18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
-Romans 1:18-23 (NASB)
I did not grow up in a Christian home. For the first 8 years of my life, I lived in St. Paul, MN in very close proximity to religious relatives. During this time, we were a standard American Christian family, which is to say we weren't Christians at all. We attended church somewhat regularly, claimed to be Christians, and tried to be somewhat good people (by our own definition of good), but we didn't actually follow Jesus or the teachings of the Bible. We didn't pray together as a family, didn't give (time or money) sacrificially, didn't read the Bible, and didn't fellowship with other believers, which I see as some of the most basic things that come from loving God. I didn't even know the difference between the Old and New Testaments, what the Gospel is, or who the apostles were until I was an adult, something I expect my kids will know before they start school.
When I was 8 years old, my family moved to the suburbs and away from extended family. In about a year we pretty much stopped going to church altogether, even on Christmas and Easter. My dad committed suicide a few weeks before my 10th birthday and by that time, our family had already stopped attending church. I remember getting Christmas gifts from our church (because of my dad's death) and thinking it was really strange since we didn't go there very often and hadn't been for a long time. We were strangers to them, so why would they do anything to help us? I never went to confirmation classes, church groups, or attended any other religious activities that kids do when their parents are Christians.
For the next couple years, I still prayed before bed, but that was my only thought of God. I didn't really know anything about God or Christianity other than Jesus died for our sins, something that I didn't even understand at the most basic level. Around the age of 11, I was tired of being burdened by God (my only burden was a couple minutes of prayer every night), and so I gave Him an ultimatum. I was playing a game with a friend and I told God that if He didn't help me win, I would stop believing in Him, which is what I did when I lost. Yes, this was childish, but I was 11 and was already questioning the existence of God and looking for a reason not to believe. As far as I was concerned, I was self-reliant and God was not necessary for me.
For the next few years after I explicitly rejected God, I was a terror. I was rebellious and extremely selfish. I stole whatever I wanted, constantly fought with my family, smoked pot and was on the verge of doing much more serious drugs like my friends did, I completely disregarded the rights and feelings of other people, and even had serious homicidal thoughts. I almost perfectly fit the criteria for a psychopath. I was awful and no fun to live with and my parents even considered sending me to live with relatives. The only thing that kept me from going completely off the deep end was hockey. All I ever wanted to do was play hockey and if that was taken away for any reason (injury, punishment, finances, etc), I had explicit plans to act on all the selfish thoughts and ideas that I was just barely restraining from.
When I was about 14 or 15, I had somewhat of an epiphany or revelation from God. It wasn't a grand or miraculous moment, but a peaceful calm and overwhelming sense of God. Without a seriously rational explanation, which is and was out of character for me, I just felt as though the beauty and complex design in the world were clearly the work of God. I had a rudimentary understanding of evolution and knew that it offered an explanation for all we see in world, but I still felt like something was missing. On some random, barely memorable day in my late adolescence, I renewed my belief in God and started praying again.
I defaulted to Christianity for a couple reasons. Growing up in America, Christianity was all I really knew about and thanks to my grandma and one of my aunts, it wasn't completely strange or foreign to me. I tried to start reading the Bible but didn't get past the first few pages. That probably lasted a week and after that, I continued to pray each night before bed, but that was about it. I did change personally though. I instantly and naturally changed from having severe psychopathic tendencies to being a relatively normal and responsible teenager. I mostly stopped fighting with my family, started controlling my temper, and treating people with respect; however, I was still concerned with little more than my own well-being.
Unfortunately, my new belief in God was unbounded and largely meaningless. Although I now acknowledged God and tried to be a not so bad person, I never even thought to consider religion in terms of truth. I was completely brainwashed into a relative way of thinking. I thought sex was ok as long as it was between consenting parties and figured that the Bible wasn't all that clear on it anyway (I figured this without even reading the Bible). I mostly stopped manipulating and abusing people, but I still bent or broke rules when I thought I could get away with it or if there was no victim. I was a good person as far as worldly standards go, but I still acted in ways that were harmful to myself and others. I still got drunk, swore like a sailor, and watched pornography, just to name a few of the things I did as a "good person." I (incorrectly) recognized the relative nature of truth and morality and I was perfectly content to continue making my own rules of moral behavior.
From the time of this recognition of God until I actually became a follower of Jesus (around the age of 23), I was once again in the stage of being a standard American Christian. I tried to be a good person because I figured that is what God wanted, but if I failed or wanted to do something badly enough, I could easily rationalize why it was ok. I had no relationship with God, nor did I submit any part of my life to Christ. And why would I? I saw lots of other "Christians" acting the same way as me or worse. I believed Christianity was just one of many ways to God and that I could believe and behave however I wanted and still be a "good person." In fact, I was under the impression that there were contradictions in the Bible (there aren't any) just to teach humanity that there is no correct religion and we should not be so arrogant about our beliefs. To sum up this stage, I believed God existed in some form, but I was still keen on doing life my own way. I was like the seed that fell by the roadside and is snatched away before it can grow (Mark 4:1-20). I was a deist, not a Christian.
The next major change in my journey was when I was about 20 years old. It was my last year of junior hockey before I went to college. There were two people who lived the Christian life and made me see what it can really be. One was my coach and the other was my future wife. I didn't really even talk to them about religion, but I just sensed that they were Christians by the way that they lived and how they spoke. Obviously I have since discussed religion at length with my wife, but it wasn't something we really discussed before we dated. This encouraged me to take my moral development to a higher level, but my religious development was still stagnant and stuck in a relativistic way of thinking.
Going in to college I knew that I wanted to study psychology because I had a deep interest in understanding people. Along with that came a peripheral interest in religion and how it influences people. That interest went largely unexplored for my first two years of college. My junior year I took a psychology of religion class and the assignments for that class served as a catalyst to push my interest in religion to full force and spur my religious development. I discovered that there were a lot of smart people using their intellect to discuss religious ideas, from all perspectives. I basically realized that I didn't know what I believed or why. I figured I needed to find out what was true and if God really does exist, then it only makes logical sense to make God the most important thing in my life.
I started frantically reading Christian apologetic books. I heard of a book where the author started writing as an atheist in order to prove Christianity is wrong and irrational, but ended up becoming a Christian based on the evidence (The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel). That was the first religious book I read and then moved on to two of his other books, The Case for Faith and The Case for a Creator (The Case for the Real Jesus is probably the best of the bunch but it was not yet written at this time). I also watched The Truth Project and started reading the Bible. Although my initial search for truth was in the context of Christianity, I was not necessarily tied to it. I read The God Delusion to see if atheism had anything to offer and even at that time, with almost no knowledge of Christianity or truth, I was able to see the poor reasoning behind Dawkins' rejection of Christianity and his subsequent atheism. I also investigated the claims of other religions to see if they might hold the truth.
What was important for me at this stage is that this was the first time I had ever seen God presented in terms of truth. Before taking the psychology of religion class and doing my own investigating, I thought religious thinkers were uneducated morons and that religious beliefs were merely in the realm of opinion. I didn't see this as bad, but just thought religion was something people did out of habit or comfort and anyone who put too much stock in it had taken it too far. I was amazed to find out that people, and especially very smart people, genuinely thought that their religious beliefs were true AND had they had evidence to support their beliefs. This astounded me and I wanted to know more. I had an immediate and passionate desire to seek out and find what is true. I wasn't necessarily concerned with what was Christian, but with what was and is true (however, I have found that what is Christian is true).
I continued searching deeper for truth, mostly in Christianity and atheism, but I also investigated many other religions or worldviews and have gained a working knowledge of them. Despite a more limited understanding of each one, I do feel as though I have honestly considered Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Confucianism, paganism, pantheism, deism, agnosticism, and various other worldviews. What I have found with these other religions or systems of belief is that they simply are not true and cannot be true. When applying tests of truth to these other systems of belief, they all fail and fall far short of the consistency, accuracy, and comprehensiveness of Christianity. Their foundational claims are logically or empirically contradictory and/or unsubstantiated. Although they are all comprised of pieces of truth, for the reasons just mentioned, none of the other beliefs can be true in their entirety.
My journey to Christ was a long and slow one, marked by occasional jumps in my moral development, but being a "good" person doesn't make someone a Christian. It wasn't until I intellectually investigated truth, which led me to Christianity and a meaningful difference in my life. Prior to becoming a genuine Christian, I had directly and indirectly experienced a small amount of God's love. He revealed Himself to me through His creation and his followers and He drastically changed who I was. But as I've said, it wasn't until I had seen the truth of God that I began to believe and experience deeper life change and a true relationship with Him.
Jesus said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6, NASB) and for me, I think I only needed to open my eyes and see that truth. That is all I've ever been concerned with, even before I was able to articulate it. I've always been of the mind that if something is true, why would I not believe it?; however, I recognize that not all people are the same way. I expect some people may need to only experience God's love, while some may need to see truth and love. Hopefully there is someone in your life who will show you God's love, but if not, please know that it does exist. As I think my story shows, just because someone claims to be a Christian does not mean they actually are (Matthew 7:22). There are a lot of genuine Christians sacrificing comforts, desires, and even their lives to serve others. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them. We can also feel God's love directly from Him by having a relationship with Him.
God's truth is evident in His creation, but unless you look at it through an unbiased lens, you will always be able to rational or make excuses for the evidence that you see. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you (James 4:8). I think this means different things to people at different stages of their spiritual development. If you are not a believer or a Christian, I think it means to simply be open to the idea of God and to honestly search for Truth. Perhaps it even means talking (praying) to God to ask for discernment and for Him to reveal Himself to you. Start investigating all beliefs about religion (including atheism) to find out what is true. Read and apply tests of truth to the Bible, but also the Koran, the Vedas, other religious scripture, and philosophy. If you are rebellious by nature like I am, you may not like what you find because if you search honestly for truth, I feel confident that your search will lead you to Christ.
Once you have accepted the truth of Christianity (or if you already have), then drawing near to God takes on a slightly different meaning. It still means searching for truth, but more so in the correct context of who He is (as opposed to trying to find out who He is) by studying and understanding His word. It means taking steps of faith and actually living out your realization of His truth and showing love to others. Ultimately, being a Christian is about having a relationship with Christ and submitting to Him. What does this mean? It means the same as any other loving relationship that you have. It means you talk to Him. Tell Him about your fears and worries. Thank Him for the blessings He has given to you. Tell Him when your disappointed, even if it is with Him. Praise Him for His greatness. Learn about who He is and act in ways that bring Him glory.
If you haven't already started a journey towards truth, it's never too late and it's never too early. There is nothing more important in this life. If you already identify as a Christian, honestly and humbly "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you-- unless indeed you fail the test?" (2 Corinthians 13:5, NASB). Test yourself by reading scripture, specifically 1 John and Galatians 5 (especially verses 22&23). If you're not truly living the life Christ called us to live, then you need to repent and turn back to God.
That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
- Romans 10:9-10 (NASB)