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From Surviving to Living
(14) SURPRISED BY JOY: A Miraculous Journey from Doubt to Experiencing God
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This is the episode you’ve been waiting for – and you won’t be disappointed! It was October 2015 and my life was about to take a dramatic turn. Soon my life would be filled with wonder, excitement and peace! Life didn’t get easier, in fact my circumstances would become even more dire. I was about to discover the “peace that passes all understanding.” I would never be the same, and thank God for that!

Do you wonder what true transformation looks and feels like? Do you want it for yourself? Listen today, you’ll be glad you did!

TRANSCRIPT

Are your beliefs facing a storm of doubt? Do you fear that your connection with Jesus might be slipping away?

In the fall of 2015, my oldest son began to deconstruct his faith, ultimately becoming an atheist. Challenged by his doubts, I began a quest to fix things. Join me as I explore the role of doubt and how it can lead to deeper understanding. Discover with me the secret to transformation through Scripture.

Are you ready for a genuine connection with Jesus today? Listen until the end,  you don’t want to miss a word! This is Surprised by Joy.

I think of this as the beginning. I was asleep, maybe dead all my life, before 2016. I was 40 years old.

“Mom, I’m not sure I believe in God anymore,” my oldest son Noel explained on the phone. It was October 2015, and Noel had just turned 21.

Trying to remain calm I asked, “Why do you say that?” Noel had gone to a Christian school, living with my parents after I went to prison. They had taken him to church every Sunday.

“I’m not certain He exists,” Noel answered. “I’m not an atheist. I guess I just don’t know,” he finished.

Are you uncertain about God? Are you looking for answers?

The call left me tense; I considered solutions. I also went to a Christian school, was taken to church every Sunday. I wanted to fix this.

Recently I took the Myers-Briggs personality test. I am the INTJ classification type, placing an emphasis on logic and fact rather than emotion, with a strong desire for competence and knowledge. The church I was raised in was intellectually stimulating, with biblical archeologists, theology professors, and interesting guest speakers. I felt confidence in this knowledge and was eager to learn.

When I was very young, about 4 years old, my mother tells me she explained salvation to me. She shared that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and that He had risen from the dead. Jesus is alive today. She showed me John 3:16 and Romans 10:9-10.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” Romans 10:9-10

She asked me if I believed. She prayed with me. I do not remember any of this. But she wrote the date in my Bible. At age 6 or 7 I was baptized at our church. This I do remember, a little. I remember having stage fright. Standing next to the pastor, staring out at the church, I was asked questions. Too terrified to respond I did nothing, said nothing. That’s what I remember. I was baptized regardless. This made me a member of the church.

As I grew up and became a teenager, I would hear the message of salvation many times. Though told I’d been saved, with that note in a Bible, I didn’t feel saved. So I’d pray again sincerely! I did this more than once. Nothing seemed different. Why? Was I already saved? Or wasn’t it working? I didn’t know.

Once, when I was in my twenties cleaning the house, a thought struck me, “Does God really exist?” It was so unexpected. My mind returned to a day when I was 17 years old.

“Hey! Let’s ride dirt bikes! We have some in the shed,” Mike pointed over my shoulder. I glanced at his dad’s cabin, considering. Without waiting for an answer he hiked up the drive. Tossing open the doors he rolled out 2 motor bikes.

The first roared to life easily. The second bike was lifeless. Mike’s brow creased in thought. He headed back into the shed for tools. I sat to watch. Thirty minutes passed without success. Mike is a determined person, but after an hour he was ready to call it quits. “I guess we can both ride together,” he said. “It won’t be the same, but it will still be fun.”

“Wait,” I said. We’d been friends a couple years. I’d often invited Mike to church. Mike enjoyed the people but he didn’t believe in God. “Before you put the bike away, how about I pray it starts, then you try it one more time?” I asked.

“What? I’ve been working on the bike for an hour,” he dismissed. “You want to pray, and you think the bike will just… start!” Mike laughed.

“Yes, exactly that,” I answered.

“Okay, fine. Go ahead,” Mike leaned back, ready for another good laugh. He waited.

I closed my eyes and prayed, “God, please make this dirt bike start now. Thank you.” I knew God could do this; He could do anything He liked. I did not know if He wanted to do it; I did not know if He would. I opened my eyes. Mike was watching me. I pointed to the bike and said, “Try it now.”

Mike leaned forward again to start it. VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!! The bike ROARED to life. We both stepped back in shock.

Squeezing my eyes I had returned to my living room, my cleaning, my twenty something self. I shook away the thought that God doesn’t exist. Staring at my living room, I wondered why I doubted. I also wished for more in life. I was lonely, depressed, lost.

Now years later here I was, 40 years old and in prison, my son struggling with the same issue. Then I had an idea! I was enrolled in college classes, my current assignment to write a persuasive essay. This was it! I would prove God existed.

I ran into a problem. I thought to describe God, His character and attributes. I considered all I’d heard about Him. I wrote that down in a list. “Great!” I thought. “Good start.” Next I tried to find this in the Bible so I could use it.

I opened the Bible at random, scanned the page. Nothing obvious jumped out. I flipped the page, nothing. I sat back and flipped through the entire book, stopping here and there for a quick read. This was not going to work.

I thought more. My paper was due in a couple weeks. I’m a fast reader, but saw it was impossible to read the Bible that fast. “And,” I asked myself, “why would I want to? I’m only interested in a few things such as God’s character. I don’t need to know everything!”

“Mom, can you help me?” I posed the next afternoon. “I have an English paper to write, and I’d like it to be about God.” I explained the trouble I was having. I shared the list I’d made. She agreed to help, and found references for me.

Satisfied, I wrote my paper, coldly logical and analytical. Perhaps I knew about God. I did not know Him personally, though. I was confused by this distinction. A few years prior, my mom had sent me a book by A. W. Tozer called Knowing God, which brings together two key facets of the Christian faith—knowing about God and knowing God through a close relationship with Jesus Christ. The book confused me so much I didn’t finish it at the time.

I now felt unsettled by my obvious lack of expertise on the subject of God. I’d believed I was knowledgeable, and this experience had left me with doubts. Friday afternoon I finished my paper, sat back and scanned my room. Sunlight flooded in, and I lifted my eyes to my bookshelf. My Bible, unread, sat where I’d left it.

Thoughtfully I considered again. I’d heard of Bible reading plans. I didn’t have to read it quickly. Pulling it from the shelf I decided to try, determined to become knowledgeable for real.

Less than a week later I was defeated. I had to admit I preferred reading fiction. My plan had been to read the Bible daily, and I’d failed immediately. After a week I didn’t want to continue. It was boring and I didn’t understand it. I had better things to read.

I returned the Bible to my bookshelf with a sigh, pushing the spine with my finger. I felt guilty, yet relieved. I prayed, “God, if You want me to read it, You’ll have to make me want to. I don’t like it.” With that, I left the room and forgot all about it.

Months passed. Christmas arrived and with it special treats. A mission donated paper grocery bags filled with goodies and Bible studies to the prison. After Christmas dinner I excitedly made my way to the cafeteria door, watching women receive their gift and looking forward to enjoying mine. Every year we received some small thing but this was the biggest gift bag we’d ever seen!

Practically running back to my room I imagined all the good things that must be inside, cookies, candies, snacks! The nice man who had delivered the bags had been smiling and kind. I wanted to hug him! I hoped he would return every year.

As I unwrapped a candy bar I ran my hands over bags of chips and treats. This could last for a month! At the bottom of the bag were booklets. I pulled one out at random and plopped on the bed. Chewing, I flipped open the first page. “Sinners will not enjoy heaven…,” I read.

‘That’s the weirdest thing I ever heard!’ I thought. ‘Isn’t the definition of heaven “whatever we think is wonderful”?’ I puzzled. I pulled the book closer and put down the candy.

“Heaven is what God thinks is wonderful, and sinners do not naturally enjoy what God loves,” the book explained. I thought back to my experience reading the Bible. How boring it was! “Well that seems true,” I admitted. “I didn’t like the Bible. I didn’t really like church. But I want to go to heaven! And I want to like it!” I picked up my candy and took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. I read the rest and turned the page.

“God is the main character of the Bible, not man,” it said. “People misunderstand because they see man as the central figure.” Captivated, I wondered. ‘Is it true? Is God the main character in the Bible?’ That’s not how I’d heard it. I’d heard lots of stories about men in there. I could name them, like hall of fame heroes.

I pulled out another booklet, this one about tithing. I’d heard of that before – giving money to your church. I turned the page and was shocked. “If you don’t tithe you are stealing from God,” it began.

“I can’t believe it says that!” I fumed. I was stung, angry. I tore open a bag of chips and considered doing something else.

I chose a different booklet, something from the bottom of the bag. “Salvation is a process, not just a decision,” it announced. I’d never heard of such a thing! That sounded bad, like working your way to heaven. I was certain it was wrong. And yet they had Bible verses about it. This was a lot to think about. I set everything aside for later.

The new year arrived, January 2016. The prison went on lockdown which meant everyone confined to their room 24 hours a day. Lockdowns can occur due to short staffing, emergencies, or even holidays. Inmates are not always told the reason.

This lockdown lasted longer than the library books I had. Finishing the last I eyeballed the Bible still on my shelf. I was curious to see if God really was the main character. Reclining on my bed I opened the Bible to I Corinthians and started reading.

Have you ever seen a person shocked to life with paddles? Or more likely, have you ever been prepared for the worst date ever, only to fall in love at first sight?

I read, and… Lunch passed, I missed it. Dinner came and went. I didn’t notice. Time stopped as I ate up the words on the pages. Midnight arrived and I fell asleep, Bible in hand, exhausted.

Was I a thief? If salvation is more than a decision, what is it? What is transformation? How can I see things from a different perspective, where humans are not center stage and God is?

Morning found me confused about my experience the day before. ‘The Bible is boring and old,’ I recalled. ‘Perhaps yesterday I read parts I never saw before. The boring parts are there and I’ll prove it!’ I rationalized. ‘When I find them then I can stop reading it.’

Plan formed I read the day away, gripped again from the start. I hardly noticed time passing. I did not get bored. Instead, I found relevance. I was fascinated.

The third day I had another talk with myself. I never enjoyed church as an adult. I found prayer boring, a chore, the Bible another chore. The past two days had been thrilling; in fact ever since Christmas pursuing God had been interesting, effortless!

I knew in my heart that any previous results I attributed to prayer I thought could be coincidence. Those situations could have happened regardless. I could not tell if God was at work intentionally. How would I know? Like the motor bikes I knew God could do anything; what does He want to do?

But this! This was God’s Word, the Bible itself. God would want people to read it, that was obvious now. What had me crying out “Father God!” was that God gave His desire to me. He wanted ME to know Him! He was proving it. What a shock, yet undeniable! I felt loved, I fell in love. I wanted more!

Work resumed and I returned all of my library books. Instead of checking out new books I read the Bible constantly. I read it at work, at meals, I read it while waiting for doctor appointments. I had no desire to stop.

God was a Person Who was being very intentional with me. I struggled to realize my wrong thinking which had been a barrier to genuine relationship with Him. God pointed me to my own situation.

Incarceration was hard on my family, especially my children. My relationships were strained before prison; now most were broken. My children felt the stress, surrounded by adults who struggled to not (or often did) say what they thought about me.

After 5 years I felt a strange disconnect between us. My children believed they knew me well. They spoke with authority on the subject of “Mom,” or “what mom would do,” “what mom thinks,” or “what mom did.”

I didn’t recognize myself in the stories they told, the person they described. I was shocked and dismayed by what they said. Oddly, they didn’t ask me about their accuracy. If I disagreed this simply confirmed any negative views and labeled me ‘disagreeable’. They listened to other people, and let that define me. Unfortunately their so-called knowledge was interfering in their ability to have genuine relationship with me.

For many years, however, I had written my children hundreds of letters, thousands of pages. There I was – my character (good or bad), my past, my thoughts, my plans – plain as day for them right from the source, Mom!

I could tell when listening to my children on the phone that most of these letters went unread. I’d agonize as I listened to them, frustrated and thinking, ‘If you would just read my letters you wouldn’t have all these wrong ideas and we would have a great relationship!’ Even worse, their negative ideas would often cause such stress they would break contact with me altogether.

Now I realized, I had done the same to God for 40 years. He had written thousands of pages, pouring out His heart, His plans, what He would do, what He thinks, His character. For half my life I’d been a know-it-all, felt knowledgeable with a church upbringing. I’d spoken with authority about God. I’d relied on second-hand information, instead of the Author Himself, His Word.

As I read His Word now, I knew, Jesus was hurt by my behavior.

11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; now that I have become a man, I am done with childish ways and have put them aside.
12 For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection of reality as in a riddle or enigma, but then when perfection comes we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood by God.” I Corinthians 13:11-12

C.S. Lewis describes such a faith well in his biographical book Surprised by Joy. When he was a child his mother became ill. He prayed for her recovery and when she nevertheless died he prayed for a miracle. He describes this as his first religious experience:

“The thing hadn’t worked, but I was used to things not working, and I thought no more about it. I think the truth is that the belief into which I had hypnotized myself was itself too irreligious for its failure to cause any religious revolution.

“I had approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear. He was, in my mental picture of this miracle, to appear neither as Savior nor as Judge, but merely as a magician; and when He had done what was required of Him I supposed He would simply – well, go away. It never crossed my mind that the tremendous contact which I solicited should have any consequences beyond restoring the status quo.”

With my new understanding, I decided to start saving 10 percent of my paychecks. I didn’t have a church to give it to, but I would give it to charity.

This was just the beginning, an amazing, unexpected start. I was filled with wonder.

Listener, do you struggle with doubts about your faith, about God?

Let’s talk about faith. Is it enough to believe God exists? Is that what faith is? The Bible says in Hebrews 11:6

“But without faith it is impossible to please and be satisfactory to Him. For whoever would come near to God must [necessarily] believe that God exists and that He is the rewarder of those who earnestly and diligently seek Him [out].”

This is the definition of faith, belief that God exists and that there’s value (reward) in knowing Him. This is talking about knowing something is true by experience. Experiential knowledge is knowledge gained through experience, as opposed to a priori (before experience) knowledge or textbook knowledge. In otherwords, not blind faith.

God’s Word repeatedly stresses knowing Who God is and what He is like through our own personal experiences. God says in I Kings, “you shall know and recognize by experience that I am the Lord” I Kings 20:28b

What experiences can we have that would confirm He is the Lord? Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians:

‘Examine and test and evaluate your own selves to see whether you are holding to your faith and showing the proper fruits of it. Test and prove yourselves. Do you not yourselves realize and know [thoroughly by an ever-increasing experience] that Jesus Christ is in you?’ II Corinthians 13:5a

This is important – talking not about knowing God exists, but that He is the boss of you, Lord of your life. What does it mean to show the proper fruit of our faith? John tells us in I John: “And this is how we may discern [daily, by experience] that we are coming to know Him [to perceive, recognize, understand, and become better acquainted with Him]: if we keep, bear in mind and practice His teachings.” I John 2:3

Listener, this next part is very important. Jesus Himself explains how this happens, how He removes all doubt when we follow these instructions. He says in John chapter 14:

The person who has My commands and keeps them is the one who really loves Me; and whoever really loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I too will love him and will show (reveal, manifest) Myself to him. I will let Myself be clearly seen by him and make Myself real to him. John 14:21

It’s a beautiful reminder that our doubts and questions are not obstacles but invitations to experience God’s love and presence in a deeper way. Let’s start today!

Dear Jesus, I pray for the person listening right now, and I pray for me. Please teach us by ever-increasing experience that you are Lord. Help us to examine our lives, understand your ways and live by them. Increase our faith today. Amen!

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