August 18, 2010

Lessons From Life's Hard Knocks

My parents separated when I was an infant. But I was too young to understand what was happening. This left me and my two older sisters to be raised by only our mother for the most part.
Our dad became like a stranger to us, rather than a father. He helped support us children, and occasionally we would see him. But he did not spend quality time with us. There was no father-child relationship between us. At first, I was too young to comprehend the situation. However, as time went on I began to catch on.
I was brokenhearted, devastated. And eventually that hurt turned into anger. I became resentful and bitter.
To top it all off, the church I was attending was filling my mind with false doctrines. The most damaging, by far, was the teaching that God would punish sinners by tormenting them in a never-ending fire lasting forever and ever. People living forever, being tortured in never-ending flames!
2010 1528 page24As soon as I was old enough to get out of my mother’s grip, I stopped attending church.
I Was Young and Sinking Fast
The combination of the situation at home and the false religious indoctrination was discouraging, to say the least. I grew to hate God as I understood Him.
At the age of 11 I became addicted to cigarettes. By the age of 13, I was drinking alcohol frequently. And it wasn’t long before I became involved with drugs. This I did in an effort to escape the emotional pain that I felt.
I can remember clearly one particular summer day when I was 14. I was simply walking along, looking up at a picture-perfect blue sky when I noticed something. The sun was a brilliant yellow! Yes, it was a strikingly beautiful day. And it made me start thinking about the big questions in life: Where did the universe come from? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What happens after death?
To try to find answers to these questions, I pondered what I knew about religion and what I knew about science. The religion I knew had taught me that I was created by God—a cruel, punishing God who burns and tortures people forever and ever. Science, on the other hand, taught that there was no God.
I then made a decision based on the information that was available to me. I decided that science was right. There is no God; no heaven; no eternal hellfire; no hope. When you die, that’s the end of it. With this belief in mind, my goal in life became sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. After all, there was nothing else to live for.
Yet I was still a very bitter and unhappy teenager—what sociologists used to call “a juvenile delinquent.” When I was 16 years old, my father tried to intervene, but it was too late; the damage had been done. When I was 19, my health began to suffer, so I began to slow down on the alcohol and drugs. I was still more or less an atheist, but not a hardcore one.
Then Something Happened
One day I crossed paths with an old friend from high school named Michael. He told me that he’d done some prison time, then after being released, he got into trouble again with the law. But as a ploy to avoid going to prison again, he agreed to go to a drug rehabilitation program called Teen Challenge. In that program Michael said he found his Savior, Jesus, and became a Christian.
Michael preached to me about Christ crucified. I was shocked! This was not the Michael that I knew. Michael gave me a Bible and told me to read it. I was 21, and that was the first time I ever held a Bible in my hands.
It was just a New Testament, but that was enough. I read straight through from Matthew to Revelation. Although I didn’t understand everything I read, I did understand much of the Gospels. I read about how Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins, and how He had compassion on the multitudes.
I realized that Jesus loved everyone. Yet they arrested Him, spat upon Him, beat Him, then mocked and crucified Him. My heart was broken. I was meeting the Savior, and my life would never be the same.
Relapses and Confusion
But I had a problem. I accepted Jesus as my Savior, but not as my Lord. In other words, I wanted Jesus to forgive my sins, but I was willing to forsake only certain sins—a kind of selective obedience.
As time passed I attended churches of several different denominations, but I did not yet know what a Seventh-day Adventist was. Still I learned many biblical truths, including the Seventh-day Sabbath, tithing, and the biblical dietary laws. I learned I shouldn’t confess to a human priest and that I shouldn’t pray to “saints.” Yet I was still being taught false doctrines, as well.
I was confused about religion, so I read books and watched TV evangelists, which only made me more confused. I didn’t understand what it meant to be born again. I didn’t understand much of the Bible. As I look back now I can see that I was a halfhearted Christian.
Later on, my 14-year marriage ended in divorce. I then got into the singles scene and gave up on religion, for the most part. Still things were not going my way. The so-called swinging single life was not bringing me the happiness I longed for. I was still a bitter and unhappy person.
One day I received a flyer in the ?mail inviting me to attend a Daniel prophecy seminar. The pictures of the beasts caught my attention: I did not miss a meeting. The local Seventh-day Adventist pastor gave me Bible studies weekly, and I began attending church on Sabbath. The church members were warm and friendly.
I continued to attend church, off and on, for about a year. But I was still unhappy, and I was still practicing selective obedience, doing my own thing. Then I stopped attending church altogether, and continued on in the singles scene. As the years went by I kept up my bar-hopping routine. Yet at the same time, I was attending Al-Anon meetings. (How ironic!)
The Turning Point
There are 12 steps in the Al-Anon program. Step 3 says: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” One evening after attending a third-step meeting, I thought about how unhappy I still was and what a mess I had made of my life. So I made a decision to turn my will and life over to Jesus. I prayed, “Jesus, You lead and I will follow.”
In less than a month I met a woman who said she was a Seventh-day Adventist. We had something in common. She invited me to church the next Sabbath, and I began once again to keep the Sabbath commandment. We met in small groups in homes. In time I came to find out that these people were ex-church members, and many of them seemed bitter against the church. I was not an ex-church member, and therefore I saw things from a different perspective. I worshipped with these small groups for six months, during which time I read many books by Ellen White.
As time passed I became convinced that Ellen White was God’s prophet. As I looked back at my past experience of attending the prophecy seminar and then attending church and receiving the weekly Bible studies, I was convicted that God wanted me to become a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
That’s when I committed myself to God totally. I would follow His commandments through the good times and the bad.
I contacted the local Seventh-day Adventist pastor and started attending church. Several months later I was baptized.
Today, I’m happily married. I have traveled to the South Pacific to hold evangelistic meetings. I have served in the church as a deacon, an elder, and director of personal ministries. And all it took was for me to make a complete commitment to God.
I completely resonate with the words of the psalmist: “Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou my helper. Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; to the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever” (Ps. 30:10-12, KJV). 
Michael Stango works in the telecommunication department at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in Silver Spring, Maryland. This article was published August 19, 2010.