Restless to Redeemed: My Testimony
Whenever I sit down to write out a testimony, I feel stunned by the enormity of the task. I give up every time. Something about writing a testimony down feels so committal. One has to identify the longings of the soul and then pin those longings down to paper with the carefully chosen words, like spears darting at particles in a cloud. But now I realize that it’s one of the most important stories I’ll ever tell and it deserves an effort. God gives us stories so that they can be shared. I’m going to organize mine by framing these events around how I’d thought of Jesus at the time. Of course, what God thinks of me is infinitely more important than what I think of him. Still, my view of him is ever evolving. What I think of him, whether conscious or not, colors how I think and thought of everything else. So here it goes…
Jesus: (Supposed) Miracle Worker
My spiritual heritage is not typical. My family had all belonged to a church that, for all intents and purposes, can be described as a cult. While nominally Christian, they don’t believe in salvation-by-grace and they don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. They preached that the world was going to end on several occasions; they believe that 144,000 people in the world would be saved; they believed in striving for perfection. My father is decidedly agnostic and distanced himself (and/or was ex-communicated) a long time ago; however, his father left to start a home church. This was the church I grew up in — my grandfather’s living room.
I was young, so for the most part, my aunt took me and the other kids in the back to watch bible videos. I grew up thinking that there was a holy God always looking down on me. To me this God was a curiosity: distant, but generally positive. As I recall, there really wasn’t an emphasis on Jesus at all except to talk about his miracles. These points in the sermons were used, I think, to instill confidence in God’s existence and holiness, but instead they left me puzzled and disappointed. My mother eventually worked up the courage to leave my grandpa’s home church (she had been ex-communicated from the larger body for marrying my father) because she knew she wasn’t growing there. Something was off. So we started attending Assemblies of God, a (mildly) Pentecostal denomination.
When I was 8, my parents divorced. At the time, I remember not thinking much of it. In fact, my bother and I had been chasing a balloon in the living room when my parents sat on the couch and morosely asked what we thought of Daddy moving out. “I don’t mind!” I chirped. My dad really meant nothing to me at the time. I was too young to know the details and would discover most of them later, but I certainly felt the effects on the household: violent outbursts, repeated affairs, drug-fueled disappearances, chronic irresponsibility. He left my mother for Susan, who would go on to be my step-mother for 10 years. That relationship ended my senior-year of high school as Susan plummeted into alcoholism. When you’re a teenager having to hide the car keys from your drunken step-mother, to watch your dad get handcuffed for picking fights with strangers, to literally run away from your parents as they kick doors down trying to chase you, to live under the constant threat of testifying against your parents in court for a custody battle, you learn to grow up real fast. The world was a bitter, bitter place for a young, sensitive heart like mine.
My saving grace at this time was my mother. Growing up, I felt covered. I knew I had worth because I had my mom. In retrospect, I can see that the Lord was showering her with grace and that that love had informed her own. But at the time, I remember just so wanting to share her Godly convictions — that the Lord was, you know, real. By this time, my parents were sharing 60/40 custody (60% of my time with my mom, 40% with my dad, meaning most weekends, school breaks, summer), which meant my mom was taking me to church about once a month. I went to youth group on occasion but I had grown up hardened, skeptical, sarcastic. Years of bullying and isolation did not ripen me for an instant transformation. God was going to have to work harder if he wanted me to believe in him, I thought.
My first few years of college were similarly dark, marked by death and a complete breakdown of any communication between my parents (which lasted for about 5 years). I did continue to make some Christian friends, but intentionally surrounding myself with them was certainly not a priority. I wasn’t attending church regularly or going to Intervarsity, and I was fine with it. If fact, the few times I did go, I was completely turned off at the sight of Christians smiling through prayer. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe that Jesus was who he said he was and I even knew that at the time. I was starting to exercise some independence though. Moving away from home was an incredibly healthy first step to discovering my own personhood, but my spiritual life did not truly start to change until my semester abroad in Florence, my junior year.
Living in Europe for a few months was one of the most heightened experiences in my life. I felt released from all of the pressures and expectations of my home life. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s clichéd for a reason. Walking ancient, cobblestone streets, as a multitude of language pass by your ears has a way of awakening your soul to bigger and brighter possibilities. And I loved the friends I made there. I felt like they understood me in ways few people had. They were different than the way I’d perceived everyone else to be — truly unique, funny, cultured, open, hungry for life. And yet, I felt a certain disconnect from them. It was something I was sure they couldn’t detect — it was something inside me. This disconnection came to a head when one of them had sex with a visiting boyfriend — a boyfriend that they didn’t seem to even like very much, no less. I remember being quietly scandalized at the thought of it. “We’re young though!” I thought. “Wait, why is this weird for me? Not having sex before your married is a Christian value. They aren’t Christian though. But I’m not a Christian either. Wait, am I?” When I got home, I had to figure some things out.
Jesus — Cultural Reformer
I was saved my senior year of college. I actively sought after God for the whole year, and he gradually chinked away at the armor of skepticism I had put on. Because hindsight is 20/20, I can pinpoint the moment I truly shed my bitter exterior and my heart melted before its maker, but I will get to that. There was months and months of regularly attending church functions, many times 5 nights a week. I was so sick of not knowing and I was determined to either embrace Christianity or let it go entirely. I was done living in a half-decided state.
I owe my faith to the good people of Reality Stockton, a local church I had been invited to. Here I met Christians who were unlike anyone I had ever met. As a congregation, they were a mix of homeless, poor, educated, bold, flawed, generous, wealthy, moody, culturally-informed, funny, and fun-loving people. I was again quietly scandalized by them, by their brazen claim that they loved Jesus. “Aren’t you embarrassed?” I thought. “But you seem so normal otherwise!” I had never seen such Godly conviction coincide with, for lack of a better word, coolness. I was also impressed by their interest in social justice. They walked-the walk and talked-the-talk.
My reaction to the pastor’s sermons I think best encapsulates the complex reaction I had to these new people in my life. He was so impassioned at the pulpit that he always seemed on the verge of tears. I thought he was crazy. I was so distracted by his delivery that his message often escaped me. But I also had a ton of respect for him. I told him this later on, but I thought, “If Christians are crazy, this man is the craziest of them all.” There was a tension in my reaction here that I was deeply intrigued by, and it kept me coming back.
Jesus — Prince of Peace
Around this time, I also begrudgingly accepted an invitation to spend my spring break at an Intervarsity retreat at Catalina Island. We would would be spending one week reading through just the first half of the book of Mark. The week prior to this was a stressful one. I had gotten into a fight that burned several of my relationships and I was furious. I was angry because I knew I was in the right. Angry because I was still unsure about who God was and if he was real. Angry because I didn’t know why, if he was real, he was letting this happen to me right before I was going to go on this retreat. I ended up walking around the campus late at night, wandering aimlessly until I found myself at the chapel. Still mad, I opened the door. I poured my heart out on that empty alter. I told God, out loud (for the first time!), my own fears, my own frustrations, my own words. “God, if you’re real, you’re gonna have to do something soon because I need to know if you’re real. I’m so sick of not knowing you. I’m so sick of searching. I’m so sick of everyone. I can’t do this anymore. If you want me, reveal yourself to me at this camp. I’ll be there.” This might seem odd, since I’d been actively searching for quite some time, but this is the first time I truly expressed a faith of my own. It had been peripheral, dependent on my impressions of other people’s faith. This might be the first time I truly showed up.
The retreat was exhausting. We spent 5–8 hours a day combing through the details of a mere 8 chapters. It was also the first time that I really read the Bible, and I liked what I was reading. This was a Jesus that spoke to me. This was a Jesus who did more than turn water into wine. This was a man who understood people, who loved people, who spent time with people, who sought out their well-being. The story that got me was of Jesus and the bleeding woman:
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
There was something about the woman’s utter desperation and Jesus’s complete disregard of anything but the force of her faith that grabbed me. She was sick of her pain. She was giving up. Jesus, on other hand, didn’t care that it was a woman who had presumptuously touched him. He didn’t care that she was ceremonially unclean. He just cared about her. This was a Jesus I could get behind.
That night my friend, who was in a similar place in her faith as me, was saved. She had done prayer ministry and, through a vision, she surrendered all her doubts and fully embraced her God. I was happy for her. I was, but I was jealous. I wanted that too. A few of us stayed up late talking and afterwards, I went to bed. That night, before going to sleep, I closed my eyes and a deep, deep joy overcame me. You know how even when things are great, in the back of your mind you know it’s incomplete? “Well, this moment is great but I wish I were with someone else.” “I’d be happier if I had a girlfriend.” “Enjoy this while it lasts because tomorrow it’s back on the grind.” None of this occurred to me here. The Lord banished all doubt and all insecurity and instead gave me so much freedom to receive his love and peace. I had never experienced anything like this in my whole life and it felt so precious and personal to me that I did not mention it for a full year, lest words cheapen its luster.
Jesus is Lord
When I returned to school, something had changed. I now felt a part of the collective “we” spoken of at church. Things were making sense. I was feeling myself, slowly, let go of a lifetime’s worth of anger and resentment, of skepticism and arrogance. Naturally, I’ve experienced several dips in my faith in the last six years as I’ve struggled at times to make my faith my own and not have it be so dependent on the community surrounding me. But I can say with certainty now that God won’t give up on me or my sanctification.
I want Jesus because he’s better than me. I want Jesus because he’s more beautiful. I want him because my heart finds rest in him. It’s funny that we think we know why we are Christians. But the fact is, we don’t. Not really. We might bolster up pat phrases we’ve picked up, with metaphors that stretch and grasp for meaning, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t know because we can’t know. Not yet. Not fully. But our soul does. When he breathes life into us, our souls find rest and anticipate when they can finally transcend the relentless state they live in. You can call it intuition or faith, but I’m a Christian because my heart has found rest in its redeemer. And praise Jesus for that.