Eight years ago, I was going through the darkest season yet of my adult life. At the end of the prior year, I followed my heart and left behind the religion I was raised in for a truth-seeking journey of self-discovery. In doing so, I lost friends, respect, and the accomplishments I had made in that particular group, which were quite voluminous for my young age. Shortly thereafter, I left home and encountered the world of “real” adulthood for the first time. I became entangled in many habits and relations that I knew were not good for me spiritually or physically. I made terrible choices and found myself entrapped beneath an insurmountable mountain of debt. The worst mistake I made was disconnecting myself from God, not knowing what to think, feel or believe about my personal faith at that time.
I had been raised “religious.” For me, regularly begging God to forgive me with forced tears streaming down my face at the altar, physically exhausting myself trying to get some sort of feeling of divine love to strike me, and essentially living at the church while serving as the leader of the pack in the worship department was normal and the “right” thing to do. I had never been taught the concept of unconditional love from God. See, I was taught that God was always mad at me. I thought He sat there with a stick in His hand, ready to bang me over the head the second I screwed up. The way to avoid that spiritual brow-beating, as I was taught, was to pour yourself out in service to the church and avoid basically everything normal (aka worldly) people did.
There came a time when I realized I could never live up to those expectations; I realized that serving that kind of God wasn’t worth it to me. I was so angry, confused, and hurt, but no one would help me sort out my feelings. I was told that those feelings were nothing more than “the devil” trying to deceive me, but I felt more deceived in hearing that statement than ever before. Something that really bothered me was that I felt the part of my life that was supposed to be the most free and fun (my teenage years) was stolen by that religious establishment, and I knew that what I was being fed just didn’t line up with the Bible. I didn’t know for sure if I believed the Bible and I didn’t know for sure if God was even real, but if He was, He was a loving, kind God. And I didn’t know exactly what qualified one for entrance into heaven, but I really didn’t believe that it was an unwavering commitment to church service, an unhealthy allegiance to a dictator-style pastor, or any works of my own. That’s what the Bible said to me.
So when my final fiber of patience wore irreparably thin, I left – with a bang. It was like skydiving without a parachute. This may sound silly to those of you who never had an experience with a legalistic religion, but life as I knew it was over. There are entire support groups and ministries committed to this subject, folks. To this day, I still don’t know what stories were told about me as to my reason for leaving, and I don’t care to know. But I know things were said, ties were cut, and warning sermons were preached with me in mind. Some true friends who knew my heart stayed by my side, but many others, out of pastoral fear, chose to shun me. I still remember the shock I experienced when I visited the church about six months after leaving and a member of the congregation rushed me, slapped their hand on my forehead, began loudly speaking in tongues and praying for God to “pull Alex out of this pit he’s got himself into.” Maybe he meant well, but that left me speechless and traumatized. Seriously, P.T.S.D.
After going through the trial-by-fire of leaving my past behind, I found myself in a new set of challenges. As I mentioned above, my life seemed to be spiraling out of control. Everything I knew to do before was no longer an option and instead of turning to God for help, I ran the other way. I think I may have somewhat blamed Him for the pains of my past and I wanted desperately to just be allowed to figure things out for myself – for once. Boy, was I wrong. I became clinically depressed – not just a passing sadness, but real depression (for all you skeptics, it is very real). I remember rushing myself to the ER, fearing the darkness inside my own mind, filling out the “how depressed are you” questionnaire, and watching the doctor grimace at my responses. She told me I was severely depressed and placed me on antidepressants. She asked if I felt I would be alright if I went home alone and part of me wanted to scream NO! However, I said I would be OK and went home to start my medication, in which I put my hopes of a brighter state of mind.
Soon after, I found that those pills didn’t offer me much help. Bars, clubs, parties, people, stimulants, substances, money, recognition, and material things didn’t help me. My parents and friends, who knew something was seriously wrong with me, tried so hard but they couldn’t help me either. One night, with nowhere and nothing left to turn to, I sat in my darkened room and breathed the words: “God, if you are real and you really love me, you have to do something now. Help me, please help me!” At that moment in that pitch black room, I remember feeling a tangible, explosive, living presence, almost like the feeling a loud-speaker at a concert gives you in your stomach, penetrate the silence. It was as if time stood still and everything was suspended in a frozen state of stillness, like the dust particles stood still in the air.
I remember the darkness being overcome by the brightest, unnatural whiteness I have ever seen. I remember feeling a warmth and peace that I could never explain, and hearing within myself a voice that told me the most wonderful things about who I am that I have ever heard. I still don’t know how long this went on because time was nonexistent in that time, in my little piece of heaven on earth. But there’s one thing I do know: I threw those pills in the trash the next morning and have never had a day of depression since. Praise God!
After having an encounter with God that shattered every doubt about the reality of His existence, my life became sweeter day by day. I learned who Jesus really was and is. I learned about love, grace, and acceptance. I learned about forgiveness and what it truly means to be a follower of Christ. I committed my life to His service and I gained a whole new world because of it. Almost immediately, I regained everything that was lost in my past, including new accomplishments, friends, and opportunities. God truly “restored what the locust had stolen,” as the Bible says.
I transferred to Colorado Christian University, where I went on to earn an undergraduate degree in Communications Studies and Certificate of Biblical Studies. I developed a hunger and a passion for God’s Word, craving understanding and wisdom to see the truth behind all of the manmade religious teachings of my past. As I ascended the mountain of understanding, I wanted to do something to forever remind me of God’s love for me, something to ensure I would never forget that everything would ALWAYS be just fine with God on my side. So despite what anyone may think about tattoos, I got one that year. It’s a cross with a Scripture reference written beneath it. This is the passage cited (emphasis added):
“I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I’ve told people about my tattoo, I’ve told people I battled depression, but I’ve never told anyone about my tangible encounter with Jesus. That’s my untold secret. That experience shaped my life and formed my world. I’ve made mistakes since then, and I will continue to make mistakes because I am human, but I gained confidence, self-respect, wisdom, maturity, and earth-shattering faith through that experience. I’m not advising you to get a tattoo, but I am using this story to inspire you to think about your own experience, your own faith.
What would your tattoo be if you got one to remind you of your victory over an area of your past? What would your tattoo say to remind you who you are? Think about it and nail it down. Maybe just write it on a sticky note instead of on your skin, but write it somewhere and let it soak in. God is FOR YOU and not against you, and no matter what you are going through, you can handle it. After all, nothing can separate us from the love of God! Where have I seen that before? 😉