There are many things in my life of which I am embarrassed. Until fourth grade, I proudly wore my hair in the classiest style possible: the mullet. I blame baseball stars of the day. In eighth grade, I actually bought and—regrettably—listened to Hanson’s CD. "Mmmbop," anyone? In college, I made a fool of myself with more than one young woman.
Of all embarrassments in my life, there is one that has held more shame than any other. My mullet, Hanson and women’s rejection lost their shaming power over time. I cut my hair just in time for middle school. One wonderful woman’s “yes” removed all the pain from previous “no’s." Admitting I love video games, though, is still just as shameful as it was in ninth grade when a cute girl noticed I had Hanson’s CD. It’s not mine, I swear!
The problem is, I am not a casual gamer. My playtime wasn’t limited to when I had nothing else to do. Instead, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get unrestricted Front Page Sports access. If I played with a friend who had a Sega or Nintendo (contraband in the Smith home), I only wanted to play video games. I’m especially ashamed to confess I even turned down playing sports to fool around on the computer—a fact I never regret more than when I don’t know how to get open in a game of basketball. Seriously, how could throwing a basketball through a net compare to conquering the world, wiping out enemy agencies or mastering control of the Force?
My video game shame started when I was young and stuck with me as I grew. Just last week, I fought the feeling I was publicly confessing something dark and despicable when I listed Civilization as an interest on Facebook.
Sadly, this shame mostly came from church. As a youth, I wanted to follow Jesus, but every youth grouper knows Jesus and video games don’t mix. That’s what my youth leaders and spiritual friends told me anyway. The holiest path was to reject all video games as an abomination that rot the mind. Upon discovering Lent in college, I could think of no holier fast than to give up video games.
Church teaching goes astray when good intentions are communicated without careful thought. I think my old youth leaders and friends meant to say, “Video games, like anything in life, should never be a Christian’s first love.” That’s true! God always comes first and video games can be abused or take over someone’s life. Video games became my idol, an obsessive escape from real life and its challenges.
As recently as a year ago I was still using video games as a way to ignore my inner pain, brokenness and the responsibilities. Instead of facing my challenges, I would disappear into the online gaming world. Eventually, though, even video games couldn’t silence my inner demons. With the help of my loving wife, friends and a good counselor, I was able to push into my fears and look squarely at my deep hurts. The more I allowed God to heal me, the less I desired to escape life. Today, I can enjoy a Halo or Guitar Hero session without using it as an escape from my real life.
Despite my newfound freedom to game responsibly, I had no desire to admit my hobby publicly. Surely other people would judge me less holy and spiritual for professing enjoyment of mindless entertainment.
Rationally, I knew video games were not the only escape people used. Some use music, perfectionism, athletics or substance abuse, just to name a few. While I believed God could redeem those escapes, I did not believe He would redeem mine. Hours with a guitar will foster a skill that can later be used to lead worship. An athlete will have a skill he can use to start a youth sports camp. The perfectionist will accomplish many great things for God. Even the addict will have an amazing testimony to share. How could my escape into video games be redeemed? Not many people come to Jesus because they heard He saves people from Counterstrike.
One day, my lack of faith hit me over the head like a two-by-four. Did I really think there was something—anything—in my life that was beyond God’s power to redeem? Are there some years the locust had eaten that I would never get back? In that moment, the shackles of shame crumbled in the light of God’s truth.
The next day, I asked God for a chance to share His love with someone. While praying, I got a text from an old gaming buddy. It contained a simple message: “I miss having you around.” I was dumbfounded. It could not be coincidence that in the middle of my prayer, someone who didn’t know God reached out to me. The invitation might as well have come with the golden seal of Heaven!
Honestly, I have no idea how God will use me to share His love with someone I have never met in person. Our entire friendship has been through online forums, texting and phone calls. What I do know, though, is that I believe in God’s redeeming power like never before. Perhaps it is not until we experience God’s redemption in our deepest areas of shame that we can truly believe in His redemption at all.
Johnmark Smith lives in Wheaton, IL with his wife and is excited to be a first-time father in March. In the meantime, he is still mourning the Phillies’ post-season breakdown.