Michelle Hong, Bowdoin Class of 2016
God is a sensitive topic for most people. Growing up in Texas, it never seemed that way. At home, there are just as many people who genuinely use the phrases, “God bless you,” or even, “The Lord is testing me,” as there are people who use them flippantly. Since coming to Bowdoin, I’ve only ever heard them used sarcastically, and I’ve been guilty of making light of religion myself. But, my aversion to religion started before coming here. In high school, I surrounded myself with people who loved to hate the concept of God. I joined the debate team and reveled in a community that worshiped atheist philosophy. I looked forward to having more of that at Bowdoin where I felt that I could freely question religion and God without backlash. Bowdoin was a gateway to the rest of the world, and I was sure there was more truth out there than Christianity.
I think part of my insistence on atheism was a desire to not conform to the world I was living in. I like independence, and I couldn’t stand being told what to do and what to believe. I had grown up passively going to church, because my grandparents were devout Christians. It was just something my family did. I remember my grandfather calling me to his room to pray over me a few weeks before he passed away. He wept and begged God to bless me with faith, but all I could respond with was bewilderment at a show of desperation I had never seen in him before. I couldn’t make myself believe for anyone’s sake. As soon as I didn’t have to go to church anymore, I stopped. I thought my convictions of equality and justice and the modern church’s reactions to issues like homosexuality and women’s rights were at odds by definition, and if I had to choose, my conscience forced me to choose equality and justice. In my teenage determination to champion all social movements, I blindly followed the current of culture and never stopped to hear the other side out.
For a few years I had a huge attachment to my sense of self. It was all about me. I wanted to do well in school, succeed, be independent, and have fun—all for my own sake. It worked out well for a while. I have unforgettable memories from high school, and I’ve met amazing people and had amazing experiences during my first two years at Bowdoin. I was totally fine. I wasn’t searching for a religion to fix my life, but I still had questions; I always had a gnawing feeling that there was something there I didn’t quite understand. I had a sustained curiosity about Christianity that would resurface time to time, but like many non-believers, I couldn’t understand how Christians could trust in a God they couldn’t see or hear. Even worse to me was the hypocrisy of setting a moral standard even they couldn’t meet. I couldn’t rationalize it in my head, so I just ignored Him. But, even when I rejected Him over and over again, missing call after call, His steadfast love endured.
Early last semester, a chance conversation with a Christian friend led to an invitation to the Joseph and Alice McKeen Study Center at Bowdoin. I came with clenched fists, expecting to hate what I heard but also wondering what would happen if I didn’t. While I didn’t immediately get perfect answers, I got enough to make me doubt whether I knew as much as I thought I did and to further spark my curiosity. Soon, I found myself at a Bible study on Ephesians 2:4-10, which says,
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
These are the words that saved me. I had never really read the Bible before. I had learned many of the stories, but reading the verses of Ephesians directly was entirely different.
I can’t explain what changed in me except that I finally felt the love of God. My eyes were opened to the fact that the Christian life is not about doing good things and being a good person in order to earn God’s favor. No one is worthy. That’s the point. We had to be redeemed, and who could redeem us but our Creator. A relationship with God is not a vending machine. You don’t put money in and automatically get what you pay for. We don’t even have money. All of us are broke and penniless. We don’t pray, do good deeds, and expect salvation. We have been graced with salvation. I have been graced with salvation. It doesn’t come for free, though. Jesus is the one who paid for my sins with his blood, and it is my faith in that fact that saves me.
Jesus was also the answer to my other looming misunderstanding about God. It frustrated me that God would ask us to trust in him without making himself obvious to us. If we can’t see or hear him, how can we be expected to know he’s there? Ephesians 3 told me that He did make Himself obvious to us. Paul says in verses 8-12,
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
What more could I ask? Jesus coming as a man was God revealing himself to us and showing us his true nature. He was literally a human that could be seen and heard. God came to us. He sought after us. All we have to do is open our eyes and turn to him. The crushing magnitude of this broke the hardness in my heart. How great Jesus’ love must be for him to come and dirty his hands with this cold world we live in. Just because I’ve never seen a love like that anywhere else, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If anyone could have the capacity to love like that, it would be God. The simplicity of it blew me away. In my rebellion, I was complicating a plain truth.
While at first it seemed like serendipity brought me to God, my situation feels too ideal to be chance. There have been countless occasions when I could have picked up a Bible or taken a minute to search Google for explanations. Instead, He made it so that I would read the Ephesians verses the first time I came to Bible study here. He made it so that I would cross paths with mentors who could answer my questions and direct me to the Scripture I needed to read.
I have never before had the opportunity to study Scripture with the intensity of an academic discipline as I do here at a college study center. After coming to faith, my mom told me she had been praying that I would have a friend who would invite me to go to church with them. I believe this was God’s way of answering that prayer. Looking back and seeing that in context of my grandfather’s prayer for my faith, I see that God truly does answer prayers, and nothing has been a coincidence.
The hardest part about explaining my faith has been explaining what has changed. It doesn’t look like much has happened. I’m still a student at Bowdoin. I still have the same friends. I look the same. But, inside, my world has been turned upside down in a way I don’t think I can overstate. All my priorities have changed, and now everything is about God. It actually feels like falling in love. Everything I do feels different because I’m living for God. I think about Him all the time. I want to be the kind of person He would want me to be. He has given me a new heart to see temptation for what it is. I’ll never be perfect at it—in fact I’ll always be pretty bad at it—but He is gracing me with the ability to be better at following him.
The last semester has been like a feast. It was only after meeting Jesus that I realized I was starved of the Word, and I’ve been eating up every bit of Scripture I can find. All of it has spoken to me and revealed that I’ve been rejecting the very answers I’ve been seeking. Christianity is not at odds with equality and justice. I was remembering isolated examples of Christians showing their imperfect humanity. All are equal before God, and God is pure justice. My conscience was not wrong to choose equality and justice, but it was missing the most important piece: The source of equality, justice, and my conscience is God. I didn’t need a religion to structure my life, and a religion is not what I’m walking into. This is between God and me, independent of the church. I know I don’t understand all the details and minutia of Scripture, and I may never understand all of it. But, I’ve accepted the basic truths that I think I must have subconsciously known my whole life. God is my Creator, and Jesus is my redeemer. It is truly a gift that God has given me. I ran from Him, but He said, “You are mine.” I forgot about my grandfather’s prayer for years, but God didn’t. I’m sure there will be seasons in my life when I stray from Him, but, as He has already proven to me He will keep me close.