The Church Led me to Atheism; Atheism Led Me to the Cross
“Leave Your Brain at the Door.”
We moved around a lot while I was growing up, living in Southern California, Maine, and eventually Texas. My father was in the navy since before I was born, so in the years that followed I often had my roots cut out from under me. We were living in a tiny apartment in Southern California when my parents filed for divorce. Before the papers were finalized, my mother moved us to Chicago in her family’s home where we lived for nine months. My mother began her battle with clinical depression, I was molested by my cousin, and my brother and I were neglected. I instinctually took responsibility over the two of us, which at times meant rummaging for food in the pantry. Don’t misunderstand me: we were still fed, sent to school, and enjoyed playing with other kids in our neighborhood. We were not as misfortunate as I know others in the world have been. But this lack of parental guidance I think helped shape my independent thinking and sense of self-dependence.
Consequently, we were sent to a foster home, while my father fought for custody in San Diego. When custody was ruled in his favor, he was already seeing another woman, a woman I would learn to call ‘mom’ that same year. She had a son and was pregnant with our sister when my brother and I moved back to San Diego. They made marriage look fun and made me hope in my own family someday.
She was a Baptist and also a PK (preacher’s kid), so we attended the local church First Baptist church each weekend and attended its private school each week. These were some of the best memories I had where it seemed that the dysfunction of the previous years seemed to fade away behind new experiences. We were taught from the bible, instructed to memorize verses in class, I was taught about Jesus and that if I wanted to go to heaven, I had to believe in Him. I skeptically took that to mean that like fairies, if they were to exist, I had to believe in them. When asked who wanted to ask Jesus into their hearts, I was pressured to raise my hand by those around me doing the same.
But many years after the birth of our new family, my dad had a car wreck and was medically discharged from the military. The navy moved us to his home of record in Maine where we started over again. It felt to me as if our roots were constantly being transplanted. That was also true when we started attending church again, and this time at Pentecostal Church – not the kind that handles snakes or includes mass hysteria, mind you – but still something entirely new to me. I had seen altar-calls before, where men and women would go to the front of the church, kneel and pray, and receive comfort and encouragement from the passing elders. Many would weep violently in acknowledgement of their pain, sorrow, and shame. But these altar-calls were entirely different. They were mysterious. People would fall back into someone’s prepared arms before being laid down to experience a sort of drunken stupor and speaking in some gibberish language. Many went back to their seats laughing and crying. They called it being “slain in the Spirit,” and it happened frequently, and people received this experience repeatedly.
During one of these calls, for instance, I was encouraged from members of the church to receive the Holy. It was eerie to witness, and was a focal ministry in that church. I dragged my feet cautiously skeptical of the experience I saw on the floor around me. But I obeyed as I saw, and lifted my hands and closed my eyes, looking for what everyone else seemed to be seeing. But nothing happened. This was all very confusing and I began questioning what I knew about God.
This happened many times, where I would feel pressured forward only to return to my seat as empty as before. Each time, there would be a new burden of shame from the looks I received. Admittedly, I was disappointed that I never received that high others seemed to be enjoying. But all of this contradicted what I was taught. I went to the eldership and questioned these experiences and challenged authority to support and prove their claims with something greater than the experience or an emotion. I asked many legitimate questions, but it was a challenge to them and many labeled me rebellious. I hadn’t received the so-called gift because I didn’t “leave your brain at the door,” before I walked in, they said. One in particular told me that I would never experience God because I simply didn’t believe I would.
No Roots with No Beliefs
While all of this was going on, there was one girl attending the church who I found out had a thing for me. Just the fact that she was attracted to me attracted me to her. Her family built a long lasting relationship with mine, which brought us closer together. We spent time together getting caught in innocent, yet compromising appearances. I resolved that if I was going to marry any girl, it would be her. She embodied all of the qualities I had been attracted to in a wife. But my dad found a better job in Texas and my roots were cut again just before my senior year. I decided not to make new roots this time and threw myself into my studies. I couldn’t wait to gain my independence, so I enlisted in the army. (I’m sure you veterans out there are laughing at the irony of that statement.)
During my military career, I was exposed to alternative worldviews and was easily talked out of Christianity. I studied logic and reason because I found that it appealed to objective truths rather than fickle subjective presuppositions. I dabbled in the study of various other theologies, including Islam. I remember goading Christians into debate. I loved making them appear as fools, like it was retaliation. After I turned twenty-one, I had placated the good-Christian-boy long enough. I dived into shot-glasses, metal music, and pornography. I made new friends who seemed, truly, more liberating than any Christian I had ever met. And they had my back in any situation.
The one thing I never wanted to do was sleep around. It wasn’t that I wasn’t tempted. It was just that I knew it would be meaningless to drag another person on my independent ride. But try as I might to be free of whatever I was running from, though, the yearning for fulfillment in family was just too great. The only meaningful relationship I ever imagined was with Stephanie. But she was a devout Christian.
I convinced myself to compromise, my feet on either side of the fence. I decided that to be a Christian, I only needed attend church once a week, sing songs and listen to a moralistic message, be a good person, and believe that God exists. Believing that God exists wasn’t actually a problem, either, because I would never be asked to prove it from Christians, and I never had the intention to defend it to others. I wasn’t trying to blend in. I still found the belief irrational on many grounds. I also didn’t think it was a big deal. I did this long enough to actually believe that I was a legitimate Christian, so when people asked, I simply nodded my head and shrugged my shoulders.
Stephanie, spoke of her relationship with Jesus as something of a lifestyle and not restricted to Sunday mornings. I felt uneasy and jealous around her, because I felt as if I would be forever sharing her with another man – she wouldn’t be truly mine. But I would learn to deal with it in time. So we began pre-marital counseling sessions with the assistant pastor of our church.
These meetings we packed with questions he and his wife had for us, and these questions were hard. See, this couple were real Christians. In fact, the husband was the only one I remembered ever preaching with an open bible near him on a consistent basis. And I enjoyed his sermons. He was animated and had good stories to tell from his own hard life. But the questions he asked me in particular were convicting and challenging. As each meeting approached, I prepared myself as if I were preparing for weekly exams. I didn’t need to believe the answers wholeheartedly; I simply needed to match the answers he expected from me. And so I knew what to say and how to say it having grown in that very church for years. Even my wife today will tell you she didn’t know I was an unbeliever. I’m not even sure I knew.
But one night, the topic was on our pasts, where he explained that if we didn’t acknowledge our past and recognize its influence with our present, we could unnecessarily burden one another. He asked me as the proverbial lead in the relationship where I saw God leading us. I told him that I thought God was leading me to go into I.T. and go to college. But the answer he was looking for was deeper. And so I became angry with him. Why was he pelting me with such penetrating questions, anyway? We were just getting married, and he would never be a part of it after we tied the knot anyway. So what was the big deal?
He met with me one-on-one for weeks after this happened. And in those weeks, the illusion I constructed began to dissipate and reveal the truth I had suppressed. Questions pertained to my faith; my past, my intended future. He neither forced me to give myself up nor let me sit comfortably. He was direct but patient, always turning to the bible in answer to my charges. He seemed to answer my questions but I wasn’t satisfied. His answers made sense, but I didn’t want to believe them. And so, he did something I couldn’t have expected.
“It sounds to me that you’re angry with God,” he said.
“I can’t be angry with Someone who doesn’t exist.”
“So you don’t believe in God?” I knew this question implied that I may never marry Stephanie. My answer was just as uncertain as I was. I would have to decide if I wanted to debate him as I did other Christians, win and move on, or submit to the illusion and get the girl.
I huffed politically. “I mean, He’s never made Himself known to me.”
“How does that make you feel?” he asked. I scoffed at this therapeutic answer.
“What does that matter?”
He gave a short pause. “Feelings do matter. Tell Him how you feel.”
This went on for a few minutes. But nothing I was doing made consistent sense. Why did I even come back? Things were simpler before. I had friends who had my back and wouldn’t judge me. And that made me angry. Religion was the problem; the antithesis of reason, and I was petitioning to marry a byproduct of the very religion I hated.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. `
“Why?” he grinned. “He took a cross; He can take your wrath.” While I felt he had missed my meaning, that thought provoked me. I couldn’t help but consider the opportunity. I hesitantly accepted the challenge and started off by blaming God for my parent’s divorce, for being molested, for uproot me and moving across the country, for being inconsistent, and for the judgements I received when I attempted to reconcile denominational differences that no one seemed to want to talk about. As I continued, I justified my actions and cursed Him for everything He deserved. The fact that this evil existed and made its way into my life, and even though I had done nothing to antagonize it proved to me that either God did not exist or that He was a sick sociopath. If He didn’t exist, then at least I felt better; and if He did exist, then He deserved what He got.
“Jesus,” he said, “what have you to say in response?”
Now, I’m not sure why this question scared me. But I had just ranted against the supposed Creator of everything, blasphemed His name and cursed His face. Suddenly, the possibility of His existence scared me and I remember wanted to curl up into a ball and hide. What happened next was nothing short of sovereign. In a direct and yet loving way, as with a Gibb’s-slap across the back of my head (NCIS reference), I felt His voice. It was like standing near the amplifier of a bass guitar, but without the sound. What He said was neither theologically profound nor emotionally gratifying. But the feeling of His presence was real. It was terrifying, sending me to cower – what significance am I against a holy God? – But, it was also a confident comfort. When I left our meeting, everything looked different. I had a dilemma, though. What I had experienced was something I couldn’t empirically prove.
Enlightened, Enslaved, and Engaged
In the first year of our marriage, I began to read the Scriptures for the first time, teaching myself how to study through various resources online. I employed the use of reason I had before into the text. If God is the God of order, after all, then logic would be my best friend in studying the bible. I’ve been aflame with the truth ever since. It’s been a little over seven years since then, and only recently have I put the bible down for a time to get our ministry up and running.
Note: It is important to understand that it takes nothing less than an act of God to reach into the hearts of those who are deceived and to those who suppress the truth of God which is evident all around us. I did eventually choose to believe in the truth, but my choice did not give me salvation. I would have nothing to believe in had He not taken on the life-sentence that I owed for my sin, and I would not have had the choice to believe had He not replaced my heart of stone with a heart of flesh. It is because of His long-suffering and His patient direction that I have come to the knowledge and now partake of the heavenly hope of Salvation. And so I rightly take no credit for my faith.
And while it was the experience that everyone wants to put focus on, let me bring a sobering fact. Had not my mentor been able and willing to sit with me for weeks defending the Faith with the Text, or had not my wife been put in my life, or had not my parents made marriage look so enjoyable, would I even have been in the right place to hear? Had not my parents divorced, or my family uproot our lives so many times, or my dad get into a career-ending accident to move us to Maine in the first place, would I have had reason to doubt? Would I have been living out the remainder of my days in tranquil ignorance fulfilling my weekly quota of exhaled carbon-dioxide every Sunday? Only God knows. But everything happened for a reason – a rational and ordered reason. What seemed like chaos to me was simply His divine direction and plan for my life; and that plan is to bring glory to His name, as is our created purposed.