And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment...
After my partner and I buried the hatchet, the stressful work environment cooled off and things went back to normal. We were both much easier to work with. I did something I’d never done before; I gave someone with less experience permission to correct me. My partner was agreeable to the new plan, but he still kept a close eye on me. After what we’d been through, he didn’t trust me. In his eyes, trust had to be earned and I gave him a lot of reasons not to trust me. He needed to see if I was sincere about changing or if I was just blowing sunshine up his kilt.
A couple of weeks later, he told me about a book he was reading. He said it was a fictional book that discussed a lot of things that were happening in the world and he thought I might like it. I told him I wasn’t interested in fiction, but I might check it out. I asked what the name of the book was. He said it was called Left Behind.
A few weeks after this, I signed up to work a 48 hour shift on the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Knowing that it was one of the busiest weekends of the year and that I’d be working the busiest medic unit in the county, I felt like I would regret the decision when it was all said and done. Who really wants to spend 48 hours getting brutalized by going on one call after another with no chance of rest?
On the Thursday before Memorial Day, my Lieutenant and I got into a conversation about a book he was reading. He said it was a great book and he thought I would find fascinating. The name of the book was Left Behind.
“Now what are the odds of that happening?” I thought. “How strange that two people would recommend the same book a few weeks apart.”
Mulling this over in my mind, he said I could borrow the book I wanted. (There were actually two volumes published in the series by then.) I didn’t think about it again until the next day. I thought maybe I should get a book to read in case it was a slow weekend, even though Memorial Day is never slow.
I called my Lieutenant and told him I wanted to pick up the books. I drove to his house and he gladly handed them over with a smile. I tossed them on the passenger seat and headed home.
I went to work the next day, expecting a busy shift. By mid-afternoon we had not run a single call. I got bored so I went to my car and got the books. I went upstairs to the medic bedroom. No one else was around, so I got cozy in my bunk and began reading. I was drawn to one character in particular; a middle-aged pilot named Rayford Steele.
Steele was a good husband to his Christian wife, but he was not a believer himself. Ray was a self-made man, who didn’t need to depend on God. He took care of things himself, ran his own affairs and didn’t feel like religion had anything to offer him. Ray was also confident that if there were a God, he would probably make it into heaven. It wasn’t like he was a serial killer or pedophile. He was a good man, for the most part. The way he saw it – the minor things he struggled with, like the occasional crush on a flight attendant could hardly bar him from entering heaven. As I read about his life, I realized that Ray was a lot like me.
The story line revolves around the rapture, which happens a few chapters into the book. Ray is piloting a plane, when a bunch of passengers disappear, unexpectedly. He lands the plane and with fear, drives home, hoping to find his wife is still there. She’d been warning him that the times were drawing near when those who loved Jesus would be removed from the earth in the rapture. Steele comes home and finds his daughter and wife gone. He realizes they were right all along and he knows from listening to their discussions that 7 years of tribulation lie ahead.
(For those of you who do not hold to this view of eschatology – please refrain from leaving argumentative comments below. I’m not endorsing this view. I’m just reporting on what the book is about.)
As I watched Ray’s story unfold, I began to realize that I was in the same place he was. I knew with certainty that if your connection to Jesus was what qualified you to get into heaven, I was never going to get in. I hated Jesus and I despised His followers. I had a hard time even saying His name without feeling disgust and loathing. Years ago, I had rejected the religious hypocrisy I witnessed as a kid. I had no need for religion or religious bigots and certainly didn’t want to be one. Yet I knew that if Jesus was my ticket to haven, I was bound to spend eternity in hell.
As I read, I encountered the message of God’s love, displayed in the death of Jesus. This wasn’t a new concept to me. I’d known about the death of Jesus and his resurrection since I was a boy. But I never thought he died for me. I never thought I needed to do anything with it. I mean – yeah, I understood that His death was a factual event, but it never meant anything to me personally, until this moment.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about him suffering and dying for me.
Why did God care about me? I was just another guy trying to live his own life and stay out of trouble. Why did He care about me?
As I lay there in bed thinking about eternity, I sensed something or someone in the room with me. I knew I wasn’t alone. I began having a conversation in my mind with someone who seemed to know everything about me.
“I’m a good person”, I thought. “Why do I need Jesus?”
Suddenly my mind began to recall every selfish thing I’d ever done and every mean thing I’d ever said. This presence that was with me, challenged me. “Are you really a good person? What about all these terrible things you’ve done?”
I didn’t believe in God. But I was becoming aware that this presence in the room with me was probably God. How else could I explain what was happening?
There was no way to hide my past. Thinking about the selfish things I’d done, how could I call myself a good person? I wasn’t a murderer, but I certainly wasn’t a saint.
I closed my eyes and tried to block out the thoughts He was bringing to my remembrance. With my eyes closed, I saw an iron gate and just beyond the gate - flames. I knew I was looking into hell. And I knew that hell was where I deserved to spend eternity.
I wept off and on for hours, wrestling with the fear of spending eternity in hell and giving in to God. I now know that the forces of darkness and the forces of heaven were engaged in a terrible battle over my soul that day. My mind was bombarded with fearful thoughts; “What people would think if I became one of those religious hypocrites?”
I didn’t want to be a believer. I tried desperately to fight the feelings of surrender, but I was loosing the battle. I felt like I was suspended between heaven and earth. I clung desperately to the life I had, but I was losing my grip. I had to make a decision. I knew that if I let go of my life, I would drop into the unknown abyss that lie beyond my comprehension. But if I clung to my present life, I would spend eternity in darkness.
It was late in the evening when I finally surrendered. Broken and desperate, I said, “God… I don’t believe in you. But I give up. I’m tired of living for myself. My life is a mess and I can’t fix it. I don’t know how to change. I can’t do it myself. If you want me to change, you need to give me a voice or something to follow.”
After saying these words, I fell asleep in a puddle of tears.