Be warned: What you’re about to read IS the TL;DR version of how I came be be a born-again Christian. I’ve trimmed a TON of details in order to make this as short as possible while still retaining everything I think is important.
I was raised in a Catholic home, the youngest of many siblings. Catholic schools and dragged (reeeeeeally dragged) to Catholic church every Sunday. I took my Catholic faith relatively seriously, which is to say that I truly believed the things I was being taught, such as:
- That pretty much no one goes straight to Heaven, and that we all had to “do time” in Purgatory when we die first.
- That reciting pre-fabricated prayers over and over would impress God and shave off time from my Purgatory sentence.
- That Mary, the mother of Jesus, was perpetually virgin and sinless from the moment of her conception.
- That Mary would intercede for me on God’s behalf if I prayed directly to her.
- That confessing my sins to a designated human in a box and performing his ritualistic penance would absolve me of those sins, until I committed more.
In short, believed in many things which aren’t stated in the Bible, but are taught as part of what’s known as “Sacred Tradition.” I held onto those things for more than thirty years, even though I stopped going to church regularly once I was an adult and was no longer forced to.
Meanwhile, bad things happened to me. A lot of bad things. I’ve had, shall we say, an “interesting” life.
I always believed God was there, but I didn’t know him. I didn’t know how to talk to him or genuinely turn to him.
Then, during one of my worst years ever, I began to visit a different kind of church. I heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached for the first time, straight from the Bible:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 KJV)
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3 KJV)
That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10:9-10 KJV)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 KJV)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16 KJV)
Week after week, I listened, and I believed, but I was afraid. I harbored a terrible secret that was holding me back. I knew that I needed to ask the Lord for the salvation he had freely given, but I couldn’t.
My secret wasn’t any of the “big” sins I’d committed. I’ve done some terrible things, but I knew, I was certain, that God could and would forgive me for them. This was deeper and darker and tormented me more than any of the wrongs I’d ever racked up in my life.
One night, during the church’s annual missions conference, one of the visiting missionaries sat next to me. An American on furlough with his family from the field in eastern Europe, the man wasted no time asking me if I was born again. Of course, I truthfully told him that no, I was not. He began to ask me why, and I began to tell this complete stranger the truth.
My dirty little secret was this: I couldn’t forgive the people who had hurt me, and I didn’t want to. I did not want to forgive those who had damaged and betrayed and abandoned and abused me.
I had tried, painfully, to articulate this to my friends a few times, to preachers and their wives and others who wanted me to be saved. Without exception, everyone always chirped the same well-meaning response: “You have to forgive them, C! Jesus says so! The Bible says it here, and here, and here! You have to forgive!” And I knew the Bible did say those things. I had begun to wonder if it was too late for me. I didn’t want to be an unforgiving person, but I couldn’t give it up, and I knew I couldn’t fool God.
But when I confessed my secret to this visiting missionary, whom I’d never seen before in my life, everything changed. I said, “I don’t want to forgive them.”
He replied, without a moment’s hesitation: “Of course you don’t.”
My jaw hit the floor.
“Forgiveness is not natural,” he went on to say, without missing a beat while I sat there with my mouth agape. “It’s our human nature to want to hit back, to want revenge when someone hurts us. Forgiveness is a supernatural quality.”
I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing. “God takes us as we are,” he continued, and I knew this. How many Sundays had I stood there as we sang “Just As I Am” in the sanctuary? How many times had I heard the pastor read from Romans 5:8 (KJV), “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”?
I had heard the Gospel over and over and I knew, I knew, that God could forgive all of my sins. But somehow, I still thought that I had to clean up my act before I could ask him to save me. I thought I had to fix myself, forgive my enemies, and become a better person before I could be born again.
I looked at the missionary as if he was a lunatic. “Are you telling me I can be saved even though I don’t want to forgive those people?” My heart was in my throat. He told me again, with the Bible open between us, that God takes us as we are, which I had heard a hundred times and never really accepted. He said that once I had that supernatural forgiveness that comes with Jesus living in my heart, I would be able to understand forgiving others.
That night, March 9, 2006, I spoke out loud to the Lord. I told him that I knew I was a sinner, and I knew that Jesus died for me. I told him that I was willing to turn from my sin, and that I wanted Jesus to save me.
And he did. And I knew it. I finally knew it. And I know it.