Despite many positive elements, my family of origin also included elements I later understood to be traumatic, including alcoholism, violence, drugs, incarceration, institutionalization, and, for me personally, shame, neglect, and drugs. In choosing a college 2000 miles from home, I was pursuing a vision of who I wanted to become, but I was also seeking to escape a world I didn’t want to be a part of, and to start over again. But such a personal history is not easily left behind …
As the fifth child in my family, one of my emotional challenges was a sense of insignificance. In the fifteen years after leaving home I set out to remedy this by building a record of accomplishment in academics, professional work, and family life. There were painful stumbles along the way (such as twice failing an oral exam that was critical for my Ph.D.), but I always found a way to move forward (in this case, by changing careers and landing a job with a prestigious consulting firm).
Over time, I built a “successful life,” but on the inside I increasingly felt like an imposter. In seeking to enhance my own sense of significance, my behavior grew more destructive, especially toward my wife, fueling (and being fueled by) a growing sense of being irredeemable. This came to a head when it became clear I might lose my marriage, and with it the family I had dreamed of all my life.
One night this came crashing down, and I cried to God out of raw instinct, saying that I wanted to turn my life around but didn’t know how. Expecting my cry to echo in the void, I instead received a clear response: “I am here, and have always been here. I love you, and want you to be healed. If you follow me, I will lead you to a better place.”
My inner intellectual agnostic was overwhelmed by this mystical experience and could find no terms to explain it. Indeed, I have never been able to describe my experience any better than this expression in Psalm 40:
He bent down to me and listened to my cry.
He raised me out of the miry pit, out of the mud and clay;
He set my feet on rock and gave me a firm footing.
On my lips he put a new song, a song of praise to our God.
My leading has always been equally clear that the “he” who bent down to me that night was the Spirit of Jesus, the same one who spoke to me through the gospels. As in the story of the Good Shepherd, I recognized his voice that night, and knew then that I am significant and redeemable in God’s eyes. Much remains a mystery to me about this experience, but I have tried to follow God’s leadings ever since, and he has always kept the promise made to me that night.