I grew up secularly. My mom was brought up in the Church of Christ denomination, and my dad somewhat in the Episcopalian denomination, but the only church I remember going to as a child was the Unitarian Universalist one. And we only went there for a short time.
So when I became old enough to reason and think about such things I decided that I did not believe in God, and even actively rejected him. I was taught as truth the scientific theory that humans evolved from primordial ooze. Additionally, I was blessed with many gifts in academic and athletic areas, which at that time I considered all my own doing, and so I became a very arrogant and selfish young man.
Also, I based my perception of my worth as a person solely on what others thought of me, which led to me becoming very insecure deep down inside myself, which I did my best to hide from others. Eventually, this twisted way of thinking caught up with me, and I reached a point where I could not hide any longer from it. But first let me switch gears a little.
It was my sophomore year in college. On the outside, my life was really great: I made good grades in school, had a nice girlfriend, had a family that loved me, and had lots of friends. But on the inside, I was beginning to be eaten alive by anxiety. It started out small and slowly got worse. I began getting nervous in social situations like going to restaurants, or to the movies, and eventually even just being in class for school. My stomach would feel sick, and I would be afraid that I would have to run out of the classroom and be humiliated in front of everyone. All of my anxieties centered around this same fear, that people would discover I was so nervous and think I was weird.
Other humiliating aspects of the anxiety disorder I suffered from included: When I felt really anxious I would begin noticeably sweating, for no apparent reason; when the anxieties became really bad, I would have panic attacks, where my heart would start beating really quickly and my fears would feed into each other in a spiraling cycle that I could not control.
At the root of it was the fact that I had built my life on what human beings thought of me rather than what God did. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, however. I persisted in my atheism and did my best to hide all my anxieties from others. I did a good job of this, bottling all of it inside myself and doing my best to “think” my way out of the fears. No one knew that I was going through these problems.
The disordered anxieties got worse and worse, reaching a climax my junior year of college. I was interning for a semester in Houston and living with my mom, and I began having headaches everyday that ended up lasting for 5 months straight. They wore down what little fight I had left within me, and near the end of my internship I was driving home each day hoping that a car would swerve into my lane and kill me.
It was then I faced for the first time what my atheistic beliefs really meant: Despair. “There is no hope; there is only empty blackness,” I realized, and the continual pain that I was enduring had removed the thin veneer of happiness that separated me from this despair.
Finally I told someone, my mom, about my anxieties (I thank God now for the fact that even being so messed up he gave me a loving mother that I could turn to when I had nowhere else to go). My mom suggested I see a psychologist, which humiliated me further, because in my arrogant mind, only “real weirdos” went to psychologists. “Guess what?” I thought to myself. “Now I’m one of those weirdos!”
The psychologist was familiar with this type of anxiety disorder and helped me realize that I was not the only one who was afflicted with it, which made me feel a little bit better. She told me to do some “cognitive behavioral therapy” techniques, including breathing exercises, positive thinking, etc. which helped in a limited way, but they could not overcome the entrenched anxieties that ate at me.
I realized then that I was in trouble. I was clinically depressed, was suffering from panic attacks frequently, and everyday was a titanic struggle with never-ending anxieties. I “knew” that my problems were just chemicals in my brain that I could overcome by my own power. So I tried every tactic that I could think of to beat the anxiety.
Yet, nothing worked. My intelligence and abilities, upon which I had always relied, failed me utterly, and so I faced a choice: “Either I commit suicide and die, or I try to believe in God”.
I began praying, saying, “God, you know I do not believe in you, but I am in trouble and need help. If you are real, help me.” I started reading the Bible to learn about what Christianity said, and I began in Genesis (I was determined to begin at the beginning!). I knew that if God did not exist, then trying to believe in him would not work, because it would just be me trying one more “tactic” among the multitude that I had already tried and which had all failed. I realized that by my own power, I could not overcome this deadly problem.
Things began getting a little better for me at this point; I saw in my mind a little sapling in the woods, with huge trees towering over it: I knew that this sapling represented my faith in God: tiny, vulnerable, frail. All of my beliefs sought to destroy the sapling: abiogenesis, evolution, the absurdity of believing in God, the hopelessness that some other being could help me.
And so I protected the sapling in my mind, knowing that I had to give it a chance to grow and that is was the only possible lifeline I had.
When I returned to school after the internship, I lived with a friend of mine who was a Baptist, and he took me to church with him each Sunday. It was a strange experience, being around people who were singing songs to God and praying together; my social anxiety disorder made it tough for me to sit anywhere in the church without feeling very anxious; I didn’t know the songs, nor the prayers (not even the Our Father), and so I felt even more an outsider.
Still, I persevered. I kept reading the Bible, asking my roommate questions about what I was reading, and praying. Then, slowly, and amazingly, my faith grew and it eventually threatened to whelm my many doubts and unbelief. It was really awesome!
The struggle to simply believe that God existed was tremendous for me, because I had been taught so much that God did not exist. As the months went by in my senior year of college, I deepened my friendships with the Christians I knew, did Bible studies, went to church and Sunday school regularly, and started calling myself a Christian.
At one point the scales tipped and God came rushing in; it was like nothing I had experienced; I was given the courage and strength to face my fears and overcome them. I read the entire Bible from cover to cover and then began reading it again, along with other spiritual books. God had given me hope to replace my despair and faith and love to heal my deep wounds.
I encountered Jesus Christ for the first time and finally was able to receive the love that He had longed to give me for so many years. Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe, who created the laws of physics in His brilliance and yet who also became a human being to rescue me from my sinful, selfish, meaningless way of living, this amazing man loved me and had created me to love Him forever and to love others.
I never saw a flash of light; I never heard Christ’s voice whisper in my ear; I never saw Jesus or an angel, but I believed in Him and believed that all He said is true. As I grew to learn His teachings and commands, I realized that He desires only what is good for us and that He alone knows best and completely what is good for us, what will fulfill us.
I felt God taking a hold of me and my life changing dramatically. Finally, during my senior year, I was baptized in the Baptist church and became a member of it. I believed in Jesus Christ and that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. I had become, though I would not have called myself this, an evangelical Protestant, and my new life had begun!
You can read the next, unexpected step in my journey within the Christian faith here.