Honesty usually comes easily to me, but telling this story has not.
I think many of us can relate — my brothers and sisters who grew up in the church, in Christian families, steeped in good doctrine and surrounded by friends in the faith. It’s hard to admit that we’ve fallen away.
I never thought I would willingly walk away. I’m an obsessive rule-follower. My skirts go to the knee. I still address adults as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ The only tattoo I have is a Czech phrase taken from the statue of a martyred reformer which stood in the village I lived in while serving as a missionary associate for two years. Both my parents play visible roles in the Christian community, so if ever there was a poster child for what a good Christian young adult should look like, I was it.
For the greater part of my life, I could honestly say that, though I have struggled in aspects of my Christian walk, my faith has never wavered. Not once.
I cannot say that anymore.
When I lived in Prague, I commonly hosted friends and acquaintances who were meandering their way through Central Europe. Kids I knew in high school, people from church, some of my brother’s friends from college — the routine was the same: we’d meet up, I’d show them the city, and sometime between the hot coffee or the spiced wine and the sweeping views of majestic castles and steeple spires, we’d talk about God.
I had never felt closer to my Maker. It was clear I was where he wanted me to be, serving him in a beautiful place with people I fell in love with so quickly. I had purpose, I had contentment, and I had joy, and on the other side of the world from the community I grew up in, I felt none of the pressures of singleness or job security or social status. I could feel God in everything, and even though it was by no means a simple two years, his presence was so tangible and his provision so evident that I felt refreshed and revitalized daily.
But many of my friends were struggling. They didn’t feel connected to God or the faith of their parents. They were afraid to let people in their church know they had doubts. They were afraid to tell their families. They felt like hypocrites and many of them were considering leaving the faith altogether because, like an Irish goodbye, it would be easier to slip away unnoticed than to cause a very public, very humiliating stir in the community. You can only pretend for so long.
At the time, I didn’t understand. I told them that they should talk to someone, seek accountability, pray, draw near to God. After all, I had a great relationship with the Lord, so clearly, it could be done. It was all so clinical to me, someone who had never been through a spiritual drought.
One summer, in Prague, a Christian friend and I were discussing the story of the prodigal son. I never really liked that story because I always related to the older brother who stayed at home and did everything he was supposed to do. It seemed unfair that some Christians should have a better welcome into the fold just because they had a better conversion story. Sitting on the steps of the garden, surrounded by plump tomatoes and the stillness of the muggy afternoon, my friend insisted that I was misunderstanding the point of the story — we are all the prodigal son.
“The sons represent the elect, not the unsaved,” he said, as hot summer thunder clouds boiled over our heads. “Both sons are already children of God, but one walks away for a while — and, at some point, so will we all. The older son represents the Christians who are still leaning on their own works to win their inheritance, not realizing that everything the father has is already theirs.”
I didn’t fully agree with him, mostly because I still felt like the older brother. I had never walked away. I never planned on walking away. What a stupid thing to do.
But the point is that neither son understands the father’s love — one does what is right out of obligation and not out of gratitude for the father’s generosity, and the other assumes that he can return and earn his forgiveness by working in his father’s house as a servant. They both believe their inheritance depends upon their own merit. Yet the father treats both his foolish sons the same way, with unconditional love.
What a father. What a God.
But I think I left a lot of my relationship with God in Prague.
Almost immediately upon returning to San Diego, I was swept up into college and work and making new plans for the future.
And I was lost. There were no road signs from God, no clear direction. In a lot of ways, I felt like he had just backed away completely, like he didn’t need me anymore now that my time in Prague was done.
My Bible reading was the first to go. It was followed closely by poor decisions at school.
I wasn’t making bad decisions — I’m the rule-follower, remember? But they were worldly choices, things that drew me away from the Lord rather than to him. And, like the prodigal son, as I began to recognize the trouble I was getting myself into — especially as I felt myself falling away from the Lord, I assumed I could work my way out of it. I could do it on my own. I could earn my faith back.
Small sins became habitual, big sins began appearing.
It amazes me, looking back at the last two years, to see how God sustained and protected me, despite moments where I consciously decided to step onto a path that I knew would lead me away from the God who carried me through my time in Prague, the God for whom I went to Prague in the first place, the God who was feeling farther and farther away from me every day.
There could have been so many devastating earthly consequences to my actions, and yet there were none. It both emboldened and embittered me.
Rebellion is not a characteristic I would have associated with myself, but this was full-on, unapologetic revolt. I wanted to see how far I could push myself down the wrong path before something went really wrong. If I hadn’t witnessed the progression, I would never have recognized the person I had become — a person that was still parading around as a put-together Christian, leading youth group events and explaining to my non-Christian friends that “my faith is everything to me.”
What a lie.
A few months ago, I realized just how hallow those words felt coming out of my mouth. I came home from work late one night, sat on the floor and desperately opened my Bible, like someone who has been walking aimlessly for years only to wake up one day and realize they are hopelessly lost and need a map.
But it had been a long time since I had sincerely searched Scripture and I didn’t know where to start. I had a devotional tucked in the back cover of my Bible, so I pulled it out and read the first page. A voice in my head interpreted every line with bitter, cynical mockery. It was a voice I had never heard before — certainly not mine! I loved the Lord, I loved his Word, I believed that this was the Truth, so where had this voice come from?
I closed the book and tried to pray only to find my heart empty of words and my mind doubting that my prayers would find a listener. God wasn’t there. He was gone. I had walked so far away, he had disappeared entirely from view. For the first time in my life, I found myself cut off from my Savior.
I was alone.
Suddenly, I understood what my friends travelling through Prague were going through. I had both consciously and unconsciously let myself be pulled away from the faith, through wordly priorities and the cultivation of destructive patterns, by starving myself of Scripture and prayer. I was sickened by myself. I was a hypocrite, drenched in sins that had grown to consume my life, separated from God.
And worst of all, I really wasn’t sure if God existed at all. Sin I knew I could be forgiven of, but if there was no God, then there was no hope and no purpose. The world as I knew it was wrong and everyone I loved and trusted was a fool. I was a fool.
Falling through the next two days like a wounded animal searching for water, I questioned everything. What if God had just been a figment of my imagination for all these years? What if I had been brainwashed by a group of narrow-minded people who were believing a lie? What if these mountains I always assumed belonged to the hand of a Brilliant Designer were in fact merely the product of billions of years of evolutionary change? There was no God and I had no reason to be here. Right and wrong did not exist. Purpose, irrelevant.
Those were agonizing days.
In hindsight, it strikes me that even the shame of my sin was swallowed by the fear of a life without God — that is the true devastation of disobedience, after all, the original consequence to sin: separation for our Creator.
In that initial moment of despair, the night I found I couldn’t pray, I had two options.
The first option, of course, would have been to give in to the despair and walk away for good. In so many ways, it would have been easier. I was so far into the world already, and I desperately wanted what it offered — status, opportunities, fun, romance and relationships I had not been able to enjoy yet.
I thank God that he gave me the grace to choose the second option.
Crying on the floor, unable to even look at my Bible, writhing in the physical pain of my spiritual loss, with the clock on my wall blinking just past one o’clock in the morning, I picked up my phone and sent three text messages.
One message to three friends, and they all responded before morning with verses and prayers and promises to meet up. And for the next three weeks, they were God’s living witnesses, displaying through their actions his faithfulness, his kindness, his mercy, his strength, his love. And they held me tightly with arms, like His, that would not let me go.
One friend met up with me in person multiple times — a half hour before work, a quick cup of coffee at the end of the day to pray and read Scripture together. She sent me articles to read and told me to meet up with godly people at my church to broaden my circle of accountability and seek out the wisdom of our elders (which I did, and it was equally difficult and rewarding).
One friend sent me Scripture verses, almost daily. He challenged my doubts and questioned my devotional habits with unbending tough-love. It was uncomfortable and humbling, and I needed it.
The other friend — my prayer warrior — messaged me daily, “How are you doing? I’m praying for you.”
And slowly, slowly I started to find the pathway home.
God still felt far away, but I was reading Scripture every day, I was actively fighting the sin that had built up in my life, and I was praying again. I was drawing near to God — toddling closer with the clumsy steps of someone learning to walk for the first time. And this time I understood what was hanging in the balance.
For the first time in my life, I truly understood what grace was. I understood why we refer to our Christian walk as the ‘good fight’ — because it is a fight. It is spiritual warfare that we must consciously engage in, and we must win. And only by the grace of God will we.
The good news, of course, is that for those of us who do don the armor of God, the fight has already been won, our souls purchased by the blood of the Son of God himself.
I share this story, not because I am proud of any of it — not the fall from grace, nor even the return, for it was not my doing, but the Lord’s.
I share because I know I am not alone. I know that those of us who grew up in the church will one day be put to the test, if we haven’t already, and I want you to know that you are not alone in this fight either. The body of Christ, fellow saints and believers are struggling too, and they are here to pick us up as we stumble — in sin, in doubt, in fear, in grief, in loss.
It is easy for Christians to pretend that we do not stumble, to waltz into church on Sunday in our best clothes, singing with our loudest voices, while hiding the sin and hurt and pain that is welling up inside of us.
The facade of the perfect Christian will kill the church.
If you assume that the people sitting next to you have never struggled with temptations, never failed in their walk with the Lord, never doubted their faith or their assurance, how likely are you to share your own struggles with them? And if we do not confess to each other, we cannot build each other back up. We cannot edify and heal the body, so it will rot.
God uses a broken church to work out his sovereign grace, which means we need to swallow our pride, face our shame, and ask our brothers and sisters for help.
I share this story in order to shatter my own self-crafted image as a poster child for the Christian community — me, the missionary associate, the youth leader, the camp counselor, the school evangelist, the Christian blogger or whatever false idea exists about who I am and who I am not.
I am a sinner, ransomed and redeemed, lost and found.
I share this story so that you, too, might share yours with those who need to hear it or those who can help you through the battle, to the glory of God.
The story of the prodigal son isn’t about the sons, you see, it is about the father. It is about his faithfulness — and how great it is! New every morning, with strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
I realize now what it means to be the lost sheep — all those years in Sunday school learning the story, and I finally understand how it feels to walk away from the pasture, how it feels to be scared and alone and wonder if you’ll ever find your way back, how it feels to be wrapped in the tender arms of the Shepherd and brought back to the fold.
So, I share this story because I want you to feel this too. I want you to know that our God is so good to us. That his grace is sweet and his mercy is free. That you are his forever. That, even though the road home can look long and feel empty, you will not be walking it alone. Christ will be shepherding your footsteps all the way, until you reach the end and find our Heavenly Father waiting to receive you with open arms.