God might have kicked my ass in February 2013.
I was having lunch with my office colleagues and we were talking about the mad cow disease and that it was rediscovered in England. Suddenly it hit me that I had ossobuco at a Moroccan restaurant a week before, a dish that goes with bone marrow of the veal. So I was convinced that I must have been infected now. Once my vivid imagination was running at full speed, I wasn’t able to stop this ignorant thought train anymore and started to feel weak and dizzy. I was about to lose my vision and hearing and nearly fell off the chair if my colleagues hadn’t laid me down on a bench. After a short while, I regained color and humor to smile about what had happened. In the afternoon and in the following days, I went to several doctors. No-one could really explain what happened until finally the ENT doctor found out, that my nerve tracts at my inner ear are not properly perfused. This could have been amplified by the stress that I felt in that moment.
He prescribed me massages, medicine and told me not to worry. But I did. Even several days after, I was scared to the bone by what had happened. I was struck by how fierce panic and the fear of death can suddenly be and overcome me. Of course, my emotions were wildly exaggerating as usually in such moments and I told myself that there is nothing to worry about. But that was as pointless as telling someone who is not calm to calm down. During these awful days, I came to the sobering realization that essentially no person can help you when facing death. You are on your own. You can be surrounded by people who love you and you are still alone. In this situation, God is the only one who could possibly be with you, providing that you believe in Him.
What then irritated me is that I actually did believe in God and still felt lonely. So either I was a fraidy-cat by nature or, more probable, my belief had not grown further than being an intellectual construct explaining to me the existence of the universe, the existence of life, the existence of selves, the objectivity of moral values and duties and the purpose and sense of existence in the first place. In short, I was lacking the emotional bond and relationship with God.
Instead of living with God, I lived only for myself and meticulously served my inner need for personal happiness, self-gratification and fulfillment. In my daily life I planned an anchor point of pleasure intake each day, whether it is going to the movies, doing sports, watching my soccer team on TV, going out, doing some work, having dinner, etc. Separately considered, these activities were very decent, but the motivation behind them had become an addiction to me. The problem of this lifestyle revealed itself, when I had absolutely nothing to do, which was often the case on Sundays. I got not only bored but also lethargic, lifeless and even depressed. Thus, these activities to keep myself busy have been in essence distractions from my underlying restless state of mind. It seemed like the shadow of death and impermanence was constantly lurking around me but I tried to ignore it and its implications. I was hiding from the inevitable like so many people in the developed countries do. Indeed, through the advancement of medicine and culture we are now able to postpone death for so many years that one could actually forget about it. Certainly, this is a really great achievment, but it also bears the danger of developing ignorance, greed and hatred in our minds. The awareness of death is the only thing in life that can humble us and our egos because it shows us that - by nature - we are not great, powerful and invincible. Then I knew that my troubled mind was simply looking out for something to reside in.
King Solomon makes a similar experience in the book Ecclesiastes. He monologues about all his great earthly achievements and how meaningless they still are to him. All his riches, toil, wisdom, folly, advancement; everything is meaningless he says. In the end, Solomon concludes that only God alone can be source of meaning, purpose and value in life. In the words of the popular atheist Richard Dawkins, without God there is, “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference”. The whole civilization would eventually take the same fate of eternal death and oblivion. Thus, giving one’s life an own personal meaning wholly apart from God would ultimately be candy-coating and self-deluding.
That conclusion realigned my perspective on life. I do not want to live a meaningless life and die realizing that all my toil has been more or less for nothing. Neither do I want to make my life become an agglomeration of distractions resulting in short-term peaks of happiness but rather a sustainable and long-term development of joyfulness. I believe the only way to achieve this is by learning to know God. According to Christian theology, the knowledge of God is the chief purpose in life. Everything else will follow from that. As Apostle Paul says, love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control will be the fruit of receiving Gods Holy Spirit, that is obtaining the knowledge of God (Galatians 5:22-23). Thus, the Christian doctrine of loving your neighbor as yourself becomes not just a principle but the outright and logical consequence of learning to know God and loving Him with all your heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:36-40).
So as a starting point, I decided to write down the testimony of my young life in which I lost contact with God in my teenage years and found a way to get back to him in my mid-twenties. By this, I hope to learn something about myself and to inspire some people that have the eyes to see and the ears to hear my story.
Dortmund, Germany, 1986 - 1999:
I spent my childhood and early youth in Dortmund where I was having a blessed life. My parents and grandparents were all taking care of me and I had a lot of friends from school, my football club, the neighborhood and the KJG (Katholische Junge Gemeinde) which is an organization of the Catholic Church for young teenagers. My life and its concept were very simple at that time: I learned that God our Father made us and will eventually call us back. In the meantime we shall live humbly, be thankful, love our neighbor as ourselves and love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind. Although I could not always live up to that principle (e.g. I wasn’t always thankful for my Christmas presents), I embraced this basic Christian belief with my naïve and trustful mind. Back then, I did not know the meaning of suffering and how it would feel like yet. I was living in my personal Garden of Eden, where God gave me anything I needed. But something was about to challenge me to leave.
Osnabrück, Germany, 1999 - 2006:
Moving with my family to Osnabrück when I was in the 7th class at high school meant a big change for my life. Although Osnabrück is only 100 km away from Dortmund, for a 13-year old this distance was like a trip half around the world. As a consequence I lost all of my old friends and the new friends I made were surely not less lovely but they were outsiders. Indeed, I had problems accommodating myself with the new class climate in school. While it was calm and disciplinary with a majority of girls in Dortmund it became wild and pubertal with only 4 girls in Osnabrück. My social status and the way my classmates perceived me suddenly changed from being the happy, innocent and popular pupil to now being the new, different and strange one. All this rubbed off on my self-understanding and self-esteem. As a result, I gave up my interest in girls and focused on computer games such as Counterstrike and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. I founded different so called clans with my friends and for many years put all my energy into them. In the end, we were in deed highly successful and known within the scene.
However, during this time I lost my relationship with God. I did not rejoin the KJG in Osnabrück because it appeared to me as boring and pointless. The church service was confirming its widespread image; it was archaic, overloaded with liturgy, false, uninspiring and passionless. It did not appeal to me anymore and I did not want to go to church out of a sense of duty either. The often phony and hypocritical community repelled me even more and I was fatally wrong when I mistook them for God himself. So I started to spend my time with like-minded people, meaning ignorant back-seat drivers who knew it all better. We considered science as the only source of knowledge and rejected any belief in a transcendent God that cannot be tested and verified by the laws of science. The certainty and bigotry with which this verdict of atheism spread, always under the cover of alleged reason and intellect, made my belief in God collapse like a house of cards. I was about to make the same mistake for the second time in my life: I blindly followed atheism as I had blindly followed Christianity in my childhood; without any foundation based on a fair examination and discourse. In the following years, I never thought much about the implications of my new belief. I did not realize that a consistent atheistic ideology ultimately and necessarily has to lead to nihilism, a world view where, objectively, absolutely everything is permitted and absolutely nothing matters.
But my suffering began before. For quite a while now, I had growing issues with my stepfather. His primary educational goal was always to teach me discipline and order, for which I am now very thankful. However, at that time, I became increasingly angry with him for not being as laid-back as I was. Thousands of small fights have been the result and my mother got worn out by taking sides all the time. Finally it all ended in a big explosion: Once again I left my shoes lying around unorderly in the corridor. My stepfather pointed it out to me, I insulted him, he slapped me and I finally pushed him with full force out of my room. For me, the case was decided then; I could not live with this man under one roof anymore. I was not willing to forgive anything at all for my ego and pride falsely glorified my own innocence. So after discussions with my mother and grandparents we agreed that I would move into a small flat near my school. I was strangely looking forward to this new chapter in my life but my mother had to watch her family tearing apart. My excitement made me deaf for the misery that I brought over her. This was in the 12th class of high school shortly before turning 18.
Nowadays, after hard work, effort and forgiveness on both sides, my relationship with my stepfather Heiner has become actually loving and I am truly thankful for that.
Bremen, Germany, 2006 – 2009:
After 2 more years of high school and military service, I started my Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering in Bremen. On a superficial level everything started off perfect for me. I was never bored and had a constant pleasure intake. I made new and exciting friends, gained great marks at university and had a beautiful girlfriend. In my rigid pursuit of personal happiness without God I gladly absorbed a lot of false wisdom and knowledge. Small-minded and egomaniac phrases such as “don’t be somebody else”, “live your dreams”, “seize the day”, “fight for your right” and “live each day as if it were your last” served as my religion. I started to glorify and exalt myself and my ego became my god. Only years later I started to realize that this religion is actually self-defeating because personal happiness is an elusive thing best obtained when not being followed directly. But for now, I had my girlfriend, and turned her into the very source of my happiness and purpose of my life. Again, it may sound decent and romantic to circle one’s life around somebody else, but counting on people for fulfillment will always lead to disappointment since nobody is perfect. On the contrary, by making one’s life all about God’s love, one will eventually learn how to get failed, even by loved ones, and still forgive them as God is also forgiving us for the choices we sometimes make. But at that time I did not know that. Hence, I gave my girlfriend the impossible task of making up for the missing God in my life. I gave so much to her that she was unable to follow up and give things back to me for which I became angry and complained about the unbalanced give-and-take score in our relationship. On top of that, I considered my personal fulfillment and ego as holy goals and therefore started power games with her to revenge the dishonor that I felt. The result was sorrow, two broken hearts and my first deep thoughts about life and my religion.
I really thought a lot. I thought so much that I did not see the forest for the trees and I did not see many trees in the first place. But after several month of 24-7 thinking I finally came to some conclusions that would pave my spiritual future. I realized that science cannot explain things but can only describe them. At the end of all causal relationships science is powerless for it has now answer for the ultimate and last "why?". Furthermore I saw that stringent atheism is nothing more than a candy-coated version of nihilism which just seemed to me too brutal to be true. The common escape route, namely humanistic atheism, on the other hand has no foundation, is inconsistent and arbitrary. Nevertheless, God was not yet back in the game either. So I was hanging in the balance just thinking and having no ideology or clue at all.
Cairo, Egypt, 2009 - 2010:
After my Bachelor of Science I did a one-year internship with a German engineering contractor in Egypt and this stay turned me upside down. In the office in Cairo, there were many young Egyptian engineers just above my age who were so eager to meet a young European. Already on the first weekend, a colleague invited me to his family’s place in Alexandria. I was never so lovingly treated as a visitor to a foreign country. Later, I was invited to all sorts of things: Weddings, football games, dinners, hubble bubble meetings and also a service at Maadi Community Church. I wagered that I could not do much wrong by accepting the invitation, also because it was a girl, called Dalia, who invited me and because I was free on Friday.
So I spent my Friday evening standing straight and silent in the middle of hand-clapping, singing and rejoicing Christian Cheshire cats; I felt extremely awkward and the girl was nowhere to be found. Nevertheless I stayed until the end, also because I actually liked the very real and simple nature of the speaker Steve. My dissimilarity however must have attracted attention and so it happened that after the service a big bold German called Rolf came up to me and asked whether I was German. So I had my first foot in the door of this community. From then on, I went to the service each week, not because I suddenly became a believer in Jesus Christ, but because I enjoyed listening to Steve, who was joyful, honest, near to the people, and most of all because he was saying many compelling things about life that touched me. Only the spiritual worshipping part of the service I ignored and put on hold to be sorted out later when I would know more about Christianity. I did not want to shame my intellect and dare talking to a ghost yet. When my friends Ioannis and Christoph came to visit me from Germany they were astonished about me going to church. Unfortunately, I could not really explain why I would do such a weird thing. It just felt right.
In my last service, I went to Steve to say farewell and thank him for the mustard seed that he gave me. I was totally surprised and overrun when he suddenly started to pray for me that I may find joy in God in my future in London.
London, United Kingdom, 2010 - 2011:
After Egypt, I did my Master in Chemical Process Engineering at University College London. The full load of the program hit me immediately and did not allow much free time. In addition to that, the whole city was extremely noisy and even my flat was not always a place for a quiet retreat. Thus, in the beginning I was very often on the edge. I remember that one day a nice Italian girl standing next to me on the tube asked me if I did not find it awkward that all these people stand so close to each other but still don’t exchange a word. I just answered that I would find it okay because I am done talking for the day. I hope I did not give her the wrong impression about British hospitality.
But one day I met James at university. He was and still is a representative of the University Bible Fellowship in North London and told me he was doing Bible studies with students who are interested in learning about Christianity. Usually I reject any kind of street salesmen, but since James was offering exactly what I wanted in an unusually chary way I took his email address to finish the conversation quickly. For a few days, I was not sure whether I would actually get back to James but then I realized it would be plain stupid not to at least give it a try. After all, I was in a foreign megacity where I had total freedom and no social pressures biasing me.
My first study with James was awkward as expected. But still I enjoyed it because I finally found somebody with whom I could discuss in complete honesty religious and philosophical issues that were troubling me. I did not have to be afraid to tread on James’s foot; neither did he somehow force me to believe what he said. So again, after pulling through the awkwardness, I found real enjoyment and from then on met James once a week to discover what the Bible had to say.
I found out, that belief is about a personal relationship, on the one hand with God our Father and on the other hand with one another. Although we are all just tiny dots in a vast universe, God loves each one of us for which reason we should also love one another. As Jesus we shall have the hearts of a humble servant and value others above ourselves not looking to our own interest but each of us to the interest of the others (Philippians 2:3-7). John says that no one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1John 4:10-12). John, having been very close to Jesus, says on many more occasions, that no one has ever seen God, except Jesus (John 1:18, John 6:46, John 7:28-29). This is essential because it means that only through Jesus we can learn to know God better. Thus, in a way Jesus has been sent to reveal God, make him reachable to us, and demonstrate God’s love to us.
Hence, love also stands above law and ultimately is the only true law in Christianity. Religious rules, independent of their genuinely good meaning and purpose, always expose a danger to one’s character and self-perception. They can deceive us into legalism and the misbelief, that we could find rest and salvation in our lives by our own effort to obey the rules. This view puts us on a tightrope from which we will eventually fall into either self-righteousness when assuming to keep the law, or into self-condemnation when not keeping the law. Therefore, we need to surrender our self-effort to save our lives by works and deeds of obedience to the law and rather just love as Jesus loved. Certainly, this does not imply that law is to be ignored and licentiousness to be proclaimed; law is simply not the chief source of truth in life but only means and subject of love (Galatians, 1 Corinthians 13). This is certainly a major differentiator from other world religions.
In this light, it is also clear that our outward presentation is irrelevant compared to our inner values which nobody might see for real but God. He does not care how clean we are from the outside and knows exactly how much love we have in us, what we feel and what we think underneath our cover (Luke 11:39-43, Matthew 6:5-7). If we reflect about this and see ourselves as God sees us, we should realize that we are not worthy of worship, self-glorification, self-righteousness and boasting; we are and will never be perfect. It is only after we have judged ourselves from this perspective and rectified our self-view that we can judge others (Luke 6:37-42). Nevertheless, we are worthy of love and God loves us in the same way as we love our children because we are his children. Each of one is unique and so we are unique to God.
I also found parallels of Christianity to the Buddhist religion, which somehow attested the Christian view of life to me. In general, I discovered that Buddhism gives an excellent diagnosis of the human condition and that Christianity provides the solutions. For example in Buddhism, life is suffering and in Christianity, suffering has both a reason, namely repentance and spiritual growth, as well as a solution, namely rescue and salvation through Jesus and his teachings. Furthermore, Buddhism says that we need to detach ourselves from the world, that is, to free our minds from all their desires and anxieties in order to obtain true wisdom and freedom. Jesus says that whoever loses his life will safe it, but whoever tries to safe his live will lose it (Luke 9:24, Luke 17:33). However, after we have emptied and purged our old selves, Jesus asks us to fill our new selves with his love. Then we will know the truth, and the truth shall set us free (John 8:31-34).
Personally speaking, especially the fear of chaos was one anxiety that had been nesting in my mind for a long time. I had developed a consuming ambition to fully control my life which certainly arises from modern education and the thinking that all problems in the world were of structural nature and thus could be resolved if one would only be efficient and organized enough. So over time, I turned into a perfectionist control freak and spent most of my time thinking the future instead of living the present. I was ruled by a self-created dictator called control and he put me in chains as he did not allow my future to be uncertain. But Jesus says that I do not need to worry about the future (Matthew 6:25-34) for everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Luke 11:10). Jesus is with us in the boat whether it is sinking or not (Mark 4:35-41) and he wants us to enjoy our lives in the present as he has already taken care of the future.
Long story short, the teachings of Jesus blew my mind and I realized how much they were expressing exactly what I felt. I cannot pinpoint an exact time, but at some moment I took the leap of faith that I knew would be required if one dares to accept the gift Jesus is giving.
Furthermore, these new insights radically changed my image of Christianity. In the words of Leopoldo Paul Solis, Christianity is not – as I thought – a law-based religion that generally makes people performance-oriented, self-directed, natural-conscious, soul-centered, carnally-minded and worldly-motivated, but a grace-based ministry that makes people faith-oriented, Spirit-led, spiritually-conscious, heavenly-minded and most importantly, love-motivated. So I finally realized that God is God, and not the pope, the bishop, the priest, the religion teacher or the regular churchgoer. If I would reject any of these people, for whatever reason, it does not mean that I also had to reject God.
During this time in London - and I believe with God’s help - I also found Dulanie, the girl who was living next door bringing me hot chocolate to my room every day. If this were a love letter I would probably have three more pages to fill. What astonishes me the most about her is that she - having had no Christian education at all - will probably always teach me how to love my neighbor as myself.
Dortmund, Germany, 2011 - present:
After having finished my master in London, I moved back to Dortmund to start my work life at a German engineering contractor where I am still working right now. I continue doing Bible Studies with James via Skype up to this day. In addition to that, I read a lot of books, especially from the philosopher of religion Dr. William Lane Craig, who helped me strengthening my intellectual stance on my belief in God. But now it is time for me to believe in God not only with my mind but also with my heart and soul. Sometimes I think I can already see Him in the partially available beauty in this world. In those moments, which can just be ordinary conversations with other people, for no apparent reason a deep spiritual catharsis overcomes me and I suddenly have to fight back my tears of joy. This might actually be God’s self-authenticating Spirit.
Looking back on my life, I can now really picture a red thread leading me through the valley of the shadow of death and then via Dalia, Rolf, Steve and James into Gods open arms. Now I just need to grab them and know him more.
People might respond to my growing belief that the motivation has been pure self-interest for I was seeking God in a time of misery. I certainly agree; however, I also think that this is God’s way to draw back the people that have been lost. I would assert, that deep within, a mind without any sense of God is a restless mind and will therefore naturally seek God. Furthermore, people might say that I gave no sound intellectual reasons why I believe in God, other than reasons why I do not believe in no God. In response, I think that the evidence reveals itself only to the one who investigates it. As Dr. Craig restates the French mathematical genius Blaise Pascal: “God does not force Himself upon us. He has given evidence of Himself which is sufficiently clear for those with an open heart and an open mind, but is sufficiently vague so as not to compel people whose hearts are closed”. Furthermore, there are actually strong intellectual arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the teleological argument and the moral argument, which have been well summarized and substantiated by Dr. William Lane Craig in his books On Guard and Reasonable Faith and are waiting to be investigated by an open heart.
Of course I also find disagreeabilities or problems in Christianity and the Bible, such as the age of the earth, the extermination of the Amalekites, the case of homosexuals, the former sacrificial system, the nativity story of Jesus, etc. But as Dr. Craig says: “If you cannot find a solution to the problem, then either hold the truth in tension, awaiting an eventual solution to the problem, or else give up the minimal amount that you would have to in order to retain a consistent Christian worldview [which for example might be the doctrine of biblical inerrancy]. But don’t allow them to stand between you and a personal relationship with God”.Antoine Schillebeeckx