A Dead Hand Grasping at God
About this time of year a decade ago, on a moonlit highway that snakes south of Santa Fe through hills of juniper and cholla and dirt, a troubled young man drove an old Jeep Cherokee with flaking red paint and a whining A/C. Night had fallen and his headlights, their luminance obscured by a coating of dead insects, cast a faint light on the road ahead. I don’t know if that young man fit the clinical definition of depression, but I do know he despaired of himself and the world, and I know that he had harmed himself and had thoughts of suicide. I know that evening he told a friend he hoped to die. She cut off their conversation and he felt compelled to go see her. I don’t know what he expected to hear.
Ten years later, I still don’t really know what I was thinking, or if I even had thoughts at all. I was dead inside, utterly dead. I could produce not a single hopeful thought. I was a teenage atheist bashing my head against a brick wall of nihilism, and that exertion had worn me down to nothing. The only path I saw forward was to keep bashing my head until overwhelmed by the ultimate unconsciousness. I told my friend as much, over an internet messaging program of all things. I said that when I went into the military, I hoped I’d die. She said she was crying and signed off.
In my book, Genesis of the Dead, I give an alternate take on man’s fall into sin: eating the forbidden fruit causes the race of man to turn into a race of zombies. It’s a silly conceit intended to illustrate man’s spiritual death and loss of immortality, caused by his rejection of God, with a recognizable cultural symbol for physical death. We may not have massive, gaping wounds, and we don’t subsist on the brains and flesh of our friends, but in a spiritual sense, we are all very much zombies, cursed creatures who wander the earth, missing the element of vitality and self that only God provides. Augustine says our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. I believe that we are dead until we find our life in God. I told my friend that I wanted to die, but the truth is that I was already dead.
After she signed off, I sat in silence. I repeat: I was dead inside, utterly dead. I sat in silence until a strange feeling came to me, an alien compulsion that just said Go. Attribute a psychological or spiritual explanation for the sudden, unwanted command in my mind if it confirms your bias; I won’t argue either one. All I will say is that I heard a call, gathered my things, and drove off into the night. I drove forty minutes in the dark through desert and mountains and wound up at the door of this friend, who I understand today was probably furious with me.
Looking westward from her house the land falls away into flat desert for many miles before rising again into the Sandias Mountains that blocked Albuquerque’s lights from our view. A thunderstorm brewed over those mountains, and thunder rumbled across the open plain. I watched the storm as she spoke. “You think God can’t change you?” she said. Lightning flashed in the distance.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, or if I even managed to say anything. I went home that night with a reading assignment (Daniel and…Matthew? It’s been so long!), and sometime later I went with her family to church. I felt different when I went home the evening of the storm. I can’t describe it. The fact that I felt at all is more telling.
Over the last several years, I’ve read a great deal of theology and apologetics and my mind’s been filled with all sorts of answers to all sorts of questions. I believe there are excellent, rational reasons to believe in God, to follow Christianity. Looking back, it strikes me that none of that mattered in my conversion. The intellectual side never came into it. There would have been no way to debate my way to God, no logic that could have converted me. I was a broken, sad, and lonely soul, crushed by the sense that life was an accident and a sham. My mind worked fine. It was my soul that was fatally wounded, dying, if not dead. I don’t remember the message I heard when I finally went to church, but I felt it. I felt something changing in my heart and it wasn’t anything that would show up on an EKG.
I was passive through the service, sitting and standing as directed. I didn’t run to the altar or the pastor to confess my sins and beg for baptism. I left shortly after the service. On the way home, I pulled into a parking lot and broke down and started to cry. I didn’t understand God’s love, grace, and mercy as theological propositions, but by God, I felt them. I felt a powerful work in me. I couldn’t explain it, but I didn’t have to.
It’s a bit funny looking back all those years ago. A decade later I’m sure I can cobble together a pretty good essay or blog post about “what happens” when a man receives Christ in his heart. I could do a follow-up on why it makes sense to receive Christ from a rational perspective. I believe in the importance of Christian education. It’s easy to forget sometimes, though, that grasping an argument is nothing like grasping God. A blueprint is not a house. Concepts didn’t save that young man all those years ago. Concepts were killing him. It was God, a mighty and just God, a loving and merciful God—expressed by a furious teenage girl—that saved him.
Likely the most important thing I know about God today is that I didn’t need to understand him to receive his grace. I only needed to realize my heart was an open wound and that only he could heal it. These days, I often want to discuss God with others on intellectual terms. In remembering my conversion, this seems either foolishness or hypocrisy. I did not reach God when I had him figured out. I reached him when I came to him, broken, lost, and dead, and he wrapped me in his love and breathed life into my soul.