Not too many Sundays ago, our church service was interrupted by something quite extraordinary..well at least for us. During the praise music, the Praise Leader said he felt drawn to ask if anyone would like to give a testimony. Almost an hour later, the last person stood up and publicly thanked God for what he was doing in their life. Some of the testimonies would be hard pressed to meet the definition by some standards, but then, very few actually realize God is good always...even when things are good and bad for us.
I listened and thought...actually envied...some of the people who spoke that morning knowing they had likely always lived Godly lives. 'God must really show favor to them for being committed for so long, never testing or doubting Him. I wish I could have been like that for God all my life,' I thought to myself. How foolish that sounds to me looking back.
Romans 8:28 (New International Version)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
I was raised in a Christian home and attended church through my entire youth. When I was a a junior in high school, I accepted and rejoiced that Jesus had died for my sins and followed through that acceptance with baptism. Those of you who have done the same understand the peace and joy associated with asking for forgiveness and giving your life to God. I was on fire for God the better part of a year...
My senior year of high school brought the typical popularity of finally being at the top of the totem pole. I was an athlete, entertainer, and go-to guy. My click ran the show at our 1200 plus student school. I could do no wrong...or at least any wrong that wasn't shortly forgiven. Life was good...but it wasn't very pious. God had given me a stage, and I used it. But I used it for me and not Him.
I was awarded a full scholarship by the U.S. Marine Corps to attend any one of fifty-five university with an NROTC program at the time. The Navy and Marines were very selective about where they put commissioning programs, so I left my small town and headed to Nashville. Vanderbilt was one of the fifty-five. I didn't know a single person in Nashville, but that fact didn't bother me in the slightest. I had the world by the tail and was to make the very most of that fact.
Shortly after settling into my new surroundings and experiencing my new found freedoms, I just forgot God and the fact that all that I had in life was actually from Him. My fall wasn't sudden by any means. My feelings of self-importance had grown to the point of glowing pride...arrogance. I drank and partied without conscience. I was promiscuous and focused on sex. Soon came an obsession with weight lifting leading to steroid abuse. It was a vicious out of control circle. As my body swelled more and more, so did my pride and my lustful thoughts and actions. I couldn't hold relationships together for being unfaithful at most any opportunity with no regards to consequence. Keeping my grades up became secondary to winning the next power lifting meet or scoring with a new prospect. I was in near constant fear of losing my scholarship and being in a world of trouble. But the fear couldn't overcome my overconfidence. Things seemed to always work out for Tony...
The exact moment when I turned away from my relationship with God is hard to pinpoint, and I'm glad for that fact now. To believe in God became both cliche and a sign of mental weakness to me...man's need to be comforted in the prospect that life and death isn't finite. There's more and we know the secret to unlocking the eternal. I was never so bold as to deny that God existed...oh no...but why would an all-powerful being care about our insignificant, inconsequential lives. We could barely break from our own planet, much less understand the concepts of omnipresence and omnipotence.
After graduation, I was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. An elite group that I pushed to be at the top of...to be the best of the best. I was rewarded with prime assignments and school/training opportunities. I also married for the first time, but my wife, unfortunately, was but an after-thought to feeding the ego maniacal person I had become. She was a good person... just married to the wrong man.
I resigned my commission after five years of active service to try to salvage my marriage. I realize now that effort was more about not failing at marriage than rebuilding my relationship. She had let me escape on too many issues. My promiscuous behavior surely would come back time and time again. Finally, she had enough and my failure as a husband was cast in cement.
Too quickly, I moved on and into a relationship with more loose ties. Perfect for me. God was no where near this relationship (in my mind), but I felt the need to become a father, so I married a second time. Misplaced scruples if ever there was a case. I was also heavily involved in politics, and the image of a family man was invaluable. I drifted back to attending church for the same reason. I had become an actual hypocrite by very definition.
My life continued to spiral out of control from a spiritual perspective. I was openly agnostic and frequently argued with my mother and sister about their unrealistic, dogmatic beliefs. I didn't need God and He sure didn't need me. My second marriage fell apart shortly after the birth of my daughter. Although she quickly became the focus of most of my attention, I was neglecting her in a way that haunts me today. My mother and sister made sure she was taken to church from an early age...not me.
I know this has become a very long post, and I apologize. But to fully understand the reach of God's love in my life, it can't be condensed Reader's Digest style.
I was in a great job that had grown to over 150 employees working for me, thanks in large part to my drive to succeed. I was a local radio personality, by hobby, broadcasting sports for my old high school. I was single and fully enjoying it. I had given up on trying to hold together relationships because it required too much energy, so I would string together shallow associations to ensure the nights my daughter wasn't with me weren't spent alone. It all seemed to be working so well for me....but I was still empty....longing.
It is at this point God put two very important people in my life. One worked for me in middle management. He was driven, compassionate and not afraid to talk about God. The other was much more subtle. She was still in high school, but lived a very openly Christian life.
Many days I found myself wondering into the office of the guy at work to chat philosophy. He was very grounded in what he believed and why he believed it. I began to greatly enjoy our talks and even started reading on my own again in the Bible.
The high school student would always come visit and talk to me at basketball games because she was dating one of the players. Her mom and dad were about four years older than me, and we actually knew each other from earlier days. There came a point when I was looking for someone trustworthy to pick up my daughter from after-school or even watch her on occasion, and this girl was perfect. One of those nights she watched my daughter lead to a life-changing exchange for me.
Looking back on it, I think I was irritated about something and was looking for an argument with just about anyone about anything. When I got home, she was there watching TV and my daughter was in her bed. Out of the gate I made some off-cuff remark about religion to get it started. She never flinch with her rebuttal. I fired again and she returned. The next several hours are actually a little fuzzy, but beyond doubt, I was completely humiliated in a debate about faith, about God by a high school student. Gasp...
I didn't sleep much that night while God really, truly dealt with me. At some point near sunrise..after tossing and turning, crying and even pacing...I ended up on my knees... begging God to forgive my ignorance, arrogance and disobedience. How dare I try to shake the faith, plant doubt in one of God's faithful children? As the sun came up that morning, I was a different man...really transformed.
It actually hurts me to write what I have written here. I am truly ashamed at even trying to recapture the brash, obnoxious person I was back then for the sake of this post. My life would getting harder before it got better, but one thing I was sure... no matter what happened to me from that day forward, I would live for God. I would spend every single day of what life I had left making up for my sins. It was the very least I could do for Him... because He never gave up on me.
As I said, things would get worse before they got better in my life. I would face challenges and consequences as a result of my past sins...but that can be, as Paul Harvey so famously says, the rest of the story...