In my quest to be one of the Good Christians, I attended a lot of interchurch worship ceremonies, revival meetings, and spiritual retreats. Any normie Christian could receive salvation through faith from Jesus' death and resurrection, but the believers I met at these events were in a higher tier. They fell on their faces into the dirty carpet, proclaiming the holiness of God and their wretchedness in comparison, praying in tongues, and singing confidently off-key. By the looks of sheer joy and wonder in their eyes, it was clear they had just gazed upon the very face of God. It's true what they said: Christianity wasn't a religion, it was a relationship. God poured Himself out on his groveling children, who reveled in an intense, pleasurable, and purely personal experience. It wasn't fair. I had prayed for the Spirit of God too, way back before I was even a teen, yet here I was feeling absolutely nothing. So, I faked it.
That was my life until I packed up and shipped out 2000 miles away to university. There, God became a real person. The old days of selfish and ineffectual devotional time were over. I had tapped into the Power. So long as I had a handle on Good Christian behavior, where I served at the right church, regularly studied the Scriptures, and engaged in personal quiet time, then God had no choice but to attend to me at my prayers. Jesus was my drug. Whenever I wanted a hit, I could withdraw from the stress of everyday life, away from the world and its problems, deep into my Christian corner, where I could furiously read the Bible or deliver a passionate and emotional petition to God until the bad feelings went away. Fuck, but I was spiritual.
No one had ever forced me to believe in God. Still, there's a big difference between choosing a religion when Mom and Dad are watching you and supporting you, and choosing it when you're barely keeping your head above water juggling a full semester of your secular education. My parents are good people. They would drag me by my ears into Heaven and throw themselves over me to shield me from God's wrath if they could. But when you are finally living on your own, if you find yourself struggling to understand your faith, then go fuck yourself. No one's going to fix you. You have to fix yourself. So I decided I was fixed, and considered myself a new believer, a "real believer" this time.
For four years I pursued a degree in music and invested myself into theatre. As you can imagine, this was not a very spiritual thing to do, so I needed to involve myself in something super Christian to keep from being too influenced by the world and the needy people in it. Shortly after getting off the plane for my first class, I found Campus Crusade for Christ. By the way, that organization is now called "Cru." After decades of pressure, they finally acknowledged that the term "crusade" was no longer an uncomfortable anachronism and now just reminded people of the worst atrocities of European Christianity. Keep this in mind, as this isn't the only time that Christians are slow to recognize what's going on around us and change. But back to the campus ministry - I attended the weekly meetings. I went to the Bible studies, more than one. I even took mission trips each spring break. Those Jesus Points weren't going to earn themselves. But at last, God got on my side and starting communicating with me. I never found him in my secular work. When I pulled away for some good old quiet time and study, that's when I felt somehow more in tune with Him. Broadway was not the place to meet God; Campus Crusade for Christ was.
One year I volunteered to lead a weekly prayer night. Every Wednesday at 9 in the evening, anyone not cramming for a test was invited to meet at one of the dorm lounges, and we'd pass around prayer requests. And each Wednesday I showed up early, carrying a box of index cards. Had a prayer request? I had a card with your name on it, written large and bold at the top, and I stored everyone's cards alphabetically by first name. I even had cards for my friends who had never shown up, or weren't even Christian, and who had no idea that they were being prayed for. All prayers were recorded in a legible, hand-written, bulleted list. As each item on the invoice was fulfilled, I crossed it out with a firm, dark line. I even had a separate notebook to record requests as they came in, so that each night as we prayed "popcorn style," I could close us out and lift up all the night's requests that everyone else had forgotten, before filing those away on my index cards. And during the week I kept those cards on me so I could pull them out anytime and pray for people off the clock.
Most prayer requests fell into a few broad categories. The most common was, not surprisingly, about health. But right behind that in popularity were the prayers for our own personal stress relief. We prayed for our study habits. We prayed for our workload. We prayed for anyone and everyone who had exams in the coming week. Not all prayers had to be for divine intervention, we knew. Sometimes, God wanted to hear us admit our dependence on Him, even for things we could have probably done fine with on our own. No one seriously believed that our prayers moved God so much that He would give us grades we did not earn and did not study for. Honestly, it just felt good to pray those stress-prayers because, most of the time, God didn't answer the other ones. When friends and relatives got sick, broke bones, or died, it was comforting to believe that at least the Lord was there with me in the exam room.
I had done my part for God; it was high time He did His part for me. I wasn't doing drugs, partying, drinking, or having sex. No one was offering, but I chose to believe instead I was somehow more in tune with God's will. As graduation day approached, my prayers started to focus on the future He needed to provide me. I already knew I was going back to Seattle, where I had no job prospects and no strong Christian friend group. Also, I felt it was about time God granted me a girlfriend. Many of my other Christian friends were getting hot girls and it wasn't really fair that I was still single, since I was so into Jesus and all. Surely my personal sacrifices meant something to Him. I deserved my prize for being an A+ Christian dude. Never mind that I was an emotional wreck with severe neurotic tendencies. Never mind that my idea of flirting was to stand a half-mile away from the nearest woman and hope she noticed my interest in her shoes. Never mind that I hadn't even been interested in another person in years. Someone would walk by and magically I'd change. God owed me that much. But he didn't deliver. Graduation day came and went, and I was still single, with no job prospects, and with no friends back home. For the better part of a year, I lived with my parents, out of work and with nothing productive to occupy my time. This was not supposed to happen. This was not living life abundantly.
Even so, I couldn't give up the faith. God was powerful enough that He could perform any miracle, grand or small. And God desired that I should have good things. Were not the lilies of the field clothed with more splendor than Solomon? How much more valuable was I than dopey swamp grass? Now I didn't for a second believe that my devotion to Him would lead to a life of material wealth. The prosperity gospel peddled by the likes of Joel Osteen never tempted me. Come on, I was a musician - being rich was off the table. I prayed earnestly for the things of heaven, like virtue, holiness, and relationships. My prayers were good and God was good, so when I wasn't getting what I wanted, God needed a good excuse. Being surrounded by Christian theology, I never had to look far to find excuses. Maybe I didn't have enough faith. Maybe I needed to wait for "God's timing," whatever that meant. Or, my favorite one, maybe what I was praying for was actually super sinful. Whatever I did, I had to suppress the thought that God would never - or could never - give me what I asked for. But I could only suppress the thoughts so long.
The Lord was my radio DJ taking requests. I sent up my thousands of petitions, and God picked which ones He felt like answering. When He said "no," I took it to mean "I totally could, but I don't want to." Rejection stung a little but I could take a single rejection. What I couldn't take was the years of it, each little sting adding up until I just assumed any request of mine would get rejected before I even asked. I had to repeatedly tell myself in forceful tones that it did not take away from His goodness when He ignored me, that He was still real and was still the same God I read about in Scripture. Day by day I slipped away, and my prayers diminished until all I could talk to Him about was my disappointment in myself and in Him. My faith had crumbled, not spectacularly in one dramatic loss, but chipped away bit by bit with each night of complete silence and loneliness. I called myself Christian but I was getting into heaven on a technicality. When I prayed I no longer had the slightest shred of hope that anyone was listening to me. I just talked to myself to convince myself to believe things about myself.
As years went by I looked back at my time leading campus prayer night with bitter nostalgia. Was it a sham from the very beginning? I prayed for healing, but ignored the times people didn't get better. I thanked God for our academic success, but He didn't come down to our teachers to convince them to bump up our grades. How many of the good things in life were the direct result of God's intervention, and how much were merely the result of natural circumstances? Looking at my life, there was no single moment that couldn't be written off as a product of my own hard work or some naturally occuring event. If there were no God, my life would have been exactly the same. In a cruel twist, while I prayed for virtue, holiness, and relationships, I was simultaneously earning more and more material wealth and good reputation in my secular, heathen field. God daily became more weak and ineffectual. All He could provide for me, apparently, were the very money and toys from the prosperity gospel I despised. I had nothing truly valuable in my life, nothing that I wanted, but I was sitting on all these supposed blessings that I did not ask for and did not enjoy.
Whose fault was it, though, that after praying for good things like virtue, holiness, and relationships, I got up the next day and worked my ass off 24/7 at multiple jobs to make that money I said I hated? What was God supposed to do, stop me? I asked for one life, but I lived a completely different one. God could do nothing for me. I knew He had power to perform any miracle, but I had forgotten about His character. Which business should He have convinced to hire me even though I had no qualifications? What church group was supposed to welcome me in when I made it abundantly clear I did not belong with those people? And who was God going to force to like me just so I could have someone to share my days with, when my lifestyle was fundamentally hostile to relationships? I did not know what I was asking. God could never please me by changing my circumstances. If there was any hope of being saved, God had to change me.
The moniker "Christian" implies we should be like Christ. And I was not like Him. God's silence, I now believed, was not a recent phenomenon: He had never listened or spoken to me. However, there was one time I had forgotten, a prayer from many years ago when I was still a kid trying to be one of the Good Christians. I saw those men and women of God falling over themselves, drunk on the Holy Spirit, while I looked on, feeling nothing. But they prayed for the drunkenness, and they got what they prayed for. I was taught a different prayer, and, totally lacking faith, this is what I said:
Lord, what I want most is to be like You. Teach me to do what You do. I want to see the world the way You see it. Help me love what You love and hate what You hate.
God answered this prayer. I know it for a fact because I HATED MYSELF. The closer I drew to the light, the more dirt and ugliness I saw. It started small, but no sooner would I uncover one sin when another one popped up, more deeply buried and more twisted. I was a rotten onion where each inner layer got progressively larger than the last. My attempts to fix myself were nothing more than treating symptoms. At my very core, I was sick. I was garbage, fit for the dump. What prayers I had left came out in desperate spurts, Lord, I'm not good enough, I'm not good enough. If I'm really saved, why am I still such an asshole? When I honestly faced myself and my motivations, there was nothing that wasn't at its base inspired by hate, pride, lust, or greed. So I had every right to despise myself. I deserved my depression. When the devil whispered in my ear "You're worthless - kill yourself," I had to nod in agreement. He was right. I was worthless.
But I was changing. I did not notice at the time, but I was changing. I only changed because the Lord changed me. It was not of myself; any good deeds I have done came from Him, not my own ability. That line is so Christian I roll my eyes, but in my case it's the only thing that could possibly be true. Checkmate, atheists: God can save anyone, even the most sociopathic libertarians. I was a cold, dead, heartless person who struggled to have empathy for others, and I held to some - to put it as politely as possible - standard bigotry that was common to the company I kept growing up. I wish I could blame others for putting those thoughts in my head, but I had plenty of chances to repent and did not once take them. My only salvation was through the desire to be like Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Without Him I would be no more than a standard neckbeard-gamergate-redpiller. If you think well of me at all, you think well of the work of Jesus Christ.
Many Christians believe that, when you pray, if you do not have faith enough or do not really want God to answer you, then your prayers are in vain. I'm living proof that's a lie. Every time I asked God to rescue me, I secretly held hope that He would do no such thing. I just knew that if I honestly made myself vulnerable to the Lord and gave Him a chance to hurt me, He would take that chance. He would strike me on the right cheek one day, and the next I would have to show him the other one. What kind of fool would I be to tell God I was willing to serve Him wherever He chose, since then I knew He'd make me pack up and go off to get murdered in a third-world country? If I told Him I was fine with my relationship status, single or married, then He'd easily keep me single. Or, better yet, He'd find me the ugliest fucking bitch on the planet for a wife, just 'cause. If I promised to serve Him whether rich or poor, He would gleefully respond, "Great, now I can get rid of that pesky bank account of yours." He took and took until there was nothing left, so the only way to survive serving the Lord was to offer Him nothing in the first place.
Oh, I made it hard for Him. Don't let my religion fool you! I'm a "Rational Skeptic" at heart, and if God had not saved me I would be right there with the most toxic Redditors. While I believe God can speak to us, I sure am quick to deny Him every possible opportunity. I'm skeptical of anyone who claims to have heard an audible voice. And on the other side, I don't think it's really fair to attribute the wisdom of other Christians to "inspiration from God." Even the Bible was off limits, since it was a corporate letter to humanity, and not a personalized message to me. I couldn't even trust my feelings and thoughts. Sometimes I had a revelation that struck me as otherworldly, but there were just too many factors to explain it away. So you see that I had successfully walled myself in from His influence, feeling confident in myself because I knew it was against His nature to destroy those walls and force me to believe Him. My identity was that of a wicked man: God existed and spoke to the Good Christians, but I was a wicked Christian and He wanted nothing to do with me.
So God changed my identity. It turns out the walls I had built up didn't surround me as effectively as I had hoped. He could never reach me at church, or at home, or at any place where I sensed He had power. As soon as I felt convicted there, the shields went up. But in the one place that God should never be, I let my guard down. And it was the place where I had wrapped my identity up the most: the theatre. Even writing that down seems funny to me in how un-spiritual, how revoltingly normal, it all looks. That might be why it worked. We think of ourselves as protagonists in our own story, and watching other stories allows us to project onto those protagonists and imagine our ideal selves. When I see a good show, I'm imagining myself in the hero's position. One night, though, I found myself unable to do what I've always done.
It was during a theatrical production of Newsies, of all shows. Frickin' Newsies, the safe, family-friendly, Disney historical fiction dance extravaganza. Nobody should be learning anything from that show. I love it. I grew up with the movie and, though I shared nothing in common with the rag-tag, poor boys on the street, I felt that somehow I was one of them. I memorized the entire soundtrack. I even wore a newsie-style cap through high school and much of college. That was just my thing. So when I watched the hero Jack facing off against the evil media giant and had the clear and distinct thought, "That's not you," I knew something was up. As the show progressed the thought grew in my mind until I could no longer push it away. I had always related with the heroes, so I knew immediately this was not a usual thought of mine. Sure, I had empathy for the good guys, but I could not relate to them. So who was I?
I don't even remember if the characters were named, but I found them. Near the end of the show, when the newsies are down and out, they recruit some young men who work the Roto to help distribute an unauthorized paper which goes viral, and eventually brings down the bad guys. That's probably the best summary I can give without going into a whole synopsis. The point is that those young men at the printing press are nobodies. They're not the poor kids on the street but they aren't rich, powerful, or influential. They spend most of the scene with their back to the audience. Yet when they are needed, they step up. That was who I projected onto, who I now saw as my idealized self.
Realizing that God had actually heard all the horrible things I said to Him was not, technically, reassuring. Not only had he listened when I asked for His presence but He was perfectly capable of responding. All the sincerest prayers I had offered, the prayers which would serve me the most, had been totally ignored. God honored only those faithless, mocking, lip service requests for a portion of His Spirit. Every time I've asked Him to change me, He's been faithful to answer, to the point I wish He would stop because I can only feel so convicted. He just hasn't gone around changing other people in my favor. I don't think He can, not the loving God I know. The only person I can make God change is myself. That's the ideal person I saw in that piece of fluff musical: a man who steps up for other people when they need help. I've prayed so long for someone else to come in and fix all the problems in my life, but it occurred to me then that it's possible that, if I prayed for Him to change me, God would use me to answer someone else's prayer.
It wouldn't really be truthful to say that this all comforted me. Imagining God being "there with me" while I struggled or suffered never made me feel better. But it's astounding to me just how precise His memory really is. No detail escaped His attention. In all the years I laid myself prostrate in desperate prayer, face to the floor, begging for salvation and at the same time confessing how much I deserved to be left alone, overwhelmed with emotion to the point that I could do nothing more than utter unintelligible groans that strained to come out, covering my face with my hands in shame, completely devoid of the spiritual presence of God: it was there He had truly fulfilled the deepest desire of my heart: at last, I wasn't faking it.