From Tormented Soul to Freed Atheist – Part 2
In my previous post, I recounted my childhood years and the wonder and awe I felt at being a child of God. True, there were my moments of doubt and darkness, but they were always trumped in those early years by the moments of rapture and ecstasy as I read the very living Word of God and soaked up Christian teaching like a deer to water.
I cannot even begin to describe what followed my twelfth birthday. My love for Jesus turned into a living hell that words cannot describe. Most of my teenage years I just wished I could die to just relieve some of my doubts. I contemplated suicide. I had a loving family, loving friends, I was intelligent and insightful, wise beyond my years (as many told me), was far beyond the learning and knowledge of my peers about my faith, and was intelligent and had the potential for great success in life. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen I had to have read the Bible at least six times completely – not including the countless thousands of times I had poured over certain texts and their associated commentaries. I would often spend an hour or more in Scripture per day, trying to understand what passages meant. But I was an emotional wreck beyond words.
To help people understand the depth of my curiosity about Scripture, I should probably describe the black and white way in which I viewed the living Word of God. In my little teen mind, it occurred to me that if all 66 books of the Bible were inspired / God-breathed by the almighty, fearful, just and holy God of this universe, then it was in my best interest to understand every verse and line as much as I could. To me, memorizing John 3:16 and Romans 8:1 were child’s-play. I wanted to know what Revelation was about, what Ezekiel was about, and why Christians today do not have women wear a head covering to come to church. I wanted to know why Paul said women should not braid their hair, yet even women in conservative churches braid their hair out of modesty. I wanted to know why most Christians did not rest on the Sabbath even though Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I wanted to know it all. After all, every word was inspired by God and the Bible was God’s love letter to me.
But in addition to my desire to know the Bible, I also had a passion to receive and be filled with the Holy Spirit. What was up with this second baptism thing? I thought it was somewhat hypocritical that my spiritual mentors loved the writings, devotion, and teaching of A.W.Tozer, but they flippantly dismissed his view on the second baptism. This seemed so, well, disrespectful! They wanted to take his theology that made them feel a certain way (holiness of God, sinfulness of man, etc.) but dismissed core teachings they did not agree with. I thought it was odd that my spiritual mentors were so – well – lazy in their spiritual faith. Did they not care? Well, I would not be like them. I would care. So I desperately sought to have the depth of spiritual life of men like Tozer, Spurgeon, or Bunyan.
Around this time I started experiencing voices in my head. At first I thought they were from God (or angels). They (at first it was only one voice) would give me suggestions on what I should do, or encourage me in a certain path, or speak Bible verses to me. Normally they were pretty passive, saying things like “I love you”, or “You are my child”, or quoting verses like “The fruit of the spirit is love”, etc. I loved these voices. They were enthralling, and I felt that I had a connection with God that was beyond that of my peers. Keep in mind these voices began when I was around thirteen years old.
But then things started going dark. To be honest, my years from the age of thirteen to sixteen are so dark ‘spiritually’ I can barely remember how awful they were. I will do my best to recount what was going through my head. To do this, I will simply explain one (of literally dozens) of consistent ‘battles’ going on in my head at this time.
As a fundamentalist, conservative, Bible-believing Christian in the midwest, our family and its hand-picked churches adhered to the notion that a believer cannot lose their salvation. Using proof texts like John 10:29, my pastors and family would carefully explain how biblical it was to hold this view.
But my own reading of the Bible told me otherwise. Now that I look back I feel that most of my spiritual mentors – as ‘godly’ as they were – were dishonest. They did not want certain Bible verses to exist, so they would use the hermaneutical principle that the “clearer passage interprets the more difficult” to back up whatever theology they wanted to hold. So then, if they wanted to believe in “once-saved-always-saved” theology, well then the “clear” passages were obviously the ones they agreed with and the “difficult” passages were the ones that made their theological stance appear incorrect. Obviously, if interpreted “right”, those difficult passages were really saying what the simpler ones were.
There were three particular texts that honestly terrified me night and day for years. At times I was so horrified by these texts I literally wished I could just die (or commit suicide) so that I could get them off my mind. They are:
“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” Hebrews 6:4-6, this one definitely bothered me the most.
“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.” 1 John 5:16
And Matthew 12:22-32 [Not quoted for brevity. “Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” passage.]
What bothered me so much was just how bad every single interpretation of these passages was. To me they were crystal clear: a person could lose their salvation. Not only this, but if a person did “lose their salvation”, they could not gain it back. Furthermore, if you couple these with 2 Peter 2:20-22, a person who has come to Christ and turned their back is worse off than when they started.
Now, by themselves these passages were not enough of a catalyst to encourage my doubts. But coupled with an experience I had, they soon became all I could think about night and day for years.
One day I was sitting reading my Bible and came across the Matthew 12 passage (or its equivalent in the other synoptics). As I read, a thought popped into my head: “The Holy Spirit is a bitch”. I had never sworn in my life. This thought nearly knocked me over. Had I just blasphemed the Holy Spirit? If I had, did this not mean that I could never be forgiven “in this age or the age to come?”
What was this blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, anyway? How could there possibly be a teaching that a person could reach a state where they could not be forgiven? I thought every moment we lived on this planet was a testament to the mercy of God in giving us “another chance”? A camp pastor once taught that this passage was referring to the sin of unbelief. If a person dies “not believing”, they will never be forgiven (quite a clever interpretation!) This helped me out for a while, but I kept feeling that this was all wrong. This is not what the passage said, even though it was a cute interpretation and made me feel better.
To make matters more complicated, it occurred to me that even though I was “saved now”, what if I denied my Lord later? My family regularly received Voice of the Martyrs magazines and paraphernalia. I read Richard Wurmbrands Tortured for Christ and almost literally was frozen stiff for most of it. I was not afraid of the torture so much as I was that I could, quite possibly, someday be put into that awful situation where I might deny Christ. What if I did? The Bible says in one place that if you deny the son before men, he will also deny us before the father. It occurred to me that I could spend an entire life in devotion to my Lord and loving Savior and then, in a moment of weakness, deny him and spend and eternity in hell anyway. So much for hope.
I poured daily over these passages. I read every commentary I could find, and regularly talked to my dad and pastors about my doubts. Often I would go for a few days and be “fine”, and then reading the Bible I would feel the strong urge to turn to those passages and muse on them as if gnawing my spiritual fingernails bare. I was worn, abused, and tortured of mind. I was agonizing over my potential fate like a dog licking its fungi-ridden paws until they bled. I was miserable.
Nothing could relieve my doubts, and I tried everything. If I talked to someone about these passages in Scripture no one would give me a straight answer. Often they would just ignore the passage as if it was irrelevant to the Christian faith. Why could I not just believe? Idiots! Why could they not see what was right in front of their eyes? The Bible was so crystal clear! Could they not see it? Why were they not terrified? Did no one care?
To make matters more frustrating, Paul talks about the seal of the Holy Spirit and how a follower of Christ has the Spirit of Christ testify with our Spirit that we are indeed children of God. But then it occurred to me that my doubts were probably good evidence that I was not saved, because I certainly did not feel like a Spirit was testifying with my spirit. If I was saved, why did I doubt? How could other Christians have occasional doubts but it was not a big deal for them? What in the name of God was wrong with me?
To make matters more frustrating, there is no consensus at all in the Christian community on whether an individual can or cannot lose their salvation. No commentaries that I read about Hebrews 6, for example, seem to make any sense of what the passage actually says. They often run in circles around the passage like it has some sort of mystical meaning that none of us can quite grasp, then explain all the “popular” interpretations, and then sum up by saying that “this is a difficult passage”. What the… I already knew that. But what does it mean?
I can remember going to my parents on multiple occasions trying to get help. They would just say I was going through puberty (which “all kids my age go through”), or that I was arrogant and spiritually proud. Sometimes my dad would sit down with me and say “Josh, maybe you have not ever truly become a Christian”. My doubts would well up even more at this suggestion. Maybe he was right? I felt like he was pouring salt on my wound. I already believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that I could not be saved through my good works. I was even more spiritual, more in-tune with God than he was. How dare he! What more could God want? If my faith was not enough – what more did I need to do? Did I need to be baptized by the Holy Spirit a second time? If so, God – get on with it! But it gets worse! If Hebrews 6 is correct, then admitting that I was not already saved meant I could never be saved at all because I had already tasted the heavenly gift. And if I could never be saved, I might as well die and go to hell then and there.
It was awful. I was in mental anguish, on the brink of suicide, and my parents would not even bring in a pastor to talk to me about it. I wanted a psychiatrist and they did nothing. Nothing at all. Instead I was left to wallow in this freakish guilt and condemnation for years on end. If I were to admit that I was not a Christian, it would mean admitting that all of my spiritual experiences up to that point (including my dream, giving my life to the Lord at age 12, and numerous other experiences) were all facades. I would be admitting I was a fake, a liar, an impostor in the church. But if I admitted that my previous spiritual experiences and beliefs were wrong, what could I replace them with? If my dream, for example, was not ‘real’, then how could I trust any spiritual experience in the future?
The voices added to the torture. They began to be darker, more ominous, and often condemning. They derailed me, reviled me. One moment a voice would say “Josh, you must be such a good Christian that God would allow you to be tempted by Satan like this.” The next moment a voice would say “Josh! What a wicked sinner you are for thinking such a proud thought. In order to be greatest in the kingdom, you must become the least”. These voices would often go on for hours and hours. I could not pay attention to schoolwork, I could not enjoy anything, I was depressed almost all the time. If I had gone to a psychiatrist, I probably would have been labeled a bipolar schizophrenic. [More on this in my next note, and how I have completely cured myself from these voices.]
The only thing that kept me going through all this time was the thought that I must not be alone. Reading stories of John Bunyan and other Christians who went through the dark nights of doubt and came out on the other side as great Christian writers or orators gave me the courage to keep going. I felt that I was on a mission from God, and some day I would be free from all this mess and would then be able to help others who had gone through the same “trials”. I often comforted myself with 1 Peter 5:8-9.
These dark years lasted from when I was thirteen until probably last year. They consistently got better as time went on. I can remember when I was seventeen I laughed freely at a joke in church. My friend Anthony looked at me with surprise in his eyes and said “Josh, I haven’t heard you laugh like that in a long time.” I was embarrassed. Unfortunately, each time someone would say something like this it would only hurl me back into doubt, despair, darkness, and agony. What the heck was wrong with me?
As I have mentioned, some people would comfort me by saying I was just going through adolescence. Others would say I was spiritually proud. Others would say I was extra spiritually “sensitive”. I consistently thought I was going through some demonic oppression.
Oh, one other thing I desperately need to mention. During this entire time I would often feel demonic presences in my room. My hair would stand on end, I would get goosebumps, and I would feel as if there was a living soul hovering above me, ready to show its face and terrify the living daylights out of me (see Job 4:12-16). This probably occurred a couple hundred times over the course of my teenage years. I often submitted this “being” to scientific tests, and did everything I could to prove it was only in my own mind (I now believe it was, but that will be covered in my next note). I was extremely scared. I would leave the room where I felt the presence, and immediately the feeling of its presence would go away. It would not follow me. Then I would reenter the room and it would be there, as clear as ever. I could turn on a light, and it would not go away. I would just sit and pray, begging God to send it away. Eventually it would pass on like a fog lifting.
Similarly, I would often get the feeling that “something was wrong”. I would have panic attacks, which I learned to control out of sheer will power. Often these would occur and I would suppress them, trying to act normal. They would normally be triggered by communion, alter calls, or reading certain passages in the Bible and especially at times when I needed to contain myself the most (in church for example).
Sometimes people would encourage me to read the Bible to alleviate my doubts and fears. They never seemed to have the brains to realize that reading the Bible increased my doubts and fears. I was so afraid to admit that I was terrified beyond imagination by some of the things the Bible so clearly said. Others would read the Bible and get a warm fuzzy feeling and say how loved they felt by God. I would read the Bible and ignore those “easy” passages. What about the ones that say that a person can be predestined for hell and eternal torment? Do those make people feel lovely? What if I was that person?
I probably should mention my sexual life during this time. I was terrified by my sexuality. Sexual stimulation from anything made me feel miserable. I knew what Jesus said. He said that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. After all, it is better to enter the kingdom without a hand or eye than to enter the eternal fires of hell. There were moments where I seriously considered following these verses. And then some Christians had the gall to say that they were metaphoric? Jesus taught clearly that it is best for some people to become eunichs for the sake of the kingdom.
I must confess that my fear of my sexuality basically kept me from discovering masturbation until I was nineteen years old. I did not even know what sex was until then. When I was around thirteen my dad had the customary “talk” with me. He told me everything – except what sex was. I remember asking him: “Dad, well, I know all about my sexual urges now, but what is sex?” I can remember him sortof shift in his seat uncomfortably and very sternly he said “Josh, that is something you will discover when you get married.” Get married? That could be ten years from now! I was filled with an irrational sense of curiosity about this subject, and at the same time was restricted beyond imagination by my fears of committing sexual thought crime. I was absolutely miserable. So many times I wanted to open the dictionary out of sheer curiosity, but was held back by my “love” for God and desire to be holy – and fear of sin. My friends did not seem to have these problems. What was their problem? Why were they not miserable all the time because of pent-up sexual energy? When I was older I discovered that they probably did not have these problems because they were regularly masturbating. I spent years of purity, resisting every sexual urge, wallowing in the freakish misery of being sexually stressed out, and my friends enjoyed life because they did not take the Bible as seriously?
When I was fifteen or sixteen I wanted to get a girlfriend. My parents kept telling me I was not “ready”. I should wait until I was more mature. They consistently told me this over and over. I read Joshua Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and bought it hook, line, and sinker. But how was I supposed to know when I was “ready”? After all, what makes someone “ready”? I had all the hardware, what was wrong with my software? The teachings I learned about relationships in the church did the greatest thing in the world to destroy my relationships with women. I was always awkward, despite my raging hormones, because I was always wondering whether the level of my hormones was a sign that I was sinning or not. I was always analyzing my relationships, trying to figure out if it was “God’s will”. I was always analyzing the women I was interested in, to see if we were “spiritually compatible”. If I had a bad thought, was that enough that I needed to back off from the woman? What if liked two girls at a time, did this mean that I was not a “one-woman” man (per Paul’s requirements for eldership)? What if I sat next to a girl and had an erection? Should I chop off my hand or not?
One last thing before I end. When I was thirteen years old, I remember reading a little about evolution. I was enamored by the beauty and clarity of the theory. The thought popped into my head: “This is amazing!” Then it occurred to me that it could not be true, because the Bible says otherwise. Therefore, I must be under attack by Satanic forces. I was thoroughly confused. How could Satan’s theory of evolution be so beautiful and make so much sense? I spent my entire teenage years supressing this thought, in fear that I was under spiritual attack for seeing the beauty of evolution. I bought six-day creation thoroughly. If you look in the Creation Magazine archives and find that I wrote Answers in Genesis back in the late 90’s and was printed in the letters to the editors section.
Well, I had probably better wrap this up. I think you guys get the point. My teenage years were a living nightmare. Every thought, every action, and every feeling were under constant scrutiny by my desire to honor Jesus, obey Him, and be “Holy as I am holy” – at all costs. I was truly trying to bring every thought into subjection unto Christ.
To be finished…