Now we’re getting to the good stuff. I’ve taken the pains of doing four posts (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3) and not condensing it down to one because this was very much a process. There are some who just hear the gospel once and believe it, but I don’t think that’s the way it works for most. I also didn’t have anyone to answer my questions. I didn’t darken the doors of a church and Al Gore’s internet hadn’t made its way into my house yet. It was just me reading the bible.
One weekend afternoon, some church people handed me a tract written by Billy Graham while I was working the drive-thru at Taco Bell. It came in a plastic baggy with some Reese’s peanut butter cups, for which I was thankful, because I just was about to go on break. I read the tract, put it in the pocket my refried bean-stained Dickeys and went on my way. This was probably the first time I had a clear presentation of the gospel. It didn’t convince me, but I kept it.
Here I was, a stoner kid who had finally come to grips with theism, and I had now come to terms with the fact that Jesus very well could have risen from the dead. I couldn’t just explain away such an odd movement that had it’s start in a such a tumultuous, monotheistic nation and survive, let alone thrive. Nor could I understand how it spread across the Roman empire like wildfire in the midst of such opposition. The Christian message was an offense to both Jew and Gentile. It was especially hard to conceive its success considering that it came through the lives of a few backwater hicks and a skeptical terrorist-turned-evangelist named Paul. I tried to explain it away, but my explanations would be more convoluted than the actual story itself.
My problem was that though such beliefs seemed plausible, I didn’t like where they led. I prized my autonomy. And my idea who Christians were came from Ned Flanders, the church-going hypocrites across the street (whose kids had all kinds of problems), wild-eyed televangelists, and the dorks in my school that wore Jesus t-shirts. I did not want to be like any of them. I also did not want to be ostracized from my friends.
On the other hand, for some reason I became increasingly dissatisfied with the things I once considered to be important. Life didn’t look better when I considered what else the world around me offered – education, security, family, success. Those things are not wrong in themselves, but what was the point, really? I had begun to read Ecclesiastes, and the Preacher’s words resonated with me.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity….All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing
The writer later describes the meaningless of self-indulgence, seeking wisdom, wealth and honor. In the end, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”
I honestly could hardly believe these words were in the bible! Solomon’s conclusion was to “fear God and keep his commandments” because we are going to have to give an account of our lives to God. But how could I account for my life, when it was altogether wrong? It seemed like I couldn’t keep God’s commandments for over 30 minutes at a time. I didn’t find the Preacher’s conclusion very reassuring.
Around this time, I also began to ponder the question of death and if there was a life after. You see, my mother had just survived breast cancer, two kids in my school were killed by fallen power lines while working on a farm, and one person committed suicide. We also had a student take a class hostage at gunpoint (no one was hurt, thankfully). It was a weird school-year.
I was really into 2Pac back then (like any good white, suburban gangsta) and I kept coming back to “So Many Tears“. The lyrics were profoundly meaningful compared to most of the stuff I listened to, and proved tragically to be prophetic in his own life:
There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest
I’m barely standin, bout to go to pieces, screamin peace
And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it
I had my mind full of demons tryin to break free
They planted seeds and they hatched, sparkin the flame
inside my brain like a match, such a dirty game
No memories, just a misery
Paintin a picture of my enemies killin me, in my sleep
Will I survive til the mo’nin, to see the sun
Please Lord forgive me for my sins, cause here I come
Before I ever heard of C.S. Lewis, his ideas were popping in my head. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Maybe there was another world beyond our own world of tragedy and pain.
In my bible reading I had become frustrated with Paul. He spoke over my head. Even Peter acknowledged that Paul wrote things that hard to understand, and I could relate. I decided to give 1st John a try. First I read him describing himself seeing and handling Jesus, which challenged my idea of him being some sort of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Then I got to the 2nd chapter and read that Jesus died for the sins of the world. And then I stopped when these words seemingly leaped off the page:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever…No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
It’s really hard to put into words my experience from reading this passage. It was almost like someone was in the room with me reading these passages, there was such an unmistakable presence in the room. The words carried a weight, with strong conviction I finally saw there was a dichotomy to the whole game of life – the world, and the kingdom of God; and that it was the person who lived for the Father God would be the one who gained, not the person who lived for self-gratification of any sort. And for me to live for the Father, I had to stop playing games and acknowledge His Son.
The next thing I know, I found myself on my knees, praying. It was awkward because this wasn’t something I had done in a very long time. I don’t remember what I said, but I know I accepted Jesus for who He really was and is, and I came from that place like the weight of the world had just rolled off of my shoulders. I felt unbelievably clean, a feeling of acceptance and almost oddly hilarious assurance of my existence after this life. The peace I felt was so thick you could cut it with a knife, it was beyond my own understanding.
The next day when I went to school, and it was like the world was made new. I remember stepping outside in the early morning and looking at the clouds, hearing the birds and smelling the air and just feeling a sense of wonder. My Father God had created all of this, and He loves me! I also felt a new sense of mercy and love towards people that used to annoy me or even those who disliked me. The bible says that His Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God. (Romans 8:16) This Spirit was now opening the words of the Bible to me. It’s words were not as difficult to understand, as it was before. There was clarity and understanding. The bible was telling me who I was and how to live, and now there was a power to live it in a way I didn’t think was possible. And there was an assurance of forgiveness when I failed.
It wasn’t about me trying to change or me becoming someone who I wasn’t. It was God changing me from the inside out. My hatred, envy, bad habits and selfishness started to shed off of me. My whole worldview was changing as well. I didn’t at all mind being ostracized by my friends, even though it came at the expense of much ridicule and even threats of physical violence.
Being born-again isn’t just some catch-phrase, it’s a spiritual reality. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
So there was a rational side and an existential side, and both have anchored me over the years. I find it silly when atheists get frustrated when they can’t talk a Christian out of their faith, even when that Christian is less than adept at explaining the rational side. It’s because Christianity is an experience with a Person, the Holy Spirit, who reveals truth, helps us overcome our weakness and comforts us when we fail, amongst other things.
It’s the whole “a person with an experience is never at the mercy of the person with an argument” adage. It’s hard to tell the man swimming in the pool that there’s no such thing as water. It’s especially clear when you meet hundreds of others who have had extremely similar experiences which have led to extraordinary transformations. Even in the absence of having good arguments for my beliefs earlier in life, it was virtually impossible to doubt the witness I had inside my heart.
So therefore I encourage everyone reading this to let go of your presuppositions of Christianity and if you are willing, approach it with an open mind and heart. You might just find that the truth you seek has been expecting you with outstretched arms.