[Eds. note: This post tells the story of how I lost my faith and confidence after I went away to college.]
I grew up in a very conservative Christian home in a rural part of Ohio. Our family went to church three times a week, without fail, for my entire childhood and adolescence. My father was a deacon for more than 25 years, and the treasurer of our church for about 10 years. My mother taught Sunday school to 8-9 year olds. I read the entire Childrens’ Bible (about 120 pages) by the age of 8, I read the entire Living Bible by the age of 14, and I read the entire King James Version before I graduated from High School.
When I first started college, the transition was extremely difficult for me. The college I attended was a days’ journey from home, in a very large city that was crumbling from crime and unemployment. We did not leave campus after dark, because muggings and shootings were commonplace.
I lived in the dormitory with all the other freshmen. I did well in my studies, but I could not handle all the partying, drunkenness and sexual promiscuity that surrounded me. It was shocking to me, and every new instance, which was nearly daily, kept me continually unseated. I also felt alone and rejected. I wanted nothing more than to find a few other Christians, and share a rented house with them, off-campus.
During my sophomore year, I found such an opportunity. I met three other Christian students, Jay, Deryl and Glenn*, at the meetings of a Christian organization on Campus, called, “Christians in Action” (or “the CIA”), and we rented a large house together, off-campus. The house was the parsonage for a Mennonite church next door, but the Pastor had his own house, so the Church let out the house to supplement income. I thought that by living there, I would be free from bad influence and temptation.
My housemates were decent people. Deryl was a Mennonite from rural Illinois. He had a fast Pontiac, and he was cool. Glenn was a Baptist, like me, so we never had a single altercation. Jay was from a wealthy family, and he religiously attended the Assembly of God Tabernacle.
I had many good discussions with all of them, but I was most challenged by Jay. Every morning Jay and I would eat breakfast at the table together, and he would inquire about my spiritual life. In the beginning, I was really thankful to have someone who could discuss such topics with me. I was intrigued to learn the more liberal teachings from his denomination, such as the gifts of the spirit, speaking in tongues, miraculous works and dramatically answered prayers. I found that these things were indeed Biblical, but were never mentioned in the Baptist Churches.
Deryl and Glenn were good housemates, and they were the kind of people I had hoped to share my college days with. But Jay, who was our senior classman, turned out to be very controlling. He handled all the financial transactions for the house, and he constantly monitored every change of events within the house. I liked Jay at first, but that changed when he threw away some of my food.
One day, he was griping about some “ruined” food in the freezer that he had thrown away, and when I looked, I found it was my own food. I asked him how it had gone bad in the freezer, and he said it was stupid to freeze fresh vegetables because once they were frozen, the freshness was ruined. I had bought those vegetables at a farmer’s sale, and I had hoped to make them last a couple months. I was upset, because food is expensive, and I really didn’t have a lot of money. I also felt like he violated my personal property, because he impulsively threw my things away, without first talking to me about it. Perhaps most significantly, it eroded my sense of security, which was the main reason I was living there.
Jay soon got into the habit of asking me extremely specific and pointed questions each day. He would ask me who I had been with the day before, where I had gone the night before, and how late I had stayed up. I felt that such questions were somewhat invasive and compromised our mutual trust, because I felt that he suspected I was being “immoral” in some way, without having any real evidence against me. As he continued to ask such questions, it made me feel accused of things which I knew I was innocent.
Things really changed for me when Jay started asking about my morning devotions. Now, I did not read the Bible and pray every day, but rather, once every two or three days. But whenever I did, I would read several chapters at once, and I did a lot of contemplation and soul searching. I was content with my habits, because God spoke to me, and I was always fed, spiritually.
But Jay was displeased with my habit, and he told me, “Any SERIOUS Christian would read his Bible and pray EVERY DAY, and EARLY in the MORNING!” After Jay said this to me several times, I began to consider it. I thought to myself, “Well, it sure wouldn’t HURT if I read my Bible more often, like every morning. So why not do it?”
After that, I got up a half-hour earlier every morning, at 6:00, and I read my Bible and prayed during that time. The first couple weeks were astonishing. My spiritual life took on a whole new dimension, and I was really excited about the changes. God came alive, and I felt more healthy, content and happy. In my enthusiasm, I would report to Jay each morning, and Jay seemed pleased.
But as time went on, God stopped talking to me through my morning devotions, and the newness and novelty died away. Jay also became more and more critical, and I began to fear our confrontations, because I had nothing new to tell him.
A couple weeks after I recognized that God stopped talking to me through my early-morning disciplines, I gave up my vain discipline. After that, when my alarm would go off at 6:00, I would turn on my bedroom light, so that Jay would think I was on my knees, but actually, I would roll over and snooze until 6:30. After a while, this habit made me feel deceptive, even though I thought it was really none of Jay’s business.
Furthermore, since God wasn’t talking to me anymore, I began to get spiritually dry and I grew seriously worried about my spiritual state. I lost interest in calculus and physics, because such things seemed insignificant, compared to the eternal state of my soul. I flunked half of my classes that quarter, and I became socially reclusive, especially around Jay and his friends.
After that, my spiritual situation spiraled out of control. Jay became incredibly ascetic and unreasonable. He condemned all my favorite music (e.g. U2, The Cars, Tom Petty, etc.) as being “Satanic”. He forbade Deryl and I from having a barbecue, because he said we would be “poisoned” by the chrome plating on the grille. (Deryl just laughed at Jay, but I could not prevent Jay’s words from affecting my confidence.) One day, all of my underwear disappeared. (About six months later, Jay “found them” and mailed them back to me with a snide letter.)
I was glad when the quarter ended and I returned home. But even after I returned home, my misery did not end. It only got worse. My co-op employer was disappointed with my performance in school, and ended my contract, so I lost my job as well. Then, since I spent more time living at home, my parents became irritated with me, frequently saying critical, biting remarks, and essentially losing faith in my future success.
To make matters worse, there was no one who really understood what I was going through. All my High School friends had moved away, and moved on with their lives. My relationships with family members deteriorated into nothing. God still wasn’t talking to me, and soon I despised trying to read the Bible. I wouldn’t even touch a Bible for more than a year and a half, because it was repulsive to me. I started attending a different Church, hoping to meet some new faces and shake up my spiritual life, but other Christians noticed my poor disposition, and they either chided me, or avoided me.
In the end, I became a basket case. No friends, no job, no education, no family, no purpose, no self-esteem, and I had no idea what happened to me. I became clinically depressed for more than a year. I saw a psychiatrist every week, but the counseling had no effect. I tried taking some part-time classes, hoping to make a little progress towards a degree, but I continued to fail all my classes. I was only spending the last of what little money I had. It took more than three years for me to get back on my feet.
Meanwhile, God seemed to be totally absent from my life.
[Eds. note: The story doesn’t end here. For the follow up, read the next post, “Growing “Roots” in My Faith“.]
* Names have been changed for the usual reasons.
- Wintery Knight: How I Retained My Christian Faith, Sobriety And Chastity On A University Campus (May 30, 2018)