If it wasn't for having tasted the grace of God, I would have stubbornly refused and denied God. However, after following the Lord for 13 years, I can attest that He has been faithful in every moment.
I come from a village in Fujian where Buddhism was back then ubiquitous, and atheists were few and far between. Growing up, I was a stubborn person and eventually refused to practice the local custom of setting up a worshiping table and kowtowing on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month. Despite this, my grandmother would still urge me to bow down, and out of respect for her, I would oblige. Since my childhood, I believed in atheism and thought it was the ultimate truth.
When I was a junior in college, my girlfriend started attending church gatherings two or three times a week. Whenever she mentioned going to a gathering, I pretended to be nonchalant and said "Go and have fun" even though I was secretly bitter. One day, I mustered the courage to ask what "party" she was attending, and she told me that I would know if I came along. I decided to go and was surprised to find a group of deeply committed religious believers in a modern age, worshipping an overseas religion - Christianity, in fact. What was even more surprising was that the group was held in one of my teacher's apartments - the same teacher who had taught me in my sophomore year.
Out of respect for my girlfriend and teacher, I attended a Bible study session despite my stubborn atheism. The format was simple, just a group of people gathered around, reading and explaining the Bible. In the end, I was impressed by the group as they were sincere and warm, even though I perceived them to be ignorant and irrational.
Meeting them felt like a crisis for my worldview, as I knew that if they were right, I had been terribly wrong. Thus, my whole atheistic worldview would have to collapse and be rebuilt. My pride did not allow for that possibility. Furthermore, I was afraid of that happening. Over the next few weeks, I prepared for the Bible study by trying to find "contradictions" in the Bible to disprove their faith. I did not hide my anti-religious attitude during the session and attacked their beliefs without reservation.
However, my actual results left me feeling defeated because this group of people could not be explained by my twenty-something years of life experience. Whenever I thought I had challenged them with my well-made rebuttals, it wasn't a win-lose situation as I had anticipated. Instead, they only furrowed their eyebrows for a brief moment and silently contemplated my challenge, before smiling to accept it.
I desperately screamed in my mind, "How can you not be angry?" Their responses were designed to be challenging questions, and even a few angry comments would have made my great efforts feel worthwhile. However, their tolerance and smiles left me feeling badly defeated. They were truly different!
I continued attending fellowship gatherings for a full semester, even outpacing my girlfriend's enthusiasm. Except for prayer meetings, I attended every gathering, including Sunday services. Our college was in the suburbs, and the Sunday service venue was a pastor’s house in the city proper. I usually woke up at 9 o'clock, but on Sundays, I had to get up at the latest by 7 o'clock, otherwise, I would be late. Sundays have been my earliest day ever since.
During this period of time, something remarkable happened, which shook my atheistic belief to its core. In the Christmas of 2007, my church held a holy birth thanksgiving service, and a teacher with an intellectual background from Xiamen was invited to deliver the sermon. I did not know why I could not stop thinking about every word he said, all the while hating what he said. After being mentally tormented for about half an hour, I left the service early. A staff member at the door tried to hand me a bag of gifts, but I rudely pushed the outstretched hand away and ran back to my school.
After two days, I was still tormented, unable to find peace. A Christian friend gave me a booklet entitled "Knowing the Truth" in an attempt to persuade me to believe in Jesus. I picked it up during lunchtime and read it alone in the Business School building. As I began to read, I couldn't help but feel a shudder. In my opinion, the content was nonsense. Yet, deep down, I felt a calling that I couldn't see or hear, but it made me want to draw close to it.
Gradually, I became less hostile to Christianity and attended gatherings in the following semester. I cherished being a "cultural Christian", a term that I had encountered while preparing for a Bible study. As a child, I saw myself as a Confucianist, enamored with ancient literature and poetry. However, the negative portrayal of Confucianism in history education made me anxious about it. Cultural Christianity was the answer to my distress. In my superficial understanding, it would have been ideal if love and equality became the core values of Confucianism, supplemented by "Jesus." As for God, I thought it was unnecessary. While Christian teachings were desirable, God was not needed, according to my views.
Contradictorily, my belief in being a cultural Christian was short-lived. The more I listened to and inferred from Bible sermons, the clearer it became that the path to cultural Christianity was an impassable one. I realized that without belief in God, it was impossible to live out the love pattern of Jesus Christ. Moreover, filtering out faith between men and God was tantamount to men trespassing on God. If one did not have faith in God, that person would surely judge God, thereby causing oneself to create an image of God that was not congruent with Christian theology. It would be more accurate to call these understandings as philosophical, instead of theological. I began to ponder over these questions and found myself unable to be fully humble to God even though I no longer despised religion like before.
I was offended by the term "redemption." I perceived it as an extremely unequal relationship. One end was high above everything and the other end was as low as nothing. What was particularly intolerable was that those good people who studied the scriptures all agreed with one voice that if they did not believe in their God, they would perish in hell.
For more than half a year, I attended church gatherings regularly, and my attitude towards Christianity had undergone significant changes. I still regarded some doctrines as ignorance, such as the idea of a virgin giving birth. However, I had to admit that those Christians were more respectable and lovelier than others around me. Despite these changes, I was reluctant to call Jesus the Lord and address God as "Abba, Father," terms that made me feel awkward.
I thought I would continue spending time with this group of people until I graduated. However, the day of change would come sooner than I had anticipated.
During a church gathering, a speaker was invited to preach, and although I didn't remember much of the message, the events afterward were unforgettable. At the end of the fellowship, the pastor asked to pray for me in private, and we proceeded to kneel down together. Kneeling in worship had always been a struggle for me, but I reluctantly knelt down and repeated each word of the pastor's prayer.
As I listened to the pastor's words, I began to feel dizzy, and by the end of the prayer, I felt a great joy filling my entire being, as if every cell in my body was cheering. The questions that had previously troubled me and caused me to resist submitting myself to God all of a sudden seemed insignificant, childish, and entirely ridiculous.
I felt like a different person overnight, and the brethren who had gathered around me started calling me "brother." In that moment, with my eyes closed and softly calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and weeping while singing hymns, I knew that I was a Christian.
Years later, while watching the movie, "The Passion of the Christ," I felt overcome with emotion. Seeing the soldiers whipping Jesus' back made me sob, and when I saw Mary look at him on the way to the execution ground, I cried some more. And when Jesus was crucified, I cried for a solid hour.
Though it may seem unremarkable to others, this moment made my heart soften and open up completely. It had been more than a decade since I had cried for anything, not even for my grandmother's death. But on that day, I cried because Jesus loved me so much that he was willing to be crucified for a sinner like me. I cried freely because I knew with absolute certainty that there is a God in this world who loved us so much that he was willing to be humbled by becoming flesh, being born in a manger, having no fixed place, being rejected by others, and eventually being crucified.