Having been raised an ultra-secular Jew in Miami Beach, I knew almost nothing about the Bible, Old Testament and (especially) the New. My family rarely talked religion, or spiritual things in general, though I have fleeting, out-of-focus memories of discussions about such finely-honed and esoteric questions as whether or not God existed. (The usual conclusion was no.) We did have a Bible in our house, just one book along with novels by Thomas Wolfe, John Updike, Gore Vidal, John Steinbeck, and others. At about 15-years-old, I took it off the shelf and read the last few verses in the book of Revelation. They meant nothing to me.
Jump ahead eight years. I was living in Paris, and in a moment of desperation I considered jumping off the Eiffel Tower, which rose up before me like Brobdingnagian gallows. As soon as I had that thought, however, another thought hit me on the back of my head and—pop!—knocked it away. The new thought was: Hang on, because maybe all this stuff you have been told about Jesus is true.
I immediately cursed myself. Look at you! Your whole life you viewed religious people as weak. They couldn’t handle the hard knocks of existence, so they create silly little deities to whom they sing their goofy little ditties and to whom they offer meaningless prayers—all in order to make themselves feel better. For me, it was a cheap and pathetic crutch that made me want to wretch. But now, for the first time in your miserable 23 years, you feel as if you can’t handle it, so you’re going to reach out to some fantasy in order to make yourself feel better?
No way. I was too honest a seeker for truth to reach out and believe a lie, no matter how good the lie made me feel. I’d rather have jumped off the Eiffel Tower, squashed dead like a grape, than live a lie, no matter how good the lie made me feel.
Then (I remember the moment so well, though it was in 1979) I stopped, looked up the sky and screamed inside: God, if you exist, then You need to reveal yourself to me. Give me a sign. If not, I’ll never believe—ever!
Within a few weeks I met a guy about my age named Clifford Goldstein. He was also from Miami Beach. And not only was he living in the same Kibbutz in Israel that I had lived months earlier, where I had been writing a novel, he stayed in the same room that I had stayed in, and, of the two beds in the room, he was sleeping in the same bed. As I sat at the foot of the bed, I saw on the small bookshelf over the bed many of my old books, which I had left there when I skedaddled from Israel months earlier.
“Hey, Cliff,” I asked, “you like my books?”
“What are you talking about?” he responded. “Those are all my books.”
“No way,” I answered, standing up and going through the volumes. Same authors, same titles, same editions in some cases, but none were my mine. They were his.
Then for some reason (perhaps because of the nature of the books), I asked Clifford Goldstein, “Are you a writer?”
“Yes. I want to be a writer.”
Then a girl walked into the room. I’d never seen her before. It was his girlfriend. She was blonde, from Denmark, and her name was Tine. When I lived on that same kibbutz, in that same room, sleeping in that same bed, reading the same books, and writing, I had a blonde Danish girlfriend—named Tine.
“Man, alive,” a friend, Elhanan ben Avraham, later said, “you were asking God for a sign. What more do you want? The Lord is calling you by name!”
At those words, the experience slammed me. I asked for a sign—and this happens? It couldn’t be a coincidence. But if not, then what? Right then and there I knew that God existed and that He was talking to me. But knowing that God existed, and knowing God Himself, were two different things. This sign definitely got my attention; but I wasn’t born again. That experience, my own “Damascus Road” encounter, came about six weeks later. (See vimeo.com/99577883.)
What spurred me to recount this incident was what Paul wrote almost 2,000 years ago to the Corinthians, when, after starting the letter, he cut loose into this riff about the foolishness of the world’s wisdom and its inability to lead to the knowledge of God. “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Then came a line that, though I had read it dozens of times, recently hit me as never before. “Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom” (verse 22).
A sign? Jews demand signs?More than 1,900 years after Paul wrote that, I, a Jew who knew nothing about God, the Bible, Paul, faith—nothing, in a moment of desperation I didn’t seek for wisdom, for knowledge, or for understanding. Instead (as if following the apostle’s script), I asked for a sign. And the Lord, respecting the sincerity of my heart, gave me one.
The Word of God is amazing. But that’s only because God, whose Word it is, is amazing as well.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.