I grew up outside of church and only mildly conscious of God. When I graduated from high school, I moved from the west, where I grew up, to the deep south, where my extended family lived. I wanted to find my roots. It was in the deep south where I found God in an intensely personal way. My initial conversion to Christianity was a shock to my worldview and since it coincided with a new move. The timing was impeccable: In an entirely new place, it was easy to start over. I had a new faith, a new community, and even a new job at a Christian bookstore. But I don’t only want to tell you a story about my conversion as it first came to be. I want to tell you a story of a different sort of conversion.
There was a period in my life, about five years after my move, when I grappled with deep depression. The storm clouds had been rolling in for some time, and the seasons had brought a few critical changes to my life. I began my life as a new Christian at a Southern Baptist Church, and as I grew in my faith and learned more, my mind began to change, and I found myself visiting new churches, making new friends, and eventually settling in with a new faith community centering around a new “church-plant” downtown. The sad feelings that I would get from time to time would usually get supplanted by a new experience, a new move, a new friend. But eventually feelings of despair came and set up shop and it seemed like nothing would dislodge them. At first the sadness was like something present that I could not quite put my finger on. The disquiet grew, over time, until I realized that there was something deeper and more disturbed inside of me. This sadness became a depression that would eventually persist for years. I needed to face the past, but I didn’t know where to start.
It was an agonizing experience, and along the way, I lost many of those friendships I formed as I struggled under the burden of that pain. A season initially filled with hope, new friends, a fresh church community, and rekindled passion for Christ eventually gave way to a time of despair characterized by solitude, scarce friendships, and faith in turmoil. I couldn’t fathom how a God who allegedly loved and called me into his friendship could permit such profound suffering.
I was angry with God and confused about my struggle, but I found myself turning to him, anyway. I suspected that my pain and anger were not the end of the story. Over and over again, in books, sermons, casual conversations and even intense counseling sessions, I was encouraged to look at the Israelites of old. Was there something in those old tales of God’s chosen people that could help me to understand my own plight? Ancient Israel’s tale was rife with hardship even as God beckoned them toward a deeper purpose. In his mercy, he delivered them from the lap of the pharaoh and, with great displays of wonder, brought them beyond the Red Sea. But it was not long before they began to grumble. Their deliverance brought them to an unexpected period of confusion and, sometimes, despair. The path to the promised land was fraught, and like the Israelites, I began to map their own story onto my own. I would encounter sorrow and loss, sometimes due to my own stubborn disobedience. And yet, as God would not forsake Israel, nor would he forsake me. God accompanies us on our journey, however fraught. The lesson was beginning to seep into my bones.
I was at a Baptist college and in the throes of despair when I picked up a book called “Making Sense Out of Suffering” by a man named Peter Kreeft, an eminent Catholic philosopher. I was primed to receive its message. I remember the feeling of holding it in my hands after it arrived in the mail. I was suffering, and I was in a philosophy of religion class that was going to talk about all the whys and hows of it. I also distinctly remember that when I read the back of the book and noted that the author was a Catholic, I turned my nose up. “No thanks,” was my initial thought. If I had seen it in a bookstore, I would have passed it over. But this was required reading. It was like manna. There was nothing else to eat. So, I devoured it.
What I found in those pages was a line that strung together the story of God’s redeeming purpose across the spangled landscape of the human story. I went into the desert with the Israelites and I emerged on the other side of the cross with Christ, finally understanding something about myself and God that I did not understand before. God was not up there dispassionately “doing things to me,” he was on the back of the cross in solidarity with me.
God eventually plucked me from the desert of my sorrow. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the cheerful thoughts I assumed were necessary to break free that began to dislodge me. Rather, what began to lift me from the depression during that phase of my life was a more profound contemplation of Christ’s suffering. It is mysterious and paradoxical, but in order for that darkness to lift, I had to inhabit it for a while, like Israel in the desert, and draw out through my own experience a deeper understanding of Jesus as the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).
Eight years ago, I became Catholic. Today, I am a Catholic husband and father, raising three small kids. Those dark and sorrowful days are so far behind me that they seem like a dream, but those dreams are visceral. Those years of darkness taught me of the power of God. And, I think, that deep within our faith lies the intuition that on the other side, we will find the land of milk and honey, the splendor of resurrection, or finally achieve a long-held dream after a sorrowful chapter in our lives.
The narrow path to heaven may be arduous to tread, but the beauty lies in recognizing that pain and loss are not the ends of the story. They serve, in some enigmatic way, as instruments of renewal. A passage from the book of Joel encapsulates the essence of this tension we experience in our walk with Jesus: “For He has restored double what the locusts have consumed.” (Joel 2:25)