A Forty Year Journey – Part 1

The Bible tells Christians, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (I Peter 3:15, New International Version)

Anyone who comes to believe in Jesus always does so because in one way or another, his life circumstances have brought him to that point. However, either before or after (and often, both), he will have had to come to terms with reasonableness of that step. This account deals with the events of my life, how they brought me to a belief in Jesus, and some of the ways this belief has impacted me. It also deals briefly with why I think belief in Jesus is reasonable.

I was born in 1942 and grew up in Canada, in the province of Quebec. Studying the Bible was part of the curriculum throughout my eleven years in the Protestant school system, and when I was nine my parents also sent my sister and I to church and Sunday School. I was exposed to a fair amount of material about the early church and the Middle Ages, and was impressed by early Christianity as an exciting movement for which people often gave their lives. I also saw that in the Middle Ages, some people achieved a great joy by being totally devoted to a Christian way of life. But, I didn’t see these same things around me. As I got older I wondered more and more what the true meaning of Christianity really was, and how I could achieve that joy on a lasting basis. In particular I wondered who Jesus Christ really was, and how His followers could heal people of their sicknesses, as recorded in the Bible and in a Christian novel that particularly influenced me.

In 1958 I entered McGill University in Montreal. There I was assigned two room-mates. One was an avowed atheist, and the other was a committed Christian. I really liked them both, and throughout the year I wondered increasingly which of them was right. At the end of the school year, we were given the opportunity to specify a choice of rooms and room-mates for the following year. As my first choice I specified a single room, with the intention that if I got it, I would spend time alone searching out the answer to “this God business.”

When I came back in the fall, I had indeed been assigned the single room! I had not thought much about “the God business” all summer, but at that point I remembered my intention and decided to pursue it. I acquired a book written in the 1400s called “The Imitation of Christ.” I spent considerable time reading it, and struggling with the meaning of life and history. During the course of that time I knelt down by my bed and invited Jesus to come into my life. Right afterward, I said to myself, “I wonder what will happen to me now?” Immediately there popped into my mind an image of the 1960s and 1970s, during which I was exactly the same as I always had been. After that, there was nothing.

At first I was elated. I had found the joy I’d been searching for! I began to read the Bible and tell others what had happened to me. That’s when my troubles began. First I told my ex-girlfriend. She wasn’t excited at all. As I left her residence, a voice in my mind said, “You didn’t go there for God – you just went to get your girlfriend back!” This was partially true, but not completely; nevertheless, I thought, “I guess that’s true!” Next I told my atheist room-mate from the previous year. He wasn’t impressed either, but said something like, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life locked into a set of beliefs you can’t change?” Next I met an old drunk on the street and told him something about Jesus. I also gave him twenty dollars my parents had sent me, because I believed Christians were supposed to give their money away. How chagrined I was to learn the next day he had found his way to my residence and was asking for me – what would the other guys think of me?

I went to church and heard a sermon preached on the evils of the theory of evolution. In the past I had not been entirely convinced the theory of evolution was true, but I was upset by the tone of the sermon, which I considered to be an attack on academic respectability. The last blow occurred when I read most of the Book of Revelation, the final portion of the Bible. It seemed to me to be saying the world would end in a tremendous battle between devils and angels. I didn’t find this an attractive view of the future. It seemed to be a medieval view that allowed no room for the possibility of human progress. It was not something I wanted to look forward to.

My understanding was that Jesus had died to take the punishment men deserved for their sins (or wrong actions), and had then come back to life and gone to heaven. If men asked His forgiveness, He would be present in their lives in some special way. However, the various disappointments I had gone through since asking Him into my life now caused me to doubt this view. “It must be that Jesus was a great moral teacher, who was willing to die rather than compromise his beliefs,” I thought. “Perhaps I will some day have to do the same.”

I had other problems, too. I had had a lot of uncertainty about whether my chosen career in chemistry was the right one, and at the last minute I had switched out of the Honours course I had enrolled in. I thought it was going to be too much work, and there were too many other things I was interested in exploring. I had instead signed up for a broad set of courses based on the advice of the Warden of my residence, a Christian professor, and was now kind of ashamed of my choices. I had also prayed to get a new girlfriend, and my prayer was answered very quickly, but I later broke the relationship. I began attending the meetings of a Christian fellowship group and was turned off by the views of the people there. Moreover, none of the things they told me helped me deal with my problems. In retrospect, I was just a 17-year old boy struggling to grow up. I was becoming very mixed up and quite deeply depressed.

I am not a person who gives up easily once I start something. However, in talking with one of my Christian friends about all the problems I faced, he said, “Jim, maybe this isn’t for you.” It was what I wanted to hear. If someone on the street had said that to me, I wouldn’t have listened. It was amazing to hear such a thing from a Christian, though, and because he was a Christian, I accepted what he said. I decided to forget the whole thing. This left a big vacuum in my life, though, with a number of unanswered questions. I began to drift, and took up drinking and smoking in a serious way.

Toward the end of the next summer, I reached a decision. As I was driving a motorboat across a lake, I came to the conclusion, “There is no God!” A little voice within my mind seemed to say, “Are you sure?” “Yes I’m sure!” I thought angrily. When I got back to the city, I went to visit my atheist room-mate. He had been right all along, I thought.

I finished my degree, taking a basic selection of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and philosophy courses, and got a job with IBM as a computer programmer. A year and a half later I moved to the Air Canada computer group, and within several months won a promotion into an operations research group. I also got married the following year. A year after getting married I returned to university to take an MBA. I left after a year to enroll in a doctoral program in operations research at another university. Two years later I left there with a master’s degree, transferring to a third university where I thought (correctly) the program and the faculty would be more to my liking. By the time four more years passed, we had two little girls, and I left the university environment for a year of research contracting with the Government of Canada in Ottawa while I finished my thesis. After getting my degree, I worked for four years in the Canadian Public Service in a management consulting group.

A number of interesting things happened to me during that period. I became a humanist, believing in the goodness of man, his ability to make a better world, and in loving your neighbour. I saw science as the vehicle for making that better world. I won a considerable sum of money in a contest just before we got married, and my first thought afterward was, “Somebody up there loves me!” After we got married I seriously struggled with my beliefs, because my wife held to basic Christian beliefs, but the only change I made was to self-declare myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist, because I couldn’t tell for sure there was no God. I also continued to suffer from periodic bouts of depression, without understanding why I felt so badly from time to time.

I had wanted to be a university professor. I loved the academic life, and for several years thought it would be closed to me because as an undergraduate I had barely passed a few of my courses, had not specialized in any particular thing, and had lacked the funds to continue on to graduate school. When the time came to choose a job after graduate school, I was offered teaching positions by two universities. However, I chose government because I thought it offered more opportunities to realize the ideals I still held. Only governments had the power to shape the overall course of society and history, I thought. I had also come to regard environmental problems and population growth as serious threats to both the realization of my ideals and the long-run safety of my family. When our older daughter was born, I had again struggled with my beliefs but decided there was no way Christianity was intellectually tenable, and re-confirmed my humanistic ideals. I also wanted to make the world safe for my little girl, and I thought working in government was the best way to do so. In addition, I couldn’t in good conscience simply carry on enjoying academic life while there were so many serious problems in the world. Besides, my progress as a graduate student had been acceptable but not outstanding, and I thought government might be a place where I was more likely to make a mark in the world.