A while back, commenter N. Adam responded to my post on “Why I Am a Christian” by suggesting that, if I was raised on the church, that post could have been a lot shorter. I took him to mean that if the “real” reason I am a Christian is because I was raised that way, then all the other reasons I give are invalid, or unnecessary. N. Adam, admirably, clarified that he was just trying to raise questions, and he was right to do so, for that post did leave out the most important reason I am a Christian: my history. With apologies, however, I must say that he was quite mistaken about how much “shorter” the post would have been. Belatedly, therefore, I will tell that story now, but I’m afraid that even an abbreviated account will take several posts to describe. Here is the first:
Though I was raised in the church, my family was never particular religious. We weren’t the type to do family devotions, we rarely even ate meals together. In truth, my dad was often gone on business trips, and I was never very close to my mom. Nevertheless, one of my earliest memories is “asking Jesus into my heart,” at five years old, which must have made an impression on me, though you’d have never known it from looking at me. I was the problem-child that all the other church kids were warned to avoid. By 6th grade I still attended church every week, but none of my school friends were Christians, and I did everything in my power to hide from them that I was. I would have said I wanted their approval more than anything, but in truth it wasn’t them I cared about; what I really wanted was to be liked, not just by my small circle of (generally nerdy) friends, but by the whole school. It was a silly, if understandable, wish for a goofy kid with a bad haircut, thick glasses, and a pair of feet way too big for my body, but my whole school life was built around that dream.
When I was in 7th grade, our church hired a new youth pastor who started a small group which met weekly on Tuesday afternoons. Since I had always attended church, I joined the group more out of obligation than interest, and was horrified to learn that we would be picked up in the church van right in front of my school. I remember my desperate, and ridiculous, lies to friends who would ask who I was waiting for each week, as I stood there pretending not to associate with my “church friends.” But ashamed and deceptive as I was, I kept going to the meetings. If I’d been honest with myself, I would have realized that it was usually the high point of my week (which is probably why I kept going). We’d play a game of Ultimate Frisbee if it was sunny, or go to a fast food restaurant if it was rainy, then talk about our week, about the Bible, or whatever was on our minds. We were also expected to do a certain amount of reading each week (mostly from the Bible), answer some questions, memorize a verse of scripture or two, and occasionally do “service projects” like cleaning up trash around town (which I again found immensely embarrassing).
For two years I lived like this, hiding my growing interest and enjoyment of church activities from my friends at school. Looking back, I can only say that God was working on me (I guess he must have heard that five-year-old’s prayer, childish though it was), and by ninth grade I slowly and apprehensively came to recognize the foolishness of trying to live two lives in that way. I finally realized that if God truly was who I had always been taught, he couldn’t be just one part of my life, hidden in some corner where no one could see it. My faith, small and fledgling though it was, either needed to be the center of my life, or I needed to give it up entirely. Thankfully, I chose the former, and in the fall of ninth grade I decided (rather audaciously) to stop worrying about what anyone else might think, and concern myself only with what God thought of me.
For a nervous and self-conscious freshman, this was no small step—it meant giving up everything I had built my public identity around, all the “safe” barriers I had erected to protect myself from rejection. When I finally admitted my Christianity to my “school friends” (which they had of course known all along), it was incredibly freeing. But more than that, I found that what I had taken for friendship was really a pale reflection thereof, as I had been so worried about being liked that I hardly actually loved anyone. When I stopped looking for my self-worth in them (for I had already found it in God), I was free to love and be loved in ways I never previously imagined.
But that is not the end of my story; it is only the beginning, as continued in Part II.