As a boy, I attended a Mennonite church next to cornfields in rural South Dakota. I went to that church every Sunday, both to the morning service and to Sunday school. To the best of my knowledge, I never missed a day of vacation Bible school nor did I ever miss the choir practices that came every Wednesday evening during the school year. I prayed before every meal and before I went to bed, then, as I got older, whenever things got tough. Though understand that ‘tough,’ at the age of 13, is not exactly what I would consider ‘tough’ now. But I’m sure it seemed like a big deal at the time, whatever my girl problems happened to be. It never crossed my mind that I should be praying for the souls of others. And it definitely never entered mind that if I believed I’d be going to heaven someday I should be living my life in accordance with the Bible. That kind of thing seemed like stuff for crazy people.
Still, even without God heavy in my life, I was an obedient adolescent out of reverence for my parents. In high school, I didn’t drink. I didn’t have sex. I certainly didn’t do drugs. In college, though, all those things become available, and since I had never tried them but wanted to – and now that my parents wouldn’t find out – I would. So, somewhere at the end of my first semester at South Dakota State University, I attended a party in the dorm next to mine and had my first, slightly buzzed, make out with a girl. We ended up in her room and I was terrified. Not only because I had never done it before, but much more because of the fear of getting her pregnant. I would live the rest of my life with her and the kids we would make because I drank a cup and a half of Coors Light. I remember thinking how disappointed my parents would be. My life would be over. So I prayed. I prayed for the first time for something that was real and pressing.
“God,” I said as she did what she did, drunkenly, with my penis. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. But I don’t want to get this girl pregnant. I want to do so many other things in my life. Please, help me. I promise I’ll start following You with all of my heart. Please.” And, like that, the seed was planted, just like I imagine other seeds have been planted. Someone afraid of what the world might hold reaches out for something larger to help him through a time he is not yet ready to handle. So, there I was, walking up the stairs back to my dorm, pulling up my pants, fully in God’s hands. And though I didn’t immediately go out on the street corner with a ‘The End is Near’ sign, I would start my journey by attending meetings for a group that almost did that sort of thing. I began going to Campus Crusade for Christ meetings the end of my freshman year. Just a couple at first, dipping my toes into a world where everyone was very open, asking me often questions that never failed to make me uncomfortable, “So, Jeffrey, how are you doing in your Walk with the Lord?”
It wasn’t until sophomore year, after a conference over Christmas break, that I started to give my life to God. In Minneapolis, with a host of other college aged kids from all over Midwest, I learned that I wasn’t living for Him. I needed to give ALL of myself. That idea hadn’t yet hit home, but, after hearing a charismatic speaker talk on the subject, I left that conference knowing what I do for the rest of my life. I would be a missionary. If Jesus was real, it was the only profession that mattered. So, with my new-found knowledge of God, I went back to school and progressed in my Walk and sometime in my junior year I decided to renew my faith by “praying the prayer.” I was lying down in my lofted bed in a house that had actually once been a church and while I know others will be critical when I say this, I felt something. At least, I know I tried to feel something.
For the rest of that junior year, I read the Bible and wrote the verses that resonated with me on little sticky notes and put them up around my room. I got heavily into alt Christian music and the summer between my junior and senior year I went on a Summer Project, as they’re called in Campus Crusade. I went to Colorado where I worked at a day care with other Campus Crusade college kids during the day and on nights and weekends I proselytized in downtown Ft. Collins. It never crossed my mind that I was living in America in the 21st Century and that if someone hadn’t heard about Jesus they’d probably been raised by wolves. I guess I never stopped to think about that.
After that summer, I went back for my senior year of college, sure that one day I would be a missionary. I became a leader in our Campus Crusade group, as well as the emcee for the weekly meetings. I lead others into a relationship with Jesus. After that school year, I interned at a Christian music magazine in Texas and it is there that I have my first memories of deep guilt. All the details are probably not necessary, let’s just say I didn’t have a girlfriend and I did have a computer. I can remember feeling after it was done, and very pervasively for the first time in my life, that I needed to shower in order to function again. And as the water would go down my face and shoulders I would pray, out loud, for God to forgive me. Sometimes, it would be weeks before I felt right again.
Now, you may think I’m crazy, and you may be right, I might have been. I might have been predisposed to feeling like that and other Christians maybe aren’t so racked with guilt. But, I think, people who have never lived in this realm would be amazed to hear how many other Christians were exactly like me. They have desires. They act on them. Then they feel guilty and ask for forgiveness. Then, when they don’t feel forgiven, they’re frustrated from not feeling forgiven, so they return to their desires to quell the frustration and afterwards they feel guilty again. So it goes like that, on and on forever. For me, in those late years of college and the couple years into my early 20s, I had those desires but couldn’t act on them because I had been told, and I believed it because it was in the Bible, that any kind of relations with a woman outside of the bounds of marriage was sinful. That was that and there was nothing I could but wait until God gave me the wife of my dreams. In the meantime, it just seemed like this lust thing would have to be something I, with God’s help, would have to conquer. Eventually we would best this demon of desiring naked women. And when that happened, when I finally “got right,” I would be given a wife and she would be the one who would satisfy all my desires. I don’t need to go into the theology of all this now, but I will say it’s there for anyone to read. Though if you’re someone you takes the Bible metaphorically, there’s really nothing to debate. Anyway, I fully believed that having a wife would rid of me of the guilty thoughts and my desires to want to see other women naked. And I prayed for her, for God to send her, constantly.
But my desires, they didn’t go away. I student taught for my final semester of college and I did the same things and felt guilty. I got a job as a dentition supervisor at a high school after college and I did the same things and felt guilty. I felt guilty all the time, even for entertaining the idea of seeing a naked woman. I didn’t doubt that God existed, I still would defend Him, but I was dumbfounded at why He wouldn’t help me out of my cycle. Then, it seemed, just as I was losing hope, all my prayers were answered. I found a job at a Christian group home in Nebraska and even though I went there with the intention of “getting clean,” like a detox clinic for my lust, I still had a secret hope that maybe, somehow, way out in the middle of nowhere, working with eight other people in a town of about 1,000, some way, somehow, one of them would be the woman of my dreams. And Dear God in Heaven, that is exactly what happened. “M” came in the second week of working there and from the first moment I saw her, I knew, I absolutely knew and innately felt, this was the woman I was supposed to marry. I can remember talking with her one of those first days and being struck with how she was exactly how I envisioned my wife. In modern Christian terms, I was getting “The Call.” I was so thankful.
Now, since I’m not married, and since I’ve never been divorced nor engaged, you can assume things never worked out between M and myself. Though during that year of working with her in that small town, sometimes seeing her for nearly every hour of the day and even into the night because of the nature of our work, I prayed more than I had ever prayed my entire life. Right now, though, I can already feel it. I am sure many Christian apologists are out there pointing to the fact that God isn’t a genie. He isn’t here to grant us our dreams and that just because I believed in marriage with this woman and it didn’t happen doesn’t mean God isn’t alive. Well, even if that’s true, which it’s not (Psalms 37:4 and many other verses on God fulfilling the desires of His follower’s hearts) I still was left with the problem of trying to figure out why exactly He would have set this absolutely perfect woman right in front of me for an entire year. Even if he didn’t want me to marry her, what was the point of putting her there. To taunt me? So, after our year together and me praying, on average, two to three hours a day for her to be my wife, I went back to South Dakota alone. It took nearly two years until I could wake up and not entertain notions of moving to Iowa to try and win M’s heart. But who can blame me? She had come straight from God.
But M didn’t break me and God. I moved to Sioux Falls and looked for a good church with young people also in their mid-twenties, those who’d gone through trials and had questions but still wanted to believe. I began working a lot too. I had a night and a day job and didn’t really go to church but still identified as Christian. I would pray and wrestle with the whys and the hows of things and I know I must have still been trying because I can remember, in my first place in Sioux Falls, I had my internet turned on, then off, then on, then back off again, to save myself from lusting. I wanted to be prepared for the next time I met a Godly woman. And when I would, I would be fully ‘right’ with God, a thing other Christians had told me since M. I hadn’t been ‘right with God.’ Sin was holding me back and that was why it wasn’t time for me to have a wife. To this day, those kinds of conversations make my skin crawl, because essentially what they’re saying is this: God didn’t want me to be happy because I wasn’t good enough. I needed to pray more, give more, tell others about Jesus more. But exactly how much praying, giving, telling should I have been doing to have been deemed worthy by God for M’s love? I wanted, I still want, exact numbers. The problem is, if someone won’t give me real numbers, if they say instead, “Well, it’s just what’s in your heart” then we’re back to where we started because no one has any idea what was in my heart. No one knows how much I wanted to have a Godly marriage with M. It was all I wanted. In fact, to this day, I have never wanted anything more.
Without M, I began, back then, to think that maybe things were more arbitrary than what I had been told. But only kernels and shards of thoughts entered my mind. A year went by. I had just turned 25 and was still a virgin. I was depressed and played a lot of video games. The only thing I had going for me is I worked almost constantly so I had less time to feel sorry for myself. Then, somewhere in the fall of that year I visited Seattle. I loved it and my friends there told me I should I move, that it was time I got out. I said I was too old to just pick up and move. Secretly, though, the thought of a move was very exciting and I went back home buzzing with the idea.
But God wasn’t done with me because when I got back home I had a message from K in Alabama. “K,” from Myspace. Yes,Myspace. I know it sounds shady but you’ll have to believe me when I say K, on looks alone, was the most attractive person I had ever been associated with. If God does exist, then surely it can be considered a miracle I began talking with K and eventually went to visit her in Alabama. As for the visit? Well, it went great. We hit it off so well, naked just hours after meeting at the airport and before I left we talked about when I would move to Alabama, where I would live, and what I would do. It was all happening, this K, a thrower, who was once a wild pot smoker but now had a life focused on God, would be mine. I thanked God. I was to be a more evolved Christian. After the visit, I went back to South Dakota and when I got off the plane I had a message. It was K. She sounded a bit off, like something had gone wrong. And while it did worry me, it was late, and I had started to feel sick. I needed sleep. I figured things would be better in the morning. When the sun came up I called her and this is, as close to how I can remember, what she said.
“Jeffy, it’s just that God has spoke to me. I know this is hard, but He showed me a verse (I can’t remember the verse) and it spoke about what what we were doing. It just wasn’t right. I need a man who is going to be a spiritual leader. He shouldn’t be going to bed with me so easily. Please, understand, this is for the best.”
That afternoon, I went over to my sister and brother-in-law’s place for something or another and immediately, like I was some kind of zombie, went up to my sister in her kitchen and hugged her. Then I began to cry, uncontrollably. I was hardly able to stop.
After that, I still had Christian friends of mine, even my brother in law who I love and I know only wanted the best for me, telling me there was something that God still wanted me to do before he would let me have a wife. By then, however, those words started to sound hollow and I began to have the scary thought that maybe I had only been believing in God so he could grant me a wife. It was ridiculous to believe in God for that reason but what was even more ridiculous is what the faith had taught me is that if I desired something with all my heart and if I was right with God, He would give me whatever I wanted. And, finally, that thinking scared me more than being alone.
I had to get as far away from Alabama as possible. A friend had just moved to Seattleand she knew people who needed a roommate there. That was wonderful, because I wanted to go back, but the people I’d be moving in with were Christians. Though they were kind of Christians who believed in gay marriage and leadership for women in the church and ending the tax cuts for the rich. I figured they might be going to a church which, somehow, could save my relationship with God. It would be a last resort, yes, but it was worth a shot. So I went to Seattle and I loved it. For the first time in my life I wasn’t feeling guilty if I drank (it was, for all intents and purposes, the first times I drank) and I didn’t feel guilty if I had sex (which began happening on a somewhat regular basis) and I didn’t feel guilty, just, in general. Not so coincidentally, at least I don’t think so, it was also the first time in my life that I would have said I did not believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though I think finally made it clear for me was attending that liberal church where my roommates went. Going there and seeing the rituals to make their service seem holy and their skits to make it seem relevant and hearing the sermons on anything but Jesus made me realize I resented non-church church more than I resented real church. I realized then that there was nothing left and it was, I have to admit, a lot like they say, like having the weight of the world taken off your shoulders.
Of course, it’d be hard to wrap it all up now, to tell exactly why I don’t believe. I suppose there’s no neat answer. No one has ever shown me the secrets of the universe so it’s possible a being created everything. Though, I like to think, the simplest answer is much more reasonable: yes, it is a miracle we’re here, but that the miracle does not involve God. In the end I suppose I could say it was a combination of everything: the guilt, the unfulfilled wife dream, the unanswered prayers, the silence, the contradiction in everything I was trying to tell others to believe, the way that it all just seemed to be much harder to believe than not to believe. But none of those things were enough of their own. I had to come to my own conclusion. We all do.