Something I have always known about my conversion experience was that it wasn't based on fear of hell, or deep remorse for my sins, or even belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus and the miracles in the Bible. In the back of my mind I knew about these things. I knew what it meant to feel guilty and sinful. I knew the Bible stories that I had read and learned in my childhood church attendance. I imagined there was such a thing as heaven or hell, though I didn't spend much time thinking about it.
No. None of those concepts mattered that much to me. They didn't speak to me or motivate my mind and heart in any discernible way.
What led me to become a Christian was a deep emotional identification with Christ and a love that sacrificed itself for people who didn't even care about it, or have enough of it themselves to appreciate its depth.
At the time, I had made a choice to move with my mother and younger brothers to Florida for the last two years of high school. Just before that move, my mother and I had a terrible, physical fight that had been indirectly instigated by her abusive boyfriend. I had bruises all over my face and arms and was completely distraught. I ran away and stayed with my best friend's family for a week or two until my mother apologized and asked me to come back home.
I did eventually go back home and that physical incident turned out to be an isolated one. It never happened again, even though my mother still had quite a temper.
However, the abusive boyfriend was still in the picture. You see my youngest brother, who was about 2 years old at the time, was the son of the abusive boyfriend. Although he and my mother would periodically break up violently and then reconcile in the typical, cyclical way that dysfunctional abusive relationships do, he would never really be out of the picture because my younger brother tied he and my mother together.
Being a teenager living in that kind of chaos was maddening. It is frustrating to be a child with more sense than the adults in your family. The helplessness of being a minor in a household in which you have no control over what's happening, and no ability to stop the bad choices that are being made is torture. All you can do is lock yourself up in your room and count the days until you turn 18 and graduate from high school so that you can shake the dust off your feet and be free to live a sane life.
The problem was that I didn't want to go to Florida, because the abusive boyfriend was going to be going also and living with us.
I didn't want to go. I knew what would happen in Florida, more of the same in a different location. Yet, I was in a quandary. I had to make a choice. You see, even though my parents divorced when I was two, I always knew that if things got really bad I could ask to move in with my father. The only obstacle preventing me from leaving was the prospect of abandoning my two younger to the chaos that was to come.
I had to choose between a way of escape for myself, or forcing myself to head into a life that I knew would be miserable.
Whenever events in our household went downhill, I was the one to pull it together. If the boyfriend got violent, I called the police...frequently. When he got nasty, I intervened. I truly believed that my presence kept things from being worse because I wasn't afraid of my mother's boyfriend and he knew it. He also knew that, unlike my mother, who would never have the will to press and pursue charges against him, that I would relish the opportunity to see him behind bars if he ever laid a finger on me or on one of my brothers.
I was the boundary around my family that he couldn't cross, even at the young ages of 14, 15, and 16.
During this time I was severely hurt and angry. I blamed my mother for her weakness and for subjecting us to her chaos. Each time she welcomed back the boyfriend I was crushed. She was choosing him over us. She was choosing a few moments of "love" over the safety and well-being of her children.
So...when the time came for this move to Florida, I didn't know what to do. I desperately wanted to escape but I felt a deep obligation to protect my brothers with my presence.
I eventually chose to go to Florida, giving up my way of escape for my mother and family even though the protection I offered was never recognized or understood by my mother. I was performing a thankless service.
A few months after making that decision, I was "witnessed" to by my older brother and his pastor. What broke me and instantly sliced through my heart was one question that the pastor posed to me:
"Do you know that Jesus suffered for you, because he loves you?"
Which he followed up with,"Do you know what it means to sacrifice yourself for people you love, even if they don;t realize it?"
Why, yes! I knew exactly what that was like. I burst into tears, not only because I suddenly believed, but because I identified myself emotionally with all that Jesus represented. I began to follow him because he was like me in some essential way and I was like him in some essential way.
That is what it means to experience God. We experience a moment in which we recognize Him in us and us in Him.
All of our worship, all of our singing, all of our praying...these are all ways that we emotionally identify ourselves with God and experience Him.
Realizing this has made me worry much less about whether I have a unified explanation for my beliefs, or sometimes lack of beliefs.