The trajectory of my life is toward God. Now. But it wasn’t always. My first few decades were spent racing in the opposite direction.
I was raised a practical atheist, by which I mean God was simply not a topic in our home. When, at around age 10 or 11, I asked Dad about the meaning of life, he handed me an illustrated copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I thumbed through the Victorian etchings, photos of Galapagos tortoises, and artist’s conceptions of hairy proto-humans. But what about this feeling I have that there’s something more? I wondered. Freud had an answer: “Mass neurosis.” But strangely, that answer didn’t satisfy my spiritual hunger. No doubt because, like the rest of the human race, I was neurotic.
So I asked Mom, who’d been raised vaguely Catholic. She didn’t own a Bible, but gave me her faded Sunday Missal. I thumbed through the pictures of priest’s vestments and thee-y-thou-y prayers…and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But in the front I found this charming children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/If I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Adopting it as a religious rabbit’s foot, I began kneeling nightly beside my bed and reciting it. But when, after several weeks, no miracles had occurred, I quit. (Though, giving credit where credit’s due, I didn’t actually “die before I wake[d].” Not even once.)
I decided to give communication with the Infinite one final whirl. I was now old enough to go to YMCA Camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, where I was literally closer to heaven. Camp Osceola had a voluntary “Ragger” program, a sort of de-militarized version of Boy Scout merit badges. We were invited to make a solemn vow to improve something about our lives. We were then given a colored scarf (“rag”) to wear as a symbol of that vow, and taken to a secret place to pray about it.
The only problem was, I had no clue how to pray. So I looked at the breathtaking view and took an oath to stop cussing, or at least to say, “I’m sorry” each time I did. No voice replied, “That’s swell, Mitch!” No cloudy finger wrote, “Happy to hear it!” There was only a “still small voice” in my heart (1 Kings 19:12), but I didn’t recognize it at the time. I was proud of my (short-lived) curselessness, but ticked at God for skipping the ceremony.
By the time I reached high school, I’d decided he didn’t exist. I became the go-to guy for anti-religious arguments. My spiritual hunger hadn’t gone away, but I was experimenting with a diet of self-worship. Hey, at least I answered. The problem was, my answers were no more filling than God’s silence.
In college, my atheism began to disintegrate. First it devolved into agnosticism—I simply didn’t have enough faith to maintain a truly pious atheism; then it disintegrated into deism (Why I Believe: C.S. Lewis and Me – Part One)—something was out there, but you couldn’t actually connect with it. I was gradually working my way toward a God-concept. But what I yearned for wasn’t a God-concept…
It was God.
I explored a passel of mystical writings, all of which led back to the same old self-worship (“If everything is God, then so am I, hence self-“realization” is God-“realization”). The last book was from a popular yogi who validated his revelations by comparing them to Jesus’ teachings. But Jesus’ teachings, which didn’t mean what the yogi said they did, were completely different. They shook me to my core.
For the first time I’d clearly heard the voice of God.
I went to a bookstore thirty miles away—so no one I knew would see me—and bought a Bible, then brought it home and began devouring the words in red. It was as if a radio stuck between stations had suddenly been tuned in. It wasn’t an audible voice. Neither was it a feeling or a “vibe.” To put it in human terms would be to use a clumsy metaphor, like describing how a color “smells” or a strawberry “sounds.” I was tempted to think it wasn’t really there.
But it was.
Now the only question was,
How to answer it?
Next: “Us Time” With God