by Veronica McDonald
The morning I became a Christian (in the summer of 2016), I remember sitting on my couch watching my four-year old daughter and two-year old son playing together, and thinking, I feel great… Wait, why do I feel great? What just happened?
It’s hard to explain why this moment was so monumental, so let me back up.
I was raised Catholic, went to mass most Sundays, and attended a Catholic high school. My childhood was semi-dramatic— a mix of really good memories and really bad ones— and my parents divorced when I was twelve. Back then, I believed in God, but didn’t understand Jesus. I knew Jesus was God’s son, but had no concept of what that meant, and I often prayed to God while ignoring the whole “Jesus aspect” of things. I believed that if you were a good person you would go to Heaven, or maybe even come back to Earth as a majestic animal, like a tiger or an eagle. I didn’t think anyone knew what really happened after you died. Though I’d read the Gospels, I’d never heard the gospel or grasped the significance of Jesus hanging on the crucifix in middle of the church. I didn’t get why people thought he was so loving, when to me he seemed strict. I just knew I loved stained glass, taking communion, the feel of wooden pews, the statues of the Saints, praying the “Our Father,” and I loved God.
I cherry picked a lot of teachings from the Bible in my teenage years, and while I grew to like Jesus, I still didn’t understand him. I followed my own morality for the most part; a combination of TV sitcom teachable moments (Full House, Family Matters, and the like were great for that) and Catholic guilt, mixed with a healthy dose of self-righteousness. I did what was right in my own eyes, mostly what I learned from television, and I was critical of those who didn’t follow my moral standard. By the time I was seventeen, I was a pathological liar, who drank and swore like a sailor, and a firm believer that if no one knew you were doing something wrong, and you weren’t hurting anyone else, you could do whatever you wanted. As the third of four children with parents who had their own relationship-drama to deal with, I spent my later teenage years basically doing whatever I wanted. I often felt guilty, but I grew up knowing God would forgive me.
It wasn’t until my second year as an undergrad in New York City that my faith left me completely. No one thing specifically caused my unbelief, but rather an accumulation of things. I ended a relationship with an atheist and entered right into another relationship with a different atheist, both of whom thought that believing in God was ridiculous and naive. In my Greek Mythology class, I read in my textbook that the story of Noah’s flood was stolen from the Epic of Gilgamesh and that Jesus’ story and deity were taken from the myth of Dionysus and other pre-Christian gods. On top of that, I was living a completely sinful life. While this didn’t directly contribute to my atheism, I had nearly replaced God with drinking and partying and having a good time.
I don’t remember all of the specific things that contributed to my unbelief, but I do remember the exact moment I stopped believing in God. I was standing in my Dad’s kitchen, and the realization just crashed over me that God did not exist. It occurred to me that God was just another fairy tale, sort of like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, that people allowed themselves to believe so that they could cope with the inevitability of death and avoid the crushing weight one feels when facing nonexistence. Not only that, but Jesus was a construct of the Church, and the Bible was the Church’s way to control and maintain power over the masses.
I say this realization – this nihilistic atheism – “crashed” over me because that’s exactly what it felt like. It terrified me. To my core. I didn’t want to stop believing in God. I even tried to believe again, but ultimately, I felt it was completely intellectually dishonest to pretend that God existed. Adults only believed because that’s how they were raised. It was purely cultural and social, or a result of indoctrination. It was clear, there was no God. There was no afterlife or the supernatural. Everything on this Earth, actually including the Earth and sun and stars, will come to an end one day and disappear into a meaningless nonexistence.
These thoughts completely threw me into a depression that I regularly hid with studying, partying, and drinking. I never wanted to talk about religion or God or the afterlife, and I would change the subject if anyone brought it up. I felt betrayed in a way, and foolish that I ever believed in the first place, but at the same time I didn’t want to pull that veil of illusion from anyone else’s eyes. People who believed in God didn’t feel that weight of impending nonexistence, and I never wanted to be the person to take that away from anyone. I preferred that most people stayed in their blissful ignorance, and I was jealous that I could not be blissfully ignorant with them. So, from then on, throughout my twenties, I defended Christians, and even defended Jesus, if anyone talked bad about them or said something critical of Christianity. I couldn’t stand the idea of someone taking away the faith of another person. It felt like a horrible secret. I never wanted anyone to feel like I did on the inside – empty, lost, and terrified.
Fast forwarding through my twenties, I got married, went through graduate school (where I learned more atheistic theories and criticisms of Christianity), had two children, and completely shoved away my angst over death and God. My husband had grown up in a Southern Baptist family, so he and I would sometimes debate about Christianity. These debates often ended with both of us getting upset, so over time we mostly stopped talking about it. My husband was in the Navy and gone a lot, but I agreed when we got married that we would raise our kids in the Christian faith. We made attempts at finding a church and I even tried to read the Bible, but neither of us were very dedicated; my husband because he was busy with work, and I because I wasn’t buying any of it.
When we moved to San Diego, far away from both of our families, my depression came back full force. Because I was no longer in graduate school, I couldn’t throw myself into academic work. Because I wasn’t around family, I could no longer use them as a distraction. Because I was married with children, going to a bar to drink and party until I forgot about everything was no longer an option. I felt trapped— trapped in a world that I didn’t understand and trapped in a body that would eventually die. And I hated myself. Anxiety had been building in my chest for over two years, and it was reaching its peak.
My depression and anxiety didn’t make sense to me, and I told myself it wouldn’t make sense to other people. No one wants to hear that you’re not OK. I assumed my friends and family would only think I was complaining, or crazy. And I felt crazy. We were living in a house we owned in beautiful California, with two adorable kids, and my husband is a good man. Because he made enough money, I didn’t have to work and could stay home with our children (which I loved). I had time to write, and my stories and poetry were getting published. I was comfortable, safe, doing things I loved— and I wanted to die. Well, not exactly. I didn’t want to die, but I was tired of being afraid. I was so terrified of the inevitability of death that I just wanted to get it over with. My family would grieve, but they would eventually die, too, and over time no one would be around to remember me, or anything else. It was selfish, but even though we were only going to be in San Diego for a few years, I couldn’t imagine living that long.
My anxiety took a turn for the worst when we found out that my husband’s grandfather passed away. Though we loved him, this was not a shock. He had lived a long life and his health had been declining for a while, but the mention of his death terrified me. I couldn’t sleep at night. I was screaming at the children over little things. I felt like I was drowning. I cried all the time. All I could see around me was death. Every time I looked at my children, all I could think was that they were going to die one day. I looked at strangers, and all I could think was that they were going to die one day. I looked at a tree and thought about death. I wondered about the purpose of this meaningless life; were we here just to hold onto the flame of a brief mysterious life force, and then be snuffed out? During the day, all I wanted to do was sleep. I thought about hurting myself constantly. My skin was crawling and I wanted to scratch it off. I often thought about cutting myself (I couldn’t go through with it). Sometimes I would slap myself hard in the face, both to punish myself for not holding it together and to try to feel something besides fear. I felt guilty whenever my kids caught me crying. Voices would pop in my head telling me what a horrible mother and person I was. It was unbearable.
One day, I grabbed a business card off the refrigerator for a phone number I needed, and a magnet fell and broke. The magnet was a ceramic cross that my mother-in-law had given us. On it were the words, “Be still and know that I am God.” Those words burned in me and felt significant, but I brushed them off. Later, when my husband came home and I was balled up in the kitchen crying, I tried to explain to him what I was feeling, how I was terrified of death and there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t want professional help; I was convinced I would get prescribed anti-depressants or some other meds, which to me felt like another form of delusion. My husband told me it sounded like I needed to “get right with God.” I knew he wanted to help, but I thought this was a ridiculous thing to say. I wanted to tell him that deluding myself into believing God existed wasn’t possible. I couldn’t and wouldn’t try to force myself to believe something that I knew wasn’t true, no matter how scared I was.
But then, my teacher from high school popped into my head. She was a no-nonsense, loud, smart woman who said the first day of class one year, “I love to debate Atheists, give me an Atheist any day” with a big smile on her face. I felt the strongest desire to talk to her, to ask her what she meant. I started thinking about my other high school teachers and college professors who believed in God. I was dying to know why they believed. It dawned on me that there were academic-minded believers, and I suddenly wanted to know why they thought God was real.
I probably could have reached out to my family members at this time, but I didn’t. Both my husband and I have intelligent, believing family members who probably could have answered a lot of my questions. But I was completely falling apart, and I could hardly talk to anyone without bursting into tears. I even hid this from my husband and kids as much as I could. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to be swayed by a well-meaning family member. I wanted to explore this on my own.
So, my internet research began. I started by looking up objections I’d had about God, Jesus, and the Christian faith, and then investigated why people believed Christianity was true. I figured I’d start with Christianity, since that was what I was most familiar with, and then explore other religions. I only wanted to know the truth. I assumed atheism was true, but I had never really taken the time to strengthen that position. I decided that if atheism was true, then I would remain an atheist, and I would know for sure that there was no hope, for me or for anyone. I didn’t even know if it was possible to find “truth,” but I needed to try.
When I learned about the historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth (who I had previously thought was more myth than man), something in me began to change. I started “praying.” And randomly singing. Whenever I got my daily crushing weight of fear, I would start singing a song I learned in high school: “Our God is an Awesome God.” My friends and I had always made fun of that song, and I couldn’t remember much of the words, but I sang it around the house with the sincere hope that there was a God. My prayers consisted of me falling to the ground in tears with my face to the floor asking God, if he was real, to please help me. I remained skeptical and unbelieving, but I was desperate. Nothing happened, and my anxiety was worse than ever.
Around this time my little brother was about to get married. I was going to fly alone, without my husband and kids, to be at his wedding in Massachusetts. I thought this would be good for me, that if I was around family, I wouldn’t feel this crushing depression. I packed a Bible that my husband had given me a few years before, as a way to continue my research while I was gone.
Shortly before my trip, I discussed my Christianity research with my brother. I told him via our text chat that I was starting to think that maybe Jesus really did rise from the dead. I didn’t totally believe, but the more I read, the more I started to feel that maybe it was possible. My brother, once a devoted Catholic and now an agnostic-atheist, immediately objected, and though I don’t remember what we talked about, we debated a bit.
At my brother’s wedding, surrounded by family, the fear, anxiety, and depression didn’t go away. My head swam with ideas of death, nonexistence, Jesus, God, the mystery of life, and it seemed like no one around me, not even my own family (no longer exclusively Catholic, but instead a mixed bag of beliefs that included the New Age, agnosticism, and atheism), had any idea if there was a God or not. I felt myself falling apart again, so I started drinking… a lot. I danced, I laughed, and I pulled my brother aside on the dance floor to yell in his ear, “I’m sorry I bothered you with all that Christian bullsh*t!” I passed out alone in my hotel room, and had a horrible hangover the next day. It was the last time I got drunk.
When I got home, my husband left shortly after on Navy business for a few days, and I was alone again with my kids. But more changes were happening. I felt incredibly guilty about what I said to my brother at his wedding. And I realized this was because I didn’t think Christianity was “bullsh*t.” It dawned on me that I believed that Jesus may have actually risen from the dead. And if he did, that meant the Christian God was real. Similar to the way that God’s nonexistence crashed over me in my Dad’s kitchen, I walked into my own kitchen and was overcome with the notion that Jesus truly rose from the dead.
While my husband was away and my kids were asleep, I attempted to pray in my bed when suddenly thoughts of all the things I’d done in my past came flooding through my mind. These were things that I had previously blamed on other people, where in my eyes I had always been guiltless and a “good person,” I now saw how I had hurt other people. I suddenly could see how wrong I’d been about the way I viewed the situations of my past. I broke down crying and apologized. I said “Jesus, if you’re real, then I am so sorry,” and I meant it. Then I fell asleep.
The next morning, as I opened my eyes, the ball of anxiety that had made its home in my chest for years delicately unraveled and left my body. It was surreal. I’d never experienced anything like it. And then I felt great. The closest feeling I can think of is that it felt like I was in kindergarten again – happy, young-feeling, no existential terror – like a giant weight had been lifted along with my anxiety. I got up with my kids and sat on the couch. I watched them play, and I thought, What just happened?… Did Jesus just show me that he was real?
It was amazing, and I had to find out what happened to me.
I went on a binge – reading and studying the Bible, watching Christian testimony after testimony on YouTube, watching debates between Christian apologists and Atheists and every religion I could think of, studying worldviews, learning scientific arguments for God, researching every single question that popped into my head about Jesus and Christianity and other religions. I read the Bible and it made sense in ways it never had before. I learned about faith in the resurrection, repentance, baptism of the Holy Spirit, and saw how these concepts lined up perfectly with what happened to me, even though I didn’t know anything about them at the time.
And I wanted to tell everyone.
I was zealous and on fire, while my old worldview crumbled painfully and wonderfully around me. But with that zealotry came a lot of pride; I wanted to tell everyone about Jesus and for some reason I thought I could do it better than anyone else. It’s embarrassing how strongly I felt this way, and slightly ironic since I’d spent most of my life having a hard time convincing anyone of anything on even completely unimportant topics. I debated family members, and then when that wasn’t enough, I debated in comment-sections all over the internet, thinking I was suddenly a theologian even though I was a newborn baby-Christian. I eventually realized that I needed to learn humility, patience, and reliance on the one who truly has the power to change hearts, namely God.
It was a strange and wonderful time where I battled vehemently against my ingrained skepticism while feeling insanely grateful. For months, I had to ask myself what I believed and why I believed it. I would review everything that I’d learned, and everything I’d experienced, ticking them off my fingers every night as I had my one-on-one conversations with Jesus. Without realizing it, I was building a foundation. My skepticism and subsequent research were helping me build a faith and trust in God based on reason, and not solely on the shakiness of my emotions.
I started creating art as a way to slow myself down and digest everything. I was often so frustrated that no one was seeing things the way I wanted them to see, so I painted women from the Bible as I read scriptures, trying to internalize what they felt, how God used them, and their relationship with God. I had always loved painting and drawing my whole life, and God re-awoke that passion. I previously had spent all my free time writing poetry and fiction, and I grappled with the reality that maybe God didn’t want me to write anymore. I struggled trying to find out what it was God wanted me to do. I wanted purpose and I wanted it right away, with all the patience of a toddler throwing a tantrum.
That was four years ago, and it has been an amazing journey. The Lord has taught me so much, revealed so much, changed my heart, answered more prayers than I can count, put me through trials, tested my faith, and demonstrated his unwavering love again and again. He speaks to me directly through His word, and often I can literally feel the burning presence of His Spirit surround my heart. The tight ball of anxiety has never returned, though I still sometimes have small battles with anxiety and depression. However, slowly, faithfully, and consistently Jesus has been healing me of these things. They are nothing like they were before, and He often breaks the cycles of self-hate and desperation that I can’t escape on my own.
I once prayed that God would help me to feel light— as in weightless. I didn’t even know what I meant exactly, except that I had learned too much about the evils of this world and I wanted to un-learn them, so that I could feel… happy. Today, I’m not weightless, but I feel lighter than I have in ages, probably not since I was that carefree kid going into kindergarten. My cares are not gone and I haven’t forgotten anything, but Jesus constantly lifts my mental burdens, lightens my heart, pulls me kicking and screaming out of my self-destructive ways, and lays me gently on the right path. Instead of fleeting happiness, He gave me something even better: peace.
Being a Christian didn’t suddenly make my life easy. Most days I feel like the biggest weirdo on the planet, but I remind myself that at least I’m a weirdo for Jesus, the most amazing, most loving creator God. I want to emphasize that I didn’t become a Christian because it feels good. Many times, it doesn’t. Many times it’s awkward, embarrassing, inconvenient, and isolating. I became a Christian for the same reason I became an atheist, because I believe it is the truth. Fortunately, this time I’m much more confident and informed in my convictions. Following Jesus has been the best and greatest adventure I have ever been on, one that I know will one day lead to a glorious future existence. I wouldn’t trade anything about it for anything in this temporary world.
 Psalms 46:10
Veronica McDonald is a poet, fiction writer, artist, and the editor/founder of Heart of Flesh Literary Journal. She currently lives in South Alabama with her husband and three children. Learn more about her work at VeronicaMcDonald.com.