My teenage years weren’t easy for me; though from what I hear, this is the case for most people.
As a teenager, I did not fit in well with my peers. I was a “nerd,” and that was before being a nerd was a respectable thing. Though I did have a couple friends, I was rejected and teased by many of my peers because I was short and scrawny, I wasn’t very athletic, and I preferred artistic and musical endeavors over “manly” pursuits like football and drag racing.
My one saving grace was that I liked girls – at least I wasn’t gay (back then homosexuality was accepted even less than it is now, and most of us had never heard of a transgender person). I wanted really badly to have a girlfriend, but it never happened for me as a teenager. I didn’t kiss a girl until my senior year in high school.
When I was 13, I decided to get involved with my church’s youth group, hoping I would find friends there. Unfortunately, I found the same sense of isolation among these kids as I did at school. I tended to get along much better with the adults in my church than the teenagers, who seemed just as insecure and petty as the “cool kids” at my school.
When I was in high school, I met some kids who were evangelical Christians – the type who believed it was very important to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, and to share your faith with others in hope of “saving” them.
While they never talked much about hellfire and brimstone (indeed, I don’t remember hearing much at all about hell growing up, in any church setting), these folks definitely believed in a heaven – and that the way to get there was through believing that Jesus had died for our sins and then letting him lead our lives in some way.
They also believed that commitment to Jesus and a Christian lifestyle would make our lives better here on earth.
Though I wasn’t sure I could believe any of this, it sounded very appealing; and these kids seemed to be a little nicer and more accepting than the others.
When I was 15, I developed a serious crush on a girl who went to the local Free Methodist Church. I began to attend some of their events, mostly because I wanted her to be my girlfriend.
I remember talking to her once about heaven and hell, and she told me how important it was to have faith in Jesus – since good works would not get us into heaven.
“You mean to tell me that someone like Gandhi, who devoted his whole life to helping others, won’t get to heaven simply because he didn’t know Jesus?” I asked. “You mean that no matter how much good we do, none of it is worth a damn to God?”
“It’s not that God doesn’t care,” she said. “It’s just that none of us are good enough to make up for all the sin in our hearts. That’s why faith is so important. It gives God the chance to cover our sins with His love, which He showed by dying on the cross. Good works alone are never going to get us to heaven. We need to trust in God’s grace.”
This was something I couldn’t understand. Growing up, I had always believed that being a good person was the most important thing, regardless of belief. If there was a heaven, then people like Gandhi would be there. If there was a hell, it was for people like Hitler. The idea of “justification by faith” didn’t make any sense to me.
Nevertheless, I continued to be good friends with this girl, and did not stop seeking after God.
When I was 17, I realized that I was suffering from depression and began seeing a therapist (I had suffered from depression as a child as well; but it seemed to have lessened for a while).
At that time, the depression seemed mild enough that it wasn’t a huge concern for me. I was convinced that everything would change when I went to college. I would make new friends, fall in love, have the fun I had been missing out on, and perhaps grow spiritually as well.
So when graduation day came at last, I was very excited. And indeed, I did grow a lot in college, and it was a very exciting time in my life. But things did not get easier. If anything, the struggle had just begun.
(Coming Soon: The Young Adult Years)