A Life Transformed
It was Good Friday 2011 and a local church was hosting the first-ever "Great Exchange" outreach at UGA. The white tent, the banners, and the table caught my eye as I made my way to grab lunch. I was finishing my second year as the faculty advisor for UGAtheists- a campus organization for the decidedly unreligious, geared especially towards the separation of church and state. Two years earlier, I jumped at the opportunity to lead this group. I wanted to become the leading voice of the "New Atheism.”
I had thrown off what I understood to be the shackles of my religious upbringing while completing my master's and doctoral requirements. A fledgling scientist, I had developed a powerful desire for science to be able to explain all of the great questions of life. This felt empowering, freeing, and even exotic against the legalistic Christianity I grew up with.
Yet, two years into that project, I was looking for the backdoor out. The more I tried to deny God's existence, the more it became obvious that atheism couldn't possibly be true. I was convinced that we inhabit a world of moral facts. There are instances of real right and real wrong, true good and true evil. Atheism can't support that basic truth. So, I had developed a "head problem" with atheism.
But there was also a "heart problem". I was on the receiving end of a divorce in 2008, but remained very involved in the lives of my three young daughters. One day in 2011, I received a text from my ex-wife that our oldest daughter, Annabel, was going to be water baptized the following Sunday, following her profession of faith in Jesus. I sneered and showed the text to an atheist friend.
"If I go, the walls might fall in!" I jested.
"Well, you should probably go," my atheist friend responded. "You can always sit her down and use reason to talk her out of her faith later. Just go, smile for a picture with her, and be a good dad."
That seemed like good advice to me.
However, something entirely unexpected happened after her baptism. Instead of annoyance and frustration, I experienced an inexplicable yet undeniable sense of joy. Annabel's decision to follow Jesus made my heart glad. But how did that make sense?
On campus, I was doing everything I could to oppose and undermine the Christian faith.
By semester's end, I had decided atheism wasn't for me. I'd inform UGAtheists that I was "too busy" to serve them in the future, and I'd privately go back to acknowledging a "higher power"--"God as I understand him". I would be spiritual, but not religious. I especially wanted to spend some time investigating the historical Jesus, because the undeniable historical shadow of the Nazarene still fascinated me. I reassured myself that there was no way I'd ever go back to believing the whole Bible was true like I did growing up. That was definitely not where I was headed on this new journey.
But God had other plans. At that first-ever Great Exchange, I met a pastor named David Holt. He was fascinated with my journey. We talked for an hour that day then began meeting every week for coffee. I listened with open ears and reevaluated the extraordinarily powerful case for Jesus' resurrection. But I was stuck at about 50/50 believing that it actually happened. David asked me if I had a Bible at home. (I did.) He issued a challenge: To read the Gospel of John with fresh eyes before we met the following week. I told him I would, all the while thinking to myself, "I'll do it, but it won't make a difference. After all, I already know the gospels say Jesus rose from the dead".
So, I went home...and I put it off. That is, until the evening before my next meeting with David. I was cleaning my apartment when I happened across my old NIV Study Bible from high school, housed between two neuroscience textbooks. I remembered I gave David my word that I would read John.
"Okay, I'll do it, but it won't make any difference. I'll still be 50/50 on the resurrection." I recalled the prayer David said to pray. "Lord, if what this says about Jesus is true, reveal that in my heart in a way that I cannot deny as I read." That seemed fair, so I did it. I sat down alone on my sofa and cracked a Bible for the first time in several years.
I encountered many familiar stories as I worked my way through the chapters. For reasons I don't understand, the Holy Spirit used John 11 as the game-changer. Jesus comforts Martha, the sister of Lazarus (his close friend), with these words after Lazarus gets sick and dies: "I am the resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me will live even if he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25). Then Jesus extends his hand, lifts Martha's chin, looks her in the eyes, and asks, "Do you believe this?"
I knew beyond any doubt that Jesus was asking me the exact same question. And, like Martha, I knew he is who he claimed to be and that I absolutely trusted his voice. In that moment, I knew that acknowledging this truth of all truths must forever change my life. It would determine how the second half of my life would begin and how it will end, until I leave this world to look into those same eyes--the eyes of Love Incarnate--that Martha saw on the day her brother was raised from the dead!
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