t going to live through the night. People around me were either dying or going to jail. My family was constantly on me to get my life together. I was running out of time. When I tried to picture my future, I only saw darkness. It was a void. Things were getting worse every day and I started having a sense of impending doom that I couldn’t shake no matter what. It was the scariest time of my life to say the least.
Then one day something happened that I’ll never forget. It was in the middle of the week and I was sitting in a dirty basement with some people doing the same old thing that I had been for years when I heard a man’s voice in my head. It only said one sentence. “If you don’t get out now, you’ll never get out.” Nobody in the room said it. I didn’t say it and I certainly didn’t think it. It wasn’t my voice or my conscience. It was something else entirely. It didn’t sound demanding or angry. It sounded pleading and concerned. Like a parent desperately trying to get their child to understand a situation and do the right thing. I’m a mental health counselor and I work day in and day out with people who have auditory and visual hallucinations. I know what they are. What I heard was not an auditory hallucination. I had never heard it before and I’ve never heard it since. That very second I got up off the couch and walked out the door and drove to my apartment where I called my mom and told her I needed help. I completely left that old life and everything in it behind that day. It was six years before I ever saw anyone from that time in my life again and that was just because I ran into a couple guys while out in the community. I simply got up and walked away from it and I did it all because of that voice. That’s the power that it had. I now understand why the young man back in college left to become a pastor. I had a doctor sit me down and he read over my files and asked me some questions about what I had been doing for the last few years. I told him everything. He sat back in his chair and just stared at me. He took his glasses off and looked me in the eyes and said, “It’s not just my personal opinion, but it’s a medical fact that you should be dead. Not just dead, but dead ten times over. I don’t know if you believe in God or not. But you might want to start thinking about why you’re still here and who is watching over you.” If the voice in my head was a spiritual spark, the doctor dumped a little fuel on it.
Over the next few years I started slowly becoming closer to God. At the time I didn’t realize it, but looking back on it now I can see the change. I wasn’t attending church or claiming to be a Christian, but I was praying every night and this time I meant it. It occurred to me that I really didn’t know how to pray other than saying the Lord’s Prayer. So one night I simply asked God to show me how to pray. Within two days I had met a guy who had gone through the same things as me but decades prior. He just out of the blue started talking about how to pray. He suggested that I simply ask God to do his will. Simple enough right? So that’s what I did every day. Eventually my pastor would talk about how we should pray like Jesus would. Don’t ask for favors or possessions, give thanks instead. God probably doesn’t care if the Redskins win or if I get a Harley, but he cares when I send up a thanks for a beautiful day or when I thank him every night for bringing my wife and step kids into my life. I started to realize that I wanted God in my everyday life through the ups and downs, and not just when I needed something.
During this time I met a woman who had a huge impact on me becoming a Christian. She is the daughter of a pastor and was raised in the church. Sometimes I still look at her and wonder what she ever saw in me. One time she told me it was because she knew I was a good guy but I was still lost. Not lost like I had been years prior of course, but still lost. But through her, I was found. When we started dating my faith was still extremely fragile. I had started becoming a little more comfortable with identifying as a Christian but I had yet to declare it or take the steps to become one. She led me to becoming a Christian the only way that she or anyone else could’ve done. She led by example. She didn’t beat me over the head with a Bible and quote scripture all the time. She didn’t tell me what I was doing wrong and how I needed to change and start attending church. She didn’t scare me away with her religion. She stayed vigilant in being the Christian woman she had always been and let me have the time and space I needed to accept it. I watched her and the way she lived her life. I decided that’s what I wanted. Understand that I didn’t envy her or her Christian ideologies. I admired her and them. I wanted to make that life for myself. One thing that I learned about becoming a Christian is that you can’t envy other Christians. You can’t take what they have and make it your own. You have to admire it and then build your own life on those same principles and morals. I would catch myself spending more and more time pondering the idea of becoming a Christian. I finally decided I wanted a change in my life and venture down a different path. I was ready for it and I was mature enough to understand what it meant to live like a Christian is called to do. I knew it was what I wanted and I felt I was being pulled (or guided) to make the decision. It seemed natural and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of taking the leap. Or so it seemed. I called her up and asked her what I was supposed to do. She actually sent me a text with the bible verses in Romans that I was supposed to read in order to declare my faith. But a strange thing happened when I looked at the verses. I became scared to say them. It terrified me because I knew that if I said them then I was going to mean it. And that would carry weight. I would essentially have this huge responsibility of being a Christian placed on my shoulders in the amount of time it would take to read a paragraph. I walked around with that message saved in my phone for six months before I actually read it aloud and meant it. The night I decided to become a Christian I got down on my knees next to the bed (like a little kid saying their prayers) and read the verses from a bible that my girlfriend had gotten me. Then I just waited. I opened my eyes and looked around. Nothing had changed. She still makes fun of me from time to time because I told her that I pictured Jesus somehow floating down through the ceiling and giving me a high five. She was the light that I admired (and still do) and had the strength of a strong Christian woman. She not only showed me how to change my life by setting an example, she put the good book in my hands as well. A couple years later, Christy would become my wife.
Not everyone wants to be a Christian and I understand that. We’re fortunate enough to live a country where we can practice any religion (or lack thereof), worship any God, and find salvation wherever we choose. As for me, I was tired of the way I was living. I knew something was missing and I tried for decades to fill it up with fleeting pleasures from women, alcohol, drugs, money, possessions, and anything else I could consume around me. After all of that I was still unhappy and I was desperately ready for a change. I wanted something new for myself that made me happy and didn’t leave me the next morning or wear off in a couple hours. I finally turned to Christianity and it’s been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I finally filled that bottomless pit and I’ve started feeling a glimpse of that calmness that you only see in old pastors. My relationship with my friends and family has improved and I’m happily married to a strong Christian woman with three strong Christian kids. If you’re like me and tried everything else to sustain happiness but kept falling short, then perhaps consider becoming a Christian or even asking someone to take you to church. I promise it won’t hurt and you might just start to like it. As for me, I’m going to keep reading verses with my wife every night, trying to uphold Christian ideals, and getting to church on Sundays. I finally found the blue print on how to live this life so that I can get to the next one. It’s on the nightstand next to the bed.