My Personal Faith Journey
Many people diagnosed with a mental illness come from well-adjusted “normal” families—I did not. My mental-emotional meltdown occurred in my 40s, but its seeds had already been planted before I was five years old.
The Early Years: Foundation of a Breakdown
My younger sister and brother and I grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, the home of Penn State University. My father was a professor of economics there, and my mom was a schoolteacher.
Our home life was constantly tense. Mom wore the pants in the family, and she and Dad fought all the time, mainly with Mom on the attack. It was like living in a war zone, never knowing when you’d step on a land mine. Few days went by without some kind verbal abuse, lengthy silent treatment, or other kinds of emotional abuse against us kids, primarily toward my sister and me.
When I was fourteen, my mom left my dad and took my brother and sister to live with her for a year in Pittsburgh. I stayed with my father.
Eventually my parents reconciled, and the following years were filled with uncertainty and anxiety for me: “How long will they stay married before they divorce? When will Mom leave again?”
She left us at least eighteen times before I was twenty-one. Most of those times I never knew where she went, when or if she would ever come back, or if she would follow through on her threats of suicide. Most of the time she blamed my dad and me for her leaving.
Starting when I was in second grade, my mom, her brother, and my maternal grandmother “Gram” told me that I was at fault for my parents’ rocky marriage and my siblings’ behavior.
I was then made responsible for improving my mom and dad’s relationship, and for making sure my sister and brother behaved well and succeeded in school.
Gram was a nurse and outspoken Christian, yet she exerted both positive and negative influences on us kids.
On the positive side, she rewarded us with special prizes when we memorized Bible passages, and she prayed with us continually. She also paid for our summer church camps and bought us Christian books.
On the negative side, Gram was intolerant, racist, and bigoted. And, starting at age four and lasting until my late teens, Mom and Gram sexually abused me. The worst came from Mom when I was eight and nine while my dad was working in Illinois.
Hundreds of times, Mom and Gram told me, “You are a mean, evil, ungrateful son and you have to stop wetting the bed, pooping your pants, breaking toys, talking back, and acting mean to your mom. Or else you will end up in reform school, prison, and then be executed by the time you are twenty-one.”
While these things were happening, Mom and Dad were moderately religious. Our family went to church and Sunday school several times a month, but rarely said blessings at meals or talked about faith.
Gram, on the other hand, was extremely religious. She and my grandfather attended their Presbyterian church every Sunday. He was an elder there, and she taught a weekly women’s Bible study.
I usually walked the one and a half miles each way to Sunday school, even as a young boy. In fifth grade, while walking through part of the Penn State campus en route to Sunday school class, I shot a chipmunk with my slingshot. I shoved it in my pocket and brought it to class. When they passed the offering plate, I dropped the chipmunk in the plate. Needless to say, my offering was met with stern reprimands, and I was told to leave. I did. And except for a few occasions, that was the last time I had anything to do with church until my college years.
Throughout my childhood, I continued to shoot animals, skinning them to to learn what they looked like on the inside. I wanted to be a doctor like my maternal grandfather Stevenson, an obstetrician-gynecologist who had played football for the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). I idolized him. However, instead of his specialty, I dreamed of becoming a surgeon.
When I was a teenager, my mom, her brother, and Gram and Grandpa Stevenson pressured and threatened me into leaving State College High School, forcing me to enter Admiral Farragut Academy, a Naval prep school in St. Petersburg, Florida. This move, they said, would rescue me from a terrible home situation and teach me to study.
I spent my junior and senior years of high school at Farragut hanging on to my dreams of becoming a surgeon. But my Naval exposure there had a strong influence on me and I soon also yearned to become a Naval Frogman (now called a Navy Seal).
In my senior year, a serious knee injury at the start of football season destroyed any hopes of the Naval Academy and a career as a Seal, and also cost me several major college football scholarship offers.
Despite this, I did manage to receive several full scholarships to other schools, but I turned them down, accepting a partial scholarship at Pitt instead. I was confident my knee would heal and that I would play well enough to earn a full scholarship. Since becoming a Seal was no longer possible, I also chose Pitt hoping my grandfather’s influence would help me get into medical school.
My Spiritual Turning Point
As a freshman at Pitt, I was invited by teammates to attend weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meetings in our dorm. Although I had heard the “Christian message” as a child at summer church camps, nothing had ever made much sense to me.
The FCA speakers talked about having a personal relationship with God. They shared that God had become a man in the person of Jesus Christ to die for our wrongs and to show people how to live a fulfilling life under his direction. This offer of complete forgiveness and life eternal would be mine if I would open my life to Christ’s gift of forgiveness and submit to his leadership in my life. All this talk about Jesus seemed new and strange to me, but I was intrigued.
For the next several months, I attended FCA and other Christian gatherings, talked extensively with classmates and others about their faith, and read nearly forty books on Christianity.
Sometime in that fall of 1960, I decided that I really wanted what my teammates had: a genuine personal relationship with God. In spite of all my research, unanswered questions, and fears, I prayed to God that he would forgive my sins and take over as the Ruler of my life.
All along, the key obstacle that had held me back from committing my life to Christ was the dread that God might want me to leave my pre-med studies and become either a missionary or minister. Finally, I reached the point where I said:
Okay God, if you want me to leave medical studies and become a pastor or missionary, I’m willing. But you’ll have to drag me, and I’ll be leaving heel marks on the ground. I still don’t have many of my questions answered. But I’m going to stick my neck out and trust that you know what’s best for me. Thank you for allowing your son, Jesus, to be punished on the cross and suffer the death and separation that I deserve for my sins.
Jesus, please come into my life and make me into the man you want me to be. I’m willing to take directions from you and let you call the shots for my life from now on.
After I had prayed those words, nothing happened. No emotional buzz. No tears. No overwhelming sense of God’s close presence. For the next six months, I wrestled with serious doubts over what had or had not happened to me spiritually. I wondered if Christ had really come into my life:
Maybe I’m too far gone to rescue. Perhaps I’m simply not spiritual enough or good enough “Christian material.” Maybe I haven’t really been sincere enough about turning my life over to Christ.
However, as I learned more of the Bible’s teachings over the next two years, God gave me several unexpected gifts: self-acceptance, assurance of his grace-filled love, and guidance for my personal struggles and career direction.
Benefits of Becoming a Christ Follower
Looking back, I can see some of the life-changing, practical advantages of accepting God’s gift of forgiveness and his management of my life. Some people experience warm, fuzzy, emotional feelings of God’s presence, but I don’t. Most of my spiritual benefits have come from reading the Bible and trusting his biblical promises for his people. I now have:
- a place in God’s forever family, who will support, encourage, and guide me in ways my biological family did not;
- a guarantee that God really loves me, and that he is for me, not against me;
- a confident assurance of going to heaven when I die;
- a healthy, balanced self-esteem, realizing that I am not just a sinful man, but also a man with great potential and usefulness in God’s world; and
- a comfort that I am never alone. Christ is always with me in my doubts, inner or outer pain, letdowns, failures, sins, and successes.
Furthermore, the Bible’s teachings have:
- enabled me to accept God’s amazing forgiveness, and move on—without continuing to put myself down for my wrong decisions, actions, or words;
- empowered me to forgive myself for having said or done things that hurt others;
- showed me how to better accept people as they are—regardless of their age, race, religion, or sexuality—as broken, sinful individuals like me, and who are important to God; and
- inspired me to pass on my experiences and faith to others.
My New Faith Finds Expressions
Although I had had no dramatic conversion experience, my outlook on life slowly began to change. During this time, I was searching for the purpose of my life. I had always wanted to help others but wasn’t sure of the best way I could make my life count. During college and graduate school, I tried a variety of service opportunities, including:
- teaching a Bible study with my Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity brothers;
- teaching a fifth grade Sunday school class in a small black church in Pittsburgh’s Hill District;
- working as a campus minister with college students at Miami University (in Oxford, Ohio) and starting discussion groups, Bible studies, and an FCA chapter there; and
- starting youth groups similar to Young Life clubs for high school students in several cities.
These and other experiences seemed to validate that I would be well-suited for professional ministry.
At that time, I felt drawn toward some type of college or inner-city ministry. To become better trained in biblical knowledge, I enrolled at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Becoming a typical suburban pastor of a local church was absolutely the furthest thing from my mind during seminary. Yet in spite of this, most of my ministry career has been done through local churches.
Since earning my Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell and Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, I have:
- served as a senior pastor, associate pastor, or specialist pastor in a number of local churches with all ages of youth and adults;
- served as an area director with The Gathering USA, an outreach ministry to unchurched business and professional men;
- started and led the Career Counseling division of The Gathering USA;
- operated a career guidance and life-coaching practice, Career Compatibilities;
- taught at Fuller and Gordon-Conwell theological seminaries, several colleges, a medical school, hospitals, mental health conferences, churches, and other venues; and
- authored and published more than ten books and numerous articles on mental health and other life issues.
I am thankful for God’s incredible faithfulness through my trials and successes. I am a “wounded healer,” and am grateful to be able to pass on to others my experience, strength, and hope.