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An Atheist’s Journey to Faith

An Atheist’s Journey to Faith

I didn’t want to become a Christian. A year ago I’d have laughed at the very idea. Last spring, I was 31 years old, and I’d been a strongly atheistic agnostic for as long as I could remember. I’d never looked for God and never felt the need to; I felt that any rational, well-educated person like myself (I have a Ph.D.) would agree that religion was a social invention and that Christianity was a particularly annoying superstition.

And now I’m writing this, a baptized Christian, witnessing to my faith and to the power of God in transforming my life.

This story originally appeared in Issue 25 of RELEVANT (March/April 2007).

How did I get here from there?

It all started over coffee with a friend from my fencing club. When a post-tournament conversation about favorite authors led to the discovery of shared admiration for The Chronicles of Narnia, the conversation shifted from casual chit-chat into a discussion about God. I’d only recently learned that this friend was a Christian, so I found myself intrigued to hear a very different perspective on the “big issues” of life.

In my experience, people in conversations like this usually start discussing the Bible and Jesus … not understanding that there’s no point in talking about what God wants if you don’t think there’s a God! I’d never met someone who was willing to meet me at square one: discussing the existence of God in the first place. I’d never had a conversation with a serious Christian who was genuinely interested in what I had to say, someone who challenged my assumptions and accepted challenges in return without being defensive. For the first time, I felt that I could ask the questions I’d always wanted to ask and feel safe, to feel respected, not judged.

What did we talk about? We talked about whether it was possible to know what happens beyond death … about where morality comes from … about justice and mercy … about whether the universe had a beginning, and if so, was there a creator? We talked for hours, until finally I had to go home.

“I’ll have to think about all of this some more,” I said.

And I did. I could hardly sleep that night. A gigantic crack had opened up in what I’d thought was a perfectly consistent worldview. Now that I had these strange new ideas in my head, I knew I had to follow up on them.

The next two months became a journey to answer the question “What is true?” I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t want to believe in God. I didn’t want to become a Christian. My old worldview had its challenges, but also its consolations; I was comfortable in it. But once I’d faced up to questions that I couldn’t answer, I couldn’t go back.

As an avid reader, I found it natural to turn to books for the information and ideas I needed to wrestle with, and authors like C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright provided plenty of thought-provoking material. The conversation with my friend that had started over coffee became an ongoing one, as we talked about what I’d been reading and what it meant in my life. First we worked through the arguments about the existence of a First Cause, and I came to understand that yes, there was a Creator. Then we talked about whether that Creator would have a personal relationship with us. (My friend was careful not to push me, sticking for a long time to the neutral “First Cause.” Finally one night I said, “You know, it’s OK—you can say ‘God’ now.” We laughed.)

I vividly remember one particular discussion. We were standing outside the gym, and my friend said to me, “I bet that you know it’s wrong to kill an innocent person even more than you know that there’s a trash can behind you.” And it was true. Despite having walked past this spot every week for months, I had never paid enough attention to be certain that there was a trash can right there. But I was certain that it is wrong to kill an innocent person. Something clicked, and I started to understand how our ideas of morality have to come from a higher source—from God.

Up to this point the journey had been intellectual, not emotional. Now something else was happening. One of the authors I’d read suggested that you could rationally determine the truth of Christianity by testing if it applied to your own life. The idea intrigued me, and I started planning such an experiment. Let’s say I invite God into my life … what would a positive result of this experiment look like? Or a negative result? I’m sure it seemed like an odd way to approach things, but my friend took up the challenge. A positive result: an awareness of the Other, or an “I get it” moment. A negative result: more confusion, or nothing at all. It was all hypothetical: What might I expect if I tried such an experiment?

Then it hit me.

Without knowing it, I’d already started the experiment. And something was happening. I’d noticed a difference in … well, in the texture of my existence. It was like the feeling of being slightly feverish, except that this wasn’t physical. It was something real, something happening to me and in me … something I hadn’t expected and therefore certainly wasn’t inventing.

We didn’t need to try the experiment. That Easter Sunday, I realized that the result had already come in, and it was overwhelmingly, shockingly positive.

I think that there are many ways of coming to God. Letting me come to understand His existence before I knew His love was an incredible gift. I think that I needed to accept Him with my mind before I could trust accepting Him with my heart. If it had been the other way around, I think I would have been dogged with doubt, always wondering if I believed because I wanted to believe.

The consequence of this gift was that going from an intellectual understanding of God to an actual experience of Him was a real shock. Imagine it like this: from studying your science textbook, you understand that there is such a thing as gravity, and that it works in a particular way. Great.

Then you fall off a cliff.

Now you know what gravity is.

Around this time, we’d started talking about miracles: Did God act in the world? It swiftly became apparent that the real question wasn’t “can miracles happen?” It was whether one specific miracle had happened: the Resurrection.

The man named Jesus had preached, been crucified, died. That much I accepted as historical fact. But was this man the Son of God? Had Jesus risen from the dead? If that were true, Christianity was true.

This was frightening stuff. I was close, very close, to something life-altering. I knew that if this were true, it would change … everything.

I started reading about the Resurrection, and about the historical accuracy of the New Testament. I put all my considerable skills as a scholar to the task; you could call it the most important research project of my life. Bit by bit, I saw how the evidence for the Resurrection added up. If I accepted this, I knew I would have to become a Christian. I was, as my friend put it, “wandering in the country of the kingdom”: not inside it, not quite outside it either.

I could see what was coming. It was a tremendous commitment, and it scared me. “If the Resurrection is true … then what does it mean for me?” I asked.

“That’s the big question.”

My friend offered me a helpful way of viewing my situation. It was as if I were afraid to fly because I was worried the plane would crash. I could have all the details of plane construction and aerodynamics explained to me; I could look at the logbook to see that all the safety checks had been done. I could say that I believed it was safe to fly on this plane, even buy a ticket and get my boarding pass. But it would be a different thing to actually board the plane and go on the flight.

I was afraid. What if I couldn’t take that final step? The reply: “You will.” That quiet confidence was tremendously reassuring.

In mid-May, I had a dream. The details aren’t important. What matters is that when I woke up from it, in the stillness of the small hours of the morning, I knew with perfect clarity that Jesus really had died and been resurrected. Intellectually I’d understood it, but now the final piece fit into the puzzle: I knew it was true in my heart. I also awoke understanding why I was so afraid of becoming a Christian: I knew I’d have to say, “Not my will, but Yours, be done,” and that meant giving up control. Having realized that, I was still afraid … but now I knew I could take that step.

The next day I went out to dinner with a group of fencers from our club, and walked a bit ahead with my friend. I was bursting to tell about my decision, but all I said was, “I bought the ticket.” That was all I needed to say. The look of surprise and joy on my friend’s face is one I hope I’ll never forget.

After we got back from dinner, we sat down together so that I could pray, for the first time in my life. I didn’t know what to say, so my friend spoke the words, and I repeated them. I acknowledged that I was a sinner, that Christ was my Savior, that God had made me and that I was His child; and I asked for a personal relationship with Him.

My friend was quite firm that as a Christian I needed to start going to church, and within the next few weeks helped find one that was right for me. God was at work here too, because from the first day at St. Michael’s, I knew I had found a spiritual home. Here I have a loving family in Christ who have provided support, protection and guidance as I’ve taken up the challenge of living the Christian life.

And so one chapter in my life came to a close, and another one began. It felt like the endpoint of my journey, but it was in reality just the very first step.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God chose when He did to reach out to me, because He saved me, quite literally. At the time that I became a Christian, I was trapped in an abusive marriage. I’d been trying to hide it for years, consumed by shame, self-doubt and self-loathing; I clung to the poisonous hope of “maybe tomorrow it will be different” while knowing it was a lie. In public my husband was adept at putting on the act of a model spouse, which isolated me further because no one saw what he was like in private. Things had become worse since I’d become a Christian: he reacted with hatred and contempt, and didn’t let up on me. I kept my Bible hidden in a drawer, because I couldn’t face the things he’d say when he saw me reading it.

For someone like me, who desperately wanted to believe that some-

how I could make everything be OK if I just tried hard enough, it is difficult to admit how close I was to a breakdown, or worse. I started to think of suicide and what a relief it would be. Even now I find myself wanting to look away from that moment in my memory; I would have left it out of this account if I didn’t feel that it is an important witness to the work of God in my life.

Because if I had not been a Christian by then … what would I have done? I’ll never know, thanks be to God, because I did turn to Him.

Day after day, I prayed for Him to help me. The turning point was when I tried something my priest had described in a sermon: giving everything to God. One night I went outside and, in prayer, consciously gave God everything I was, everything that I had, everything that I’d ever achieved or would achieve. All the things I loved, all the things I feared, my hopes, dreams—everything. I made the choice to put my life wholly and without reservation in His hands. He had given it all to me in the first place; now I acknowledged that it was all His to do with as He willed.

I felt drained and weak, but somehow I knew I’d done the right thing.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to pray, asking for the wisdom to know His will and the strength to obey it. And He answered me. At the end of the summer, with His strength—not mine—I was able to walk away from the abuse and start a new life. It meant giving up on my dream of a happy married life. But God doesn’t give us what we want; He gives us what we need. I’ve spent the past months in an intense process of discernment, and I’ve come to realize, through His continued guidance, that His plan for me is better than anything I could have imagined.

On Oct. 1, 2006, I was baptized into the body of Christ, and it was with great joy that I had my friend as my sponsor. I discovered that being “born again” is more than a nice metaphor. I had thought that baptism was just a way to show the community that I’d become a Christian, but I discovered that it really is sacramental; I felt the Holy Spirit that day and have continued to since then. In a very real sense, my life began that day, when I was “marked as Christ’s own forever.”

I’ve learned to call Him Father … to trust that He really does love and forgive me. I’ve cried bitter tears and asked Him to heal me, knowing that only He can—and that He will. I’ve discovered that when I ask Him to speak to me, He does—sometimes in unexpected ways and with a challenging message. I’m starting to understand the way in which I am part of Christ through His Church. I’m learning how much joy there is in offering Him my self, my soul and body.

It’s as if I’d lived all my life in a windowless room lit by flickering fluorescent tubes … and then one day, with the help of a friend, I opened a door in the wall and stepped outside into a glorious summer day at noon, with the sun dazzlingly bright in a cloudless blue sky. I thought I knew what light was; I was wrong. Now I know that He is the Light. Amen. 2

Holly E. Ordway lives in San Diego, Calif., where she teaches college English. When she’s not in the classroom or at St. Michael’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, she’s probably fencing, studying theology and the Bible, writing or catching up on her reading.

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