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I tend to think of my story as a very typical bible-belt-kid’s story, but then God reminds me that every story of salvation is just as miraculous as any other. So if you fall into that same sort of thinking, share your story. You will be surprised who may need to hear it.
I grew up in a Christian family and was in church on most Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. As with most people with the same type of story, I was saved at the young age of 7. You know how it is when someone is saved at a young age, you say the prayer, get this fuzzy feeling in your chest, and then move on without much life change. That was my story. My life did not look like I was a Christian in my early years, but something changed when I was in 7th grade. I don’t know if I was saved when I was 7, and I just had a slow process of sanctification, or if I was not a believer until 7th grade. Either way, God had a perfect plan for my salvation. But in 7th grade, my youth pastor poured into my life along with the other guys in my discipleship group, and for the first time, I saw Jesus as real and personal.
I also began to realize God’s calling on my life. While in middle school, I thought everyone who was in the youth ministry wanted to be a pastor or a youth pastor. Then one day, I asked my best friend, “So where do you want to be a youth pastor?” His response was, “Dude, I want to be a doctor.” At that point I realized the calling to be a pastor was specific to my life, and it was something that I could not run away from. Over the next couple years, God would strengthen my calling and allow me to see the need to start preparing for what laid ahead.
After the awkward years of middle school, I moved on to high school. Growing up, baseball was a huge part of my life, and I always dreamed of being able to play in high school. Even though I was not a star by any means, I was given the privilege to play for a prestigious baseball program. While I was in school, we won the state championship all 4 years, so most of my time was spent at the baseball field practicing and hanging out. As with many sports teams, I was one of the few believers on the team. There were times where I felt left out and unpopular, but God taught me many lessons and gave me a platform that I would not have had without baseball. By senior year, my nickname on the team was “Rev,” and God allowed me to have great conversations with some of the guys on the team about what faith is and why believers live the way they do.
Going along with playing baseball in high school was the decision whether I wanted to play in college. I had not really given it any thought until senior year when the option came up and a couple of doors opened. This was a big decision for me to make, but through much prayer, God closed the doors to baseball and made clear to me that I was supposed to go to the University of Tennessee and continue my sports career through intramurals.
Before we get to the college years, I need to revisit a problem in my life in my middle school and high school years. Even though I was a believer and had a relationship with Jesus, I had a distorted view of grace and what it meant in my life. Early on I was stuck in my own form of legalism. I felt that everything I did had to be perfect, and I felt I almost had to earn my salvation daily. Instead of seeing my faith as freedom in the Spirit, I felt like I was being weighed down by a set of rules and assignments from Jesus. Through these years, I felt trapped by never being good enough which lead me to find little joy in my faith. I would not find my rest in Christ because I saw him as something that I had to work for. Instead, I would find rest in my relationships, friends, baseball, and many other worldly things. Even when I thought I was living a Christian life, I was more focused on what made my life look perfect rather than what gave God glory.
With that background going into college, I was in for a rude awakening. My freshmen year I roomed with my best friend at the time and two random roommates (they would soon become great friends). The first night of college, they all went out while I was left in the room alone on a Saturday night. I remember thinking to myself, “So this is how college is going to be…” But looking back, I wouldn’t trade those nights for anything. Through those rough times and being thrown into the secular, college world, God taught me it was not about looking perfect and being able to check off the boxes of the “Christian checklist,” but instead, it was about heart change. Now, I did not learn this by going out and joining in with what everyone else was doing, but through finding hope and peace in God in the midst of these trials.
God loves us so he refines us through the fire, but in the same love, he matures us through his blessings. So my sophomore year, God blessed me with the ministry of Cru, and he has grown me while being in the midst of that community. Even though he has blessed me with the fellowship of believers in my life, he has not let me forget the lessons I learned freshmen year. I now see I don’t always need to be surrounded by believers, but I also need to be friends with unbelievers so they can see and hear about Jesus. I now see there is freedom in the Spirit. I now see college isn’t this dreary, dark time for believers, but it is the most fertile and vast mission field we will ever be sent into. I now see the significance of Jeremiah’s words in Jeremiah 29:7 when he tells the exiles to, “seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you into exile.” In the same way as believers in college, we need to plant our feet firm in the campus and invest in the lives around us. We must not stray away from the hard places, but rather, shine a light in the darkest places on campus by reaching out to those who need the gospel the most: everyone.