Unquestionably, I believed in God. I was certain there was a heaven — although I didn't want to go there anytime soon —and a hell. I'd accidentally burned myself with matches before, so any place filled with fire, smoke, and sulfur was a place I never wanted to go. For years I prayed at night, "God, please don't send me to hell." I'd repeat those words over and over, until finally I could drift off into sleep.

In the morning, occasionally I'd awaken and realize that I'd neglected to sign off to the Judge of my eternal destination — no "amen," no "over and out," no "10-4, good buddy." I'd left God hanging. I didn't know all ten commandments, but I was pretty sure proper prayer protocol had to be one of them. Afraid that I was a sinner in the hands of an angry God, I'd pray, "Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen." Sometimes I'd even multiply them: "Amen times amen times amen times amen."

By the time I entered middle school, I had about forty-seven jillion amens stored up, along with a growing case of spiritual fear and insecurity.

High School Hypocrisy

When I was sixteen, I decided one Sunday morning to go to church by myself. (Okay, perhaps part of it was that I had just gotten my driver's license and gladly drove anywhere — but I sincerely did feel drawn to church.) Pondering what it means to be "right with God," I strolled up the church stairs and sat in the third pew.

Cue another sermon that spoke right past me. I headed out, disappointed. The pastor had strategically positioned himself at the main exit, shaking people's hands as they left. Seizing my opportunity, I asked him if I could make an appointment to talk to him about God.

That Wednesday after school, I found myself sitting in the pastor's study, which I quickly realized was also the scariest place on earth. I wondered if he could hear my voice trembling as I asked, "How do I know if I've been good enough to get to heaven?"

Although I don't recall everything the pastor said, I remember advice about not being a hell-raiser, not chasing girls, and not drinking beer — in other words, all bad news. All my friends were beer-guzzling, girl-chasing hell-raisers, and while I wasn't their general, I was certainly a lieutenant with legitimate promotion potential.

I left his office determined to stop sinning. It was time to find religion and get myself right with God once and for all. Armed with a new calling, I attacked my next week at school with a spiritual fire for good living.

Then Friday night rolled around.

It wasn't until years later that I discovered Paul's words in Romans 7. He said that the things he wanted to do, he didn't do. And the things he didn't want to do, he did. His story was my story. I wanted to live righteously, but I couldn't seem to get it right for more than five minutes. I believed in God, but I still cheated in school, drank the cheapest beer available, lied about what I did with my girlfriends, and hoped to find the occasional misplaced Playboy.

"God, please don't send me to hell. Amen times amen."

My First Great Awakening

When I was a junior in high school, my church youth group voted me to be their president. Apparently the qualifications for office had nothing to do with living like a Christian, and before I knew it, my one-year term "earned" me a partial scholarship to a Christian university. With athletics covering the rest of my room and board, I embarked on what I hoped would become a new, God-pleasing beginning.

I set off with a carload of clothes, Bic pens, my Cindy Crawford poster, and lofty dreams. Instead of being surrounded by young Billy Grahams and Mother Teresas, however, I was bombarded by miniature Lindsay Lohans and Kanye Wests and quickly pulled into the party scene.

Sin is fun — at least for a while. But it never fails to come back to haunt you, usually when you least expect it. Like a sneeze, sin feels good at first, but it leaves a huge mess. By my sophomore year, several of my fraternity brothers got busted for grand larceny, putting our whole fraternity at risk of being kicked off campus. Around the same time, because of a major hangover, I slept through tennis practice, which placed me exactly one mistake away from losing my athletic scholarship.