It's a strange thing to talk about "finding Jesus," as though he was somehow lost. It might be more accurate to say that he found me, but my aim isn't to be too clever-by-half. I simply want to share my story, that it might encourage your heart to consider Jesus, the incomparable one.
The Early Years
I was raised in a wonderful family, though we exhibited many symptoms of brokenness (like many families do). Though I was expected (demanded?) to attend church/mass every Sunday morning, it felt primarily like a duty or obligation to fulfill, a tick box to check off.
Unfortunately, my parents divorced when I was about ten. This upheaval to life created many difficulties and questions that I couldn't resolve. I hunkered down to become a driven, self-consumed, competitive young man.
Up until I left for college, I would summarize my sense of Christianity this way: Jesus was God. He was to be revered, respected, and honored. Well, at least on Sundays. But Monday through Saturday, he could be held at arm's length. In fact, even Sunday after 11am.
My conception of "being right with God" included just two things: first, the insurance policy of being raised in the "historically right" church. Second, my assumption that God looked at me like Lady Justice with two scales: did my good outweigh my bad? If so, he would merely wink at my bad, approve of my good, and let me into heaven someday. Perhaps a more collegiate perspective would frame my thoughts this way: "God will grade me on a curve (compared to others). And certainly, I will pass the class."
However, in college I began to discern the deficiencies in my thinking. I started to realize that if my "good" earned me a stake in heaven, then heaven was actually dependent on me. And if that was so, then other factors (like Jesus) were irrelevant to the equation. I was the decisive piece of the puzzle to be right with God.
Yet inside, I knew this couldn't be true – because if it was, then Jesus died for nothing. His "death for sins" (an ambiguous thought in my brain at the time) was irrelevant if I could earn my way to God by being "good." Suddenly, when my "good" and Jesus' death were put side-by-side, I realized that both of these things couldn't be true simultaneously. Either I was the one who would earn my way to heaven (and therefore didn't need Jesus' help), or Jesus would somehow earn my way to heaven for me, (and therefore my efforts weren't the essential ones after all).
As this conflict distilled in my mind, I also had a new depreciation of how "good" I actually was. Simply put, I'd been comparing myself horizontally with other people, and I felt pretty confident I was better than most of them. But whoever said that being better than someone else is the way to be right with God? How had I bought into that lunacy? Instead, I began to ponder whether I should compare myself vertically with God. How does my "good" compare to Jesus' life and words? Um, not so well – and that was convicting.
A Friend Named Don
The key moments came during my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin (a decidedly non-religious school), despite my previous 12 years of Catholic education. During my first year at UW, I became friends with Don L. in my dorm. Don lived a different, intriguing life. He simply called himself a Christian, though he was raised in a Catholic home like me. And over time, Don's virtues showed – especially in contrast to the other guys on our dorm floor, who regularly got drunk or high.
I examined Don's life without even realizing I was doing it. We played a lot of sports together. He was normal. Genuine. Calm and judicious with his words. Unflappable. And I discovered Don didn't merely own a Bible, he read it every morning before our hallmates were even awake. I was intrigued (to say the least), since I'd never owned or read a Bible before – pretty weird for someone with 12 years of religious education, right? [Ok, that's not literally true. In High School, I was required to buy a paperback Bible for a class (we spent time in it looking for contradictions). As soon as the semester ended, I sold the Bible back to the HS bookstore, to squeeze a few dollars out of it. Needless to say, the Bible wasn't on my top-ten reading list. You can read about it here.]
Watching Don, I was drawn to whatever "it" was that he had. It seemed both ethereal and substantial at the same time. Soon I noticed Don had a bunch of friends at UW who all seemed to be ... (drumroll) ... happy. Happy in a normal way. Like ... they smiled. They laughed. They seemed free, but not due to chemicals or substances. At some point during my freshman year, I realized I wanted what they had. The problem was I couldn't figure out what they had!
In April of my freshman year, Don invited me to attend a large group meeting on campus, sponsored by a ministry he was involved with. It was called Campus Crusade for Christ. I vividly recall being out with my fraternity brothers that evening, demanding they drop me off on campus so I could attend the CCC meeting. Of course they tried to talk me out of it, but I've always been able to break from the herd to follow my conscience.
I walked in and found Don, enveloped in a crowd of 150 happy students. That evening we sat in chairs (lecture style) and sang songs projected on the wall (are you old enough to remember overhead projectors with transparencies?!). I didn't recognize any of the songs, but I pretended to sing along.
"My Best Friend"
After singing, we listened to a brave coed speak for three minutes. Her name was Jeanie, and I was mesmerized by her words. Somewhere in the middle of her little speech, she uttered this unforgettable sentence: "Jesus Christ has become my best friend." Those words drilled a hole in my heart. I sat there, wondering: How can that be? How is that possible? You say that Jesus has become your best friend. But you can't see him! You can't hear him!
Nevertheless, Jeanie had that look on her face (angelic, to be honest) that persuasively said, "I'm not lying to you." I knew instinctually that, as I heard her brave words, she was telling me the truth. Jesus really was her best friend. That sounded good, but unattainable. Yet, here was Jeanie saying it was real.
The meeting continued with a guest speaker – I can't recall anything he said. When the meeting concluded, another "God-moment" struck. A junior named Jerry approached and engaged me in conversation (which I appreciated because I suddenly couldn't find Don and was beginning to feel lonely and awkward). After some small talk, Jerry asked me these three questions, verbatim:
- "Dan, what did you think of tonight's meeting?" My response was vague.
- "Did it make sense to you?" Again, I didn't offer much in return. Then came the bombshell ...
- "Dan, have you made the wonderful discovery of knowing Christ, personally?" I was flummoxed by his question. What in the world was he talking about? My mind raced. My default response was: "Uh, I go to church on Sundays ... is that what you mean?"
You should have seen the squinty-eyed smile on Jerry's face. He knew he'd just watched me step into wet concrete. Years later, Jerry told me I was like a fish caught on a hook. I couldn't get past Jerry's third question. The gears in my mind were spinning.
Steve x 2
As the evening ended, all the students filled out "comment cards," using miniature golf pencils that were passed around the room. I followed suit. Little did I know the CCC leaders would use these cards to reconnect with visitors, to talk with them about Jesus. About one week later, I got a call on the dorm phone (no cell phones back then!). Two guys with CCC were in the lobby of my dorm (Witte, B Tower), asking if they could come up to my room to chat. Not knowing how to best decline, I said "ok."
As they climbed the stairs, I told my roommate (Neal) they were coming up. He liked this development even less than I did, which ironically gave me more resolve to have them come up (remember, I like breaking from the herd).
The two guys were both named Steve (Steve R. – a CCC staff member, and Steve B. – a student in the other Steve's "Bible Study group"). As we sat in my dorm room, Neal got cold feet and scurried out the door. I was left alone with these two strangers. "Student Steve" asked if he could share a small booklet with me, called The Four Spiritual Laws. Again, not knowing exactly how to decline a simple request, I said "Sure."
For 15 minutes, Steve simply read the booklet aloud to me, occasionally pointing to a diagram and asking: "Does this make sense to you?" Beyond that, Steve never deviated from reading the booklet verbatim. In essence, the booklet said four things: 1. God loves me. 2. I have a big problem that separates me from God: my sin. 3. Jesus came to die for my sins so that I could be right with God. 4. I need to receive Jesus as my Savior and Lord to begin a relationship with Him.
The Adventure is On!
Near the end of the booklet, there was a prayer to finalize this transaction between me and Jesus. Steve read through the prayer aloud and asked if I wanted to pray this to God. Honestly, at this point in our discussion, I was feeling uncomfortable and thinking: "Who are these two guys? And, is their aim simply to get me to change church denominations?" Call me a cynic, but I was skeptical. So, I asked Steve, "Could I look at that prayer by myself?" and he handed me the booklet. I re-read the prayer a couple of times silently and made a startling discovery: I had never done anything like this before, and I indeed wanted to say "yes" to Jesus. I wanted him in my life. I wanted a relationship with him like Jeanie had.
So, when Steve asked a second time if I wanted to pray to receive Jesus, I said "yes." As we bowed, Steve read through the prayer, slowly and aloud, one phrase at a time. Pausing, I would then repeat the phrase aloud. I liked this approach, because it gave me time to think about the meaning of each phrase. As we finished the prayer, we said "Amen."
I felt weird. But I also knew I'd done something very, very important.
The Book To End All Books
One week later, I walked a few blocks to a Christian bookstore (called The Bread Shop). I awkwardly looked around the store to find where they kept their Bibles. Believe it or not, all the Bibles were on shelves behind the counter! So, I asked the man at the register if I could buy a Bible. He asked, "What denomination are you?" My naive answer turned out to be rather profound: "I don't think that really matters." Haha. I asked him to take six different versions of the Bible off the shelf and allow me to examine them. He complied, and I opened each Bible to John chapter one, and began the comparison. Guess what? They all (pretty much) said the exact same thing: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God..." (John 1:1)
So, realizing all six versions seemed reliable, I purchased the exact same red Bible that my dear friend Don owned. And this began the great adventure of my life: growing to know the God who created me, made known in the pages of this Book, through Jesus – my Rescuer and Leader-for-Life.
(For further reading, you can read about my "DTV" Bible).