Going My Own Way

I concluded after one of the more tepid classes that though Jesus was plenty nice, he didn't understand my world, and I'd just have to go out and make a name for myself. After all, I reasoned, I was the oldest child in a single parent home; if I didn't, it would be only a matter of time before my home would be disrespected and my little brothers bullied. It was then that I consciously turned my back on God and his church and set about becoming self-sufficient, quietly instilling self-confidence in my siblings. I'd preach fiery messages to them about standing up for themselves, sticking together, and letting no one, ever, under any circumstances disrespect them! Obviously this marked a radical shift in the direction of my life. In fact, it marked the beginning of an odyssey of sin, pain, and shame that engulfed the next fifteen years. It wasn't that those years contained no good, but the sin and rebellion I brought into my heart infiltrated and infected everything I touched. Those years can be aptly summarized by an illustration I heard somewhere: "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" said the man within. "One little sin," was the reply. "Slip in," said the man. All hell walked in.

As I recount my past determination to live without God, three things strike me. First, how swift and complete the fall was! I took to my new life of sin with astonishing ease. Earlier in my life I had worked out some principles for myself, a sort of internal list of things I wouldn't do. It didn't take long for me to blast right through the list, rationalizing each new level of depravity I had sunk to. Second, I'm still shocked at the deception I practiced on myself. I somehow was able to convince myself that I had incredible self-discipline and that eventually I'd grow tired of the life I was living, galvanize my will, and reverse the course I was on. Third, how persistently my conscience plagued me! A battle raged within me, which I was careful to let no one ever suspect I was fighting. Try as I might to get God out of my mind, it wasn't as easy to walk away from him as I had supposed. He was terribly tenacious. I had periods when I thought I'd vanquished him from my heart and mind, only to have him return. He'd wake me at night and haunt me during the days.

Over the years God sent messengers to me and graciously mitigated the consequences of my mulish rebellion. The simple message that Christ came into the world to save sinners and that he died on the cross as a substitute for those he would bring to himself through faith just seemed childish. The thought that someone dying two thousand years earlier could somehow matter to me seemed so utterly foolish and preposterous—I could believe almost anything but that. Yet, nothing else gave me any solace from the gnawing uncertainty I felt within.

In December 1981 I met Nadine, who later became my wife and the mother of my two daughters, Felice and Shannon. Nadine, though unconverted at the time, was raised in the church and attended youth group meetings into her teens. Somehow meeting her created a desire to get serious about turning my life around. Reality came crashing in on me. I'd comforted myself that when I was ready, I'd be able to summon a secret reserve of willpower from within and muscle up moral rectitude. It was devastating to realize that I was unable to overcome the least negative habit I'd fallen into. I discovered the reality of what the Bible calls the dominion of sin. My sins seemed to be interconnected and mutually supportive of one another, continually cooperating to prevent me from ever escaping. I was trapped, helpless, and completely powerless to move toward God. What was worse, the harder I tried, the worse I seemed to grow; I secretly became filled with despair.

A New Year, A New Life

It was December 31, 1987, when the Lord mercifully delivered me. What happened to me that New Year's Eve was nothing short of miraculous! God changed my heart! I had been drinking and was lying awake somewhat giving attention to the televised countdown at Times Square. Almost imperceptively my thoughts turned to God. I was shocked fully awake by the sudden awareness that I was contemplating him with full knowledge that he not only existed but was cognizant of me—that he knew my thoughts, my sin. I began to think of what justification I could offer for what my life had become. I'd no sooner formulate an excuse than I'd dismiss it as worthless. There was no excuse I could use that would fool God. My thoughts then turned to the terror of hell and the awful eternal separation from all that is good and lovely in life. In terror I thought of all the messengers I had rejected over the years and how I had mistreated them.