Earlier this year, while I was going through my things and trying to decide what to keep and what to throw away, I came upon a note scrawled in my handwriting on a piece of paper. It said,
“I give up the right to ever marry _________.” The blank was filled in, of course.
The note took me back to a back road on the way to Brownsville, Pennsylvania where I had come to the horrifying realization that I liked my sort-of girlfriend more than I liked God. I would’ve said “love” back then, but love is a pretty strong word, and I think it much better describes how I feel about Kristen than how I felt then. But the feeling then was pretty intense, and it freaked me out.
I guess I should start at the beginning.
I grew up in a conservative family and accepted Jesus into my heart when I was seven. I think I was at least fourteen before I did it again… And again and again and again. It wasn’t that hell scared me; I just wanted to be with God if I died before I woke. Eventually I realized that all of this praying was me relying on my works (prayers) instead of on God’s grace, so I asked God to save me one more time and let it go.
Then (skipping a lot of things) I had my rebellion and moved out and went off to make my own decisions and be sinful and stuff. I still went to church every Sunday, but I put some serious thought into why I went and what I wore. I didn’t know that my “rebellion” was like dumping lighter fluid onto a smoldering fire that had never gotten very big. Sure, I’d tried to get people to accept Jesus, but asking questions was about to lead all the seeds my dad and our churches had planted to burst into flames. But let me tell you.
So there was this girl at the super-conservative church my parents went to at the time. She was pretty much the only girl I knew who was close to my age, and even though my uncle was big on trying to bag chicks, I played it safe and went with what I knew. We talked all the time, and one day for no reason that I can discern right now I decided that I was going to date two other girls first and then marry her. Well, my uncle suggested the “date other people first” part, so there’s that, but why I decided, knowing her not-at-all, that she was The One™ is completely beyond me. Chalk it up to ignorance and a fuzzy belief that God was in control.
One night, very late, I told her that I thought she was pretty and the sparks flew. I told her this over the internet. That lit that torch on fire, but the next one was still to come. I was excited and I called my uncle and he told me that I needed to get her family’s blessing. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but wait ’till I tell you.
It’s been over six years since that day, and I don’t really remember a lot of it except that her dad wanted us to court instead of date (thus the sort-of-girlfriend) and that he wanted to make sure I was consistently attending the same church. Not that church necessarily, but the same one every week, anyway.
Somebody is going to comment that my conversion was really just a matter of having a religious experience to be with her, but it wasn’t. At least I don’t think so, looking back now, but for a while later, I would.
She shared a couple of books by Eric and Leslie Ludy with me. In retrospect I would say that they’re horrible books and nobody should ever read them except as an exemplar of what not to do, but those books changed my life forever. I read their stories and the way they told it, God was all over their lives. God was connected and involved and in their lives and working constantly in mysterious ways to bring them together into the Perfect Relationship™. And I wanted that. Not just the perfect relationship, but the relationship with God. God help me, I wanted that.
So I called the pastor of my family’s conservative church and asked how to know God and he told me to pray for as long as I needed to. Also, read my Bible. So I hung up the phone and talked to the walls for about two hours straight. I got comfortable feeling like maybe somebody would listen. I got tired and I read the Bible. I figured John would be as good a place to start as any, so I read it. Halfway through I decided to get a shower and all of a sudden I felt the love of God and the whole thing hit me like an overused metaphor.
I went to church the next day ecstatic out of my mind, and the sermon was about how the Ethiopian Eunuch went looking for God and God found him and I was bowled over again with the tangibleness of the love of God.
There’s a story Max Lucado tells in one of his (many) books about how the older brother might have shown up after the prodigal father poured out blessings on his unworthy son. Older would have told younger that pop wanted the clothes kept spotless and the ring kept cleanly polished and is that a spot on that ring? That’s kind of what happened next except I didn’t need an older brother to say that stuff. The older brother was inside of me all along. The voice that whispered “You’re not good enough.”
My dad wanted me to give up my love for Contemporary Christian Music because it had a sinful beat and just made you wanna dance, but I knew that I couldn’t. The music itself that was part of my transformation. I wanted to let it go, but God was using it, so I decided God must have been okay with it. I still remember falling backwards onto my bed and asking, “God, what are you doing to me?”
I became obsessed with pleasing God. I bought a Bible that I felt like I could read and understand (New Living Translation). I read it all the time, and it felt like God was speaking right to me when I read it.
I moved back in with my parents. I spent countless hours arguing with my dad that God was a God of love. I told my not-girlfriend that I had to go to another church because that was where I felt God wanted me to go, and then I spiritually wrangled my heart into believing that God wanted me at my parents church because I had read a book called The Covering by John Bevere that OH DEAR GOD nobody should ever read but it seemed like a Godly Idea™ at the time.
I should mention that during this time, my heart was ablaze. I believed like you wouldn’t believe. I watched water rippling through the creek and knew deep in my soul that no one could ever doubt God. “Sure, we need water to survive,” I said to my imaginary atheist, “but why does it sparkle?”
I hung Bible verses in my cubicle at work. I even read the Bible in my cubicle. (I got in trouble for it, too, and I was just a little proud of myself for that). God was alive and trees and color and everything beautiful was proof of the existence of a benevolent deity. One time I told God that if he took away everything good in my life, I had already had a lifetime of joy.
Never pray prayers like that. God, or karma, or whatever, is gracious enough to save us from our ignorance in such matters.
On good Friday, I was driving to work and I realized that I thought more about her than I did about God. I knew that this must be wrong so I wrote the note with which I opened this story and I told her that I felt like God was calling me to give her up. I had to give her up because I wanted so much for us to be together that I knew God would never let it happen unless I did.
I’m pretty sure I was psychotic. I was also a jerk because I told her about it. She knew that I was on fire for God so she let it happen because if God wanted it then it must be the right thing.
So I walked back into the old coal mine across from my parents’ property and prayed for at least an hour. I prayed a lot back then. But not as much as I did later.
I remembered Abraham and how God had called Abraham to sacrifice what he valued most, and I felt that that’s what God had wanted me to do. Finally, an escape appeared. God never asked Abraham to give up Isaac, in the end. God just wanted Abraham to be willing to give up Isaac. I came back to the house and sent her a message explaining that I think God just wanted me to be willing to give her up, and I had been, so I was off the hook.
That summer I flew to Alaska to spend a few days with my aunt and uncle. Those days pulled off some of the crazy and I started believing that maybe God was okay with me being happy, so I talked to her dad again. We met at a restaurant near her house, and if the crazy hadn’t been on then, that’s when it kicked into high gear.
He wanted us to talk less.
Now, to any sane person, when a girl’s dad tells you he wants you two to talk less, you know that he means he wishes the two of you weren’t an item. But I was no sane person, and I just knew that if we followed his rules, he would one day pronounce his blessing on us and we could get married and live happily ever after. I started doing things to impress him. I mean, to impress God. I mean… And that’s where the conflictedness came back into play.
I had this half-vision of trying to pull snakes out of my chest, but no matter how many I pulled out, there were always more. I wanted to love God most but it was because I was sure that I loved her most. I was screwed and I didn’t know how to get out, so I asked the pastor and he told me that I just needed to pray more. I hadn’t really considered any other course of action, so his advice was little help.
That’s also when I moved out of my parents’ house and moved in with my grandparents. Then I discovered Mark Driscoll while I was driving for FedEx Ground. I listened pretty much exclusively to Christian radio. To say the least, I was really interested in how to have a Godly Christian Relationship™. I listened to one of MD’s sermons about what he believed the cross was about, and I called my not-girlfriend to tell her and she told me I was all fired up. She seemed pretty happy about that.
And then there was the time her dad told me that I was like a dog in heat. I should mention that we never touched. We never hugged or even held hands. Not once. There were whole bunches of crazy going on there, but I never saw them.
Now what I didn’t tell you was that during the entire course of both relationships, I had Sin In My Life™. I’d tried to break the (legal) habit, but every few months it would come back. I kept hinting that I was a terrible sinner but she didn’t believe me until I told her the details a few days before Christmas. She tearfully broke up with me a two nights before Christmas. I remember that I read her a few Psalms trying to keep her on the line, and when she told me that her parents said “We thought you wanted to marry somebody pure” the accusation etched itself indelibly into my heart, and I knew I would never be good enough. It was the most absolutely miserable Christmas of my life, and it felt a hell of a lot like dying.
The relationship had a few small fizzles, but when she set Taylor Swift’s “Picture to Burn” as her AOL Instant Messenger status, I knew it was over.
I went back to the other church, the one where I had thought God wanted me to go so long ago. I cried on my friend Jordan’s lap, and I cried on my friend Aaron’s shoulder for weeks. I read “Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning. I read The Message. I read the Bible and Christian books so much that my grandma started to think I was going to be a preacher.
Finally, Aaron dragged me to a prayer group. I told them about my problem, and they told me they’d all struggled with it and that God had rescued them. The dying embers of my faith burst back to life. I prayed with them for hours every Saturday. It was the highlight of my week for months. I kept meeting people who struggled and trying to pull them into our group. That’s where I met Scotty and James.
Scotty invited me to work at Jumonville, a United Methodist camp where he had worked. James went to work there with me. A few weeks before we started, I met another girl at church who was going to work there. She was cute, and I was comfortable talking with her. It was a sign from God.
Jumonville cured some of my psychosis. The words “You are a beautiful, unrepeatable miracle. You are worth the air you breathe and the space you take up. God did not make a mistake when he created you” etched themselves indelibly into my heart. It was like breathing fresh air again for the first time since Alaska. The battle wasn’t over, but at last the other side was finally putting up a fight.
Jumonville was also where I met Kristen. We both liked Mark Driscoll, and the same day that I learned that, she came out of the basement of the cabin wearing an outfit I’d seen my wife wearing in a dream. (Yeah, it’s confusing, but it’s pretty cool and it’s part of why she kept coming back into my mind).
Then I went to college. I knew I’d find my wife when I went to college. It was kind of true, because I spent a lot of time talking to Kristen. When I had the chance to tell her she was beautiful, I told her she was a beautiful unrepeatable miracle and dodged the bullet. I was so cautious.
God basically disappeared from my life when I went to college. I prayed a lot, but it felt like all of a sudden, I was in a dorm room by myself in a senior dorm and God had walked away and left me alone here in a world far away from everything I knew. Kristen was pretty much my main connection to home, and even though I tried to limit our conversations, she says we talked a lot that first semester.
I moved to a freshman dorm. I got invited to a prayer group. I was relieved. God was still alive. Students were praying for revival right and left. I went to chapel and forgave God for letting me down like I knew he had.
The next summer I asked Kristen out. We hugged and danced before we dated. I told her I loved her shortly after we met in the first place. And we held hands within days of when I asked her out. Sanity was descending on my flaming heart.
Something strange happened, though. During the summer of 2011, I read Love Wins by Rob Bell. I highly recommend it, just for the provocation. I cried because I found it so beautiful. It nearly wrecked my relationship with Kristen. I read a series of articles on penal substitutionary atonement (the story that had gotten me all fired up when Mark Driscoll told it). It changed things even more than Love Wins.
I took a class on Biblical History and Literature. Another one on Revelation, and another on the Old Testament. I took a sociology class. Learning things changed my faith. I became more comfortable asking questions. My friends and I invited Mormons over to our apartment, and I found a whole lot more holes in my faith. I learned things. I started listening to NPR. By the time I was standing in the storage room at my dad’s house, Kristen and I were engaged and I hardly believed anything that I had when I was on fire.
So there I was, standing in the storage room at my dad’s house with the six-year-old note in my hand. I recoiled from it like it was a black widow spider and then wrinkled it up and dropped it into the trash bag.
Salvation had come. Somehow, God had saved me from my ideas about God. And maybe God still is.
There are a few things that I still miss, like the certainty that God is there and that God loves me and would have died just for me if it had come to that, and that when I read the Bible, God is speaking directly to me. I miss having no doubt that God had good plans for my life and would only ever do good. It’s odd, because even though everything has indeed turned out for good, I still wrestle with it. When I look back and imagine how my life could have been, I’m horrified. And when I look over at my beautiful bride Kristen, it fills me with a deep joy.
And maybe I still am on fire. I have finally heard a story that I think might be worth sharing. Maybe I’ll blog that next.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
3 thoughts on “When We Were On Fire”
I read the whole thing – despite the length, it’s a definite attention-keeper 🙂 Keep going!
God promised some of us good in the end, and a cross for now. Any good for now is strictly gratuitous, which really makes it that much more of a joy that there is joy in this life, and for so many people. Meanwhile, struggling with faith is a common cross — John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, &c., &c. It’s not for nothing that Christ asks: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?”
Put another way, martyrs read Joel Osteen tweets.
Prayers for you and yours, me and mine, and everyone else.
“Somehow, God had saved me from my ideas about God.” YES! God saved me in this way something like 15 years ago, and I am so thankful. Being the kind of Christian I was before was such a pointless, angsty, self-obsessed venture and being free of it has been the most beautiful loss. I’ve lost so much. So much hatred of myself for the sin-thoughts I just couldn’t stop having/obsessing over. So much guilt for not stopping strangers in the street and walking them through Chick tracts that gave me a queasy feeling in my guts I felt ashamed of having. So much wrestling over how to stop having a personality so that I could “die to self” more effectively. I’ve lost so much that now, in my faith, there’s actually room to breathe.