Turning points, aha moments, or those times when the light bulb finally turns on inside us doesn’t happen often. But when they do occur, we remember them, and they become little benchmarks along the path we journey, twigs of hope we are headed in the right direction, reminders we are not alone.
If you’ve ever wanted to run away from a situation that went sour because your expectations were higher than a California Redwood, then you know what it feels like to finally make it to the other side of faith, after a period of chronic disappointment. You thought your heart would forever stay shut down, but then—God showed up.
I remember one of those divine moments. Green, twenty-one, skinny, and bright eyed about the future, I pursued a calling that seemed like it included God’s stamp of approval. But it wouldn’t be long before the rug of faith was pulled out from under me.
No, it wasn’t fun walking through the aftermath of another man’s adultery in, of all places, a church. I wondered why God called me to work with teenagers in a place where an affair took place between staff members, way before I was ever interviewed, hired or I uprooted myself to Gadsden, Alabama—nine hours from my hometown of Burlington, North Carolina.
My shock led to doubts which led to disillusionment that led to skepticism to thinking, “Christianity isn’t working for me. I didn’t sign up for this.” But the spiritual light bulb was getting ready to be turned on inside me, yet time was needed. God’s wasn’t in a hurry.
Fast-forward three years into the future. The headmaster of a boarding school hired me and handed me the textbook I would use to teach high school students on the subject of Religions and Cults. I rolled up my sleeves and the research began. Then it happened.
I was bothered by the fact that no cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon had ever been discovered on our planet.
I was troubled by Christian Science, a belief system that didn’t contain any scientific precepts, much less any “Christian” presuppositions.
I was sickened, learning priests were allowed to sexually abuse boys, yet their actions were covered up by the power and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church.
I was dumbfounded that a large group of Jews didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, because they were still waiting for a military type of deliverer to come right all the political wrongs they suffered at the hands of the Romans.
And the Jehovah Witnesses created a date when the world would end, but they kept changing it. Those major inconsistencies and many more found in other belief systems disturbed me.
A question popped in my head, or was it a lightbulb that “Someone” turned on? “So Nelson, if you want to flee from Christianity, because of a negative experience, where are you going to run to. Which belief system makes the most sense? Everyone runs to some “thing” or some One. Even an atheist believes there is no God.
Before my research, I knew the basics about Christianity, but not specifics, ignorant what the Bible said about man; sin; God; Jesus Christ; the Holy Spirit; judgment; salvation; heaven; hell; and the future. Comparing what the Bible said about ten doctrines of Christianity to other belief systems stretched my intellect like never before.
When I first responded to God many decades ago, around the age of twelve, it was all about a heart conviction, not an intellectual experience, meaning I asked the Holy Spirit to take up residence inside me after I admitted my sins to God, and believed they were covered with the innocent shed blood of Jesus Christ. And I didn’t begin a one-on-one personal relationship with God until the age of eighteen, when I started an ongoing conversation with Him about my life and heard Him respond through scripture.
But for the first time in my pilgrimage, at the age of twenty-five, God turned the light bulb on inside me. There was no longer a chasm between my heart and my brain. My faith stretched from the research and bridged the gap, removing my skepticism toward Christianity. Reading each verse that stood against other belief systems, made we wonder: Why hadn’t I seen this truth before? How many Christians don’t know the whole story? Would this knowledge increase their faith?
My faith grew the more I studied. And the information I read in Where is God when it hurts? by Philip Yancey, helped me connect the spiritual dots between a head knowledge of Christianity and a God who really cares. He wrote, “No other religion—not Judaism, not Hinduism, not Buddhism or Islam—offers this unique contribution of an all-powerful God who willingly takes on the limitations and suffering of his creation.”
I gained a rational understanding of Christianity and it strengthened my faith after going through a dark period in Alabama. But, for the first time, I realized God understood and welcomed my disillusionment, pain, and skepticism, echoed by Yancey as he continues:
“The fact that Jesus came to earth where he suffered and died does not remove pain from our lives. But it does show that God did not sit idly by and watch us suffer in isolation. He became one of us. Thus, in Jesus, God gives us an up-close and personal look at his response to human suffering. All our questions about God and suffering should, in fact, be filtered through what we know about Jesus.”
From my experience the church discredited the brain, the mind, or even having an intellectual experience, because of their message—“You just gotta have faith.” And I get their message. There’s a lot of folks who “know a lot about God, but don’t KNOW him.” So a knowledge “about” God won’t save a human soul.
It’s one thing to have a head knowledge about what you believe, quite another to have a heart conviction that pulls you through when the circumstances of life blow up all around you like it did recently for the people in Kentucky recovering from devastating tornadoes, or the never-ending Covid stories and school shootings.
So how does the Christmas season mesh with our brain, our heart, and the world we quickly turn off when the news is determined to turn us into Ebenezer Scrooge. The answer is found, I believe, in four letters:
Christianity heralds the belief a Messiah came over 2,000 years ago. God entered the world He created. The artist entered the world he painted or spoke into existence. God entered time and space because of the problem of the human heart, not the political world. God became a man and He was given the name Emmanuel. Every name has a meaning and Emmanuel means God “WITH” us.
If that is true, and I believe it is, then the following statements of faith have more weight, substance, and hope:
God, because of Emmanuel…
“As long as You are WITH me I will share the Christmas gospel, leaning on the Holy Spirit to give me the words to say to a person who has heard “about” Jesus until they are blue in the face.”
“As long as You are WITH me I will pick myself up and all my junk relying on Your strength, even after a devastating tornado.”
“As long as You are WITH me I will trust that my family’s safety is in Your hands, even though all the old and new strands of Covid aren’t disappearing.”
“As long as You are WITH me I will work my darndest at a job I hate, realizing a lot of people are out of work.”
“As long as You are WITH me I will thank you for circumstances I don’t like that You use to mold and change me.”
As long as God is WITH us, we will make it. As long as God is with us, we are never alone, even though our world romanticizes Christmas to the extent it coats us with loneliness, like through a song we hear on the radio. As long as God is WITH us we can smile, believing and knowing that God sees us and our circumstances. Where would we be without Emmanuel—God WITH us? Praise Him for the gift other belief systems can’t provide. If a Mormon or Jehovah Witness knocks on your door why not ask them (in love) “What did your god do for you?
*Pictures courtesy of “Nelson & his Nikon”.
Be inspired by the Christmas music video: Emmanuel, God with us, by the group Anthem Lights w/Amy Grant.