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As soon as I hit the age of reason I became an atheist. Even though I’d been raised in a church, it was clear to me that nobody who took a moment to really examine life could honestly believe in a God. The church, I had concluded, was full of people who basically want to do good and be good and couldn’t accomplish either on their own. And while I held my pastors at my family’s Minneapolis United Methodist Church very affectionately and had never knowingly witnessed a “fire and brimstone” sermon, when I thought of a Christian leader my default image was culturally determined: an angry blonde man pounding a pulpit with his fist, spittle projecting from his open mouth. Despite the evidence of my personal relationships with intentional Christ-followers to the contrary, I knew Christianity to be something that fostered ignorance and hate.
Which is not to say that I honestly thought less of pew-sitting Christians, or that I held any particular anger toward God. At 13 I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and embraced her Objectivist architect’s attitude to best describe my own belief: Sure, there might be a God, but whether there is or not has no bearing on my life, therefore to live as though there is a God is a waste of energy. I nevertheless attended a great church youth group and enjoyed it as a sort of philosophical discussion club, humoring their faith-based assumptions and occasionally playing the devil’s advocate. Yet God, as an entity with whom I might have a relationship, was never relevant to me as anything other than a fun debate topic.
Perhaps through the turning of subconscious gears, divine intervention, or both, by 18 I had picked up two books that would prove instrumental in chipping away at my walls. Greg Boyd’s Letters From a Skeptic, with its assertion of the Bible’s “general historical reliability,” gave me intellectual permission to consider Christ-followers as people who were also capable of rational thought and who held rational defenses (even if weak) for their beliefs. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, with its depiction of the devil as a corporate bureaucrat, painted Christian supernaturalism in a fashion that made me more curious about the Christian worldview. Screwtape’s assertion that the ones who lose their life for God receive back their personality and in fact become “more themselves than ever” addressed my fears of losing my identity or uniqueness should I ever subscribe to a religious belief. Perhaps a groundwork was being laid, but I had not yet changed any behaviors or beliefs.
As my senior year of high school went on I began to need to test some of the hypotheses we discussed in church group. I was in a rewarding-but-tumultuous relationship with a conservative Christian girl in which we regularly broke up over arguments about God – even if we kept getting back together. I had never been so close to someone who had taken God seriously enough to make (what felt like) significant life decisions whose criteria was chiefly interpretation of His will. I began to wonder whether my atheism had been donned too casually.
That year I was also being faced more brutally with the reality of a recently divorced parent’s worsening mental illness and impending homelessness. For the first time, I began experiencing academic woes. While I was popular, had a wide network of friends, and was immersed in formal and informal extracurricular activities, I increasingly felt alone in the world. I was always anxious and rarely slept.
One evening, lying in bed, heart and thoughts racing too much to allow any sleep for the nth night in a row, I decided to test prayer for the first time in years. I imagined there was a God, and I spoke conversationally to it. “God, I don’t believe in you, but if you’re there then please bring me peace so I can sleep, or help me make something out of my wakefulness.” Almost immediately my heartbeat calmed and I was able to get a couple hours of sleep in. I didn’t think much more of it after I woke up.
Ash Wednesday of 1997 was the final semester of senior year. It was to be one of the last special services that my church’s associate pastor, who had loved me through my parents’ divorce, would conduct. I had always liked Ash Wednesday and Lent because, while I didn’t put much stock in the resurrection, I greatly valued the ideals of discipline and self-denial. My whole life I enjoyed giving up things like Coke, chocolate, and negative thoughts for 40-day periods. This spring I had been so busy I had no idea what I was going to give up. Going into the service we are each handed pieces of paper and golf pencils. At one point the preacher said “write down what you want to give up to God this year.” I was still drawing a blank. Then he said to the congregation “if you don’t know what to write, then ask God what He wants.”
How novel. Pencil and paper in hand, I tilted my head back, closed my eyes, and thought “I still don’t believe in you, God, but if you’re there and there’s something you think I should give up, then let me know. Amen.”
It’s not like my pencil started writing on its own, but immediately into my mind popped three words: arrogance, emotions, extraordinary. Unable to trace any mental trail that had led to them, and not sure how they applied to a season where you give up TV or candy, I wrote them down anyway. Because they felt so alien, so different from my normal thoughts, I began to consider whether these words were given to me by God. This thought led to wondering if that was how people experienced God – unverifiably and outside the 5 senses but real enough nonetheless? Which led to wondering if finding a way to somehow implement an application of these words to a Lenten period of self-denial was a sort of challenge that a God who maybe did exist was lovingly placing on my life. Which blew my mind and filled me with hope.
I didn’t convert on the spot, but this moment was the greatest of a series of blows to my atheist’s armor which ultimately led to my actively seeking and feeling a relationship with an all-loving entity that exists outside myself but communicates with me internally (and through various external means I have since experienced). I grew up in a Christian church and, once I understood God to be real, was content to apply the frame of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that I’d grown up with to this entity and these various experiences.
Jerad Morey is senior program and communications manager for the Minnesota Council of Churches and a 2006 graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary and American University. He is also a freelance writer who often works for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Follow him at @Jerad on Twitter.