Follow Jesus: He's worth the cost
If God offered you a glance into your future, would you take it? God offered me that glance into my future at the Former Adventist Fellowship weekend at Trinity Church in February, 2010, and I learned how my story will end. God, in His sovereignty, brought me to that moment at exactly the right time—the moment when He knew I would hear the word of truth, the gospel of my salvation—and believe (Eph. 1:13). He used faithful teachers to speak His word that summoned me out of spiritual death and into Life.
The process of God calling me to Himself did not happen all in one weekend, though. I was born into a fractured home, and my parents were divorced by the time I turned one. They were very different from each other and created two very different homes. My mother, who came from a well-known Adventist family, left that organization shortly after her divorce. With no understanding of the biblical truth about salvation and Jesus' finished work, she became agnostic. It would be another 30 years before she came to know Jesus. In the meantime, the path of addiction she chose caused great pain and instability for me.
My dad, on the other hand, soon married an Adventist woman, and together they created a mildly conservative Adventist home. I now understand that while it was only "mildly conservative" on the scale of Seventh-day Adventist observance, it was still rooted in a toxic religious system. I spent much of my early childhood living in this home with my five siblings, vainly trying to meet impossible expectations for good behavior, "family loyalty," and high performance. My failure to meet my parents' standards yielded a tense relationship between them and me. I was punished frequently and often alienated from my siblings. I learned early that I was inadequate, a burden, difficult to like, and possibly even difficult to love.
Finally, when I was nine, my dad and step-mom sent me back to my mother who was in no position to take care of me. She was an alcoholic, in and out of abusive relationships. We moved frequently, often twice a year, so I attended 14 different schools—some Adventist and some not—before I finally dropped out at the age of 16. By my early teens, my identity was shaped by everything I had learned to believe about myself, and I began to act out my brokenness.
Then I was caught shoplifting while attending an Adventist boarding academy about four hours south of my dad's home in California. The school was going to let me stay on the condition that I remain on academic and social probation for the rest of the year, but my dad and step-mom decided to send me back to the east coast to live with my mom—again. For almost two years I had no communication with my dad, step-mom, or most of my siblings.
My mom was so distracted with her depression, financial struggles, homelessness, and addiction that I spent most of my time living with friends—where I finally felt accepted. Like my mom, I turned to the world to find a place to belong. Acceptance did not come without a cost, but for a broken girl, the price was easy to afford. I lived a promiscuous life made bearable by my hiding behind drugs and alcohol, and my determination to avoid rejection only served to increase my deep-seated shame. During this time, I sensed God telling me that when I was done hiding, He had plans for me. Somehow, even in my hopelessness, I believed Him.
When I was 18 my dad and step-mom heard I was in real trouble. They soon contacted me and asked me to move in with them. They expressed regret over the state of our relationship and said they wanted to get me out of my situation and help me get my life on track. I was hopeful about learning how to create what, compared with my mother's life, seemed to be a stable and healthy home like theirs. I was excited to find my unique place in my family. This time I would not mess things up. I saw this as God's promised plan for my life—a new start!
I would be 30 before I really knew what He had planned for me.
Back in the Adventist culture
After moving into their home when I was 19, I obtained my GED (General Educational Development assessment—a high school equivalency certificate) and shortly afterward enrolled in La Sierra University. Suddenly I found myself immersed in Adventist culture for the first time in years. Learning the church service traditions as an adult was awkward. In addition, learning how to fit in socially was a culture shock. At first everything I did felt contrived. As Adventist life became easier, however—and as Sabbath became somewhat addictive—I viewed my progress as "spiritual growth." Nevertheless, I learned quickly that even though I adapted my behavior, I could not relate to my peers—nor did they have any idea how to relate to me.
My family did not know the details of my past, nor did they seem to want to know, and I was more than OK with their not knowing. I was full of shame, but I was a Jane Doe with a clean slate now. Some might think this situation was a wonderful opportunity, but it was actually a sentencing. I threw the broken me into a prison of shame and began to study the people around me diligently. I often wished the church offered support groups or programs where I could heal from my secret pain, but the lack of them only affirmed to me that I was unique. I just needed to "get over" my past.
Gradually I became known by name, by family affiliation, and by my contributions in my Adventist community, but no one really knew me. Actually, after a while I no longer knew myself. All I knew was that I was extremely insecure and over-analyzed nearly every interaction I had, fearing I had done something wrong.
Eventually I married, but I did not find peace. The older I became, the more I realized my life was a house of cards. My husband and I were involved at church and lived a fast-paced existence filled with volunteering, finishing college, work, and finally kids. When we realized we were over-committed, we discovered how difficult it was to step out of the ministries in which we were involved.
For example, we asked to be removed from the board of elders at our local church. We were told, however, that we did not need to participate, but it would be valuable to the church to keep our names on the list. This response made us uncomfortable. We knew what the biblical requirements were for elders, and we knew we fell very short of them. Moreover, leaving our names on the list but agreeing we would not serve seemed deceptive. However, out of a need to please and be accepted, I agreed to the compromise. I didn't see then how decisions such as these made my reputation an idol.
I began to realize I was depressed. I had become obsessive-compulsive about creating the life I thought we were supposed to have and hiding the things that went against church culture. I realized that my life was consumed with performing and hiding, and I was weary. I nagged my husband constantly about being more involved in spiritual and social things; I told him his apathy made me look bad, and I resented it. Anything my husband said or did, I interpreted through a filter of unresolved messages from my past. We both felt misunderstood and lonely in our marriage. My futile attempts to control my husband resulted in his withdrawing from me, and I would spiral into despair and often rage. My lack of respect for my husband deeply hurt him, and he retreated more and more to protect his heart from me—the one person he should have been able to trust.
Besides my vain attempts to manage my husband and my reputation, I became hyper-protective of my children. I obsessed about germs and possible injuries. Often I cried during the night, fearing that God would take my children or my husband from me to teach me a lesson. I believed He would accept me only as long as I met His standard. He would reject and punish me whenever I fell short. I lived in constant fear of loss, rejection, and exposure as the fraud I knew I was. Why, I wondered, did a normal life seem to come so easily to everyone except me?
Cognitive dissonance and confusion
Throughout my life God was calling me to Himself. He assured me as a very young girl in my father's home that I belonged to Him, and I believed Him. As I became more religious as a young adult, I felt I was answering His call, yet I did not always feel connected to Him. There came a time in my 20s, after being baptized into Seventh-day Adventism, when I realized that I really enjoyed talking about God, but I did not talk to Him as much as I had as a child or even as a troubled teen. The more I saw myself struggling to belong, to be happy, and to be loved, the more I knew I needed God. I could not understand this dissonance. I had been living a "godly lifestyle." I kept the Sabbath; I went to church; I volunteered my time, and I loved Christian music and craved those moments when I felt the Holy Spirit nearby. Many times when I would pick up my Bible and not know what to read, I would bump into Isaiah 55:6 "Seek the Lord while He can be found."
These words confused me. Wasn't I living for Him? Yet I felt so far from Him most of the time. I needed to read my Bible and understand on my own what I believed. I would try hard to start the habit of reading it daily—but I never succeeded for long. I longed for God; I longed for healing from the storm that raged beneath the surface of my life—and I longed for close friends. I was lonely, and I was weary.
Often I spent long afternoons with my mother-in-law and the kids. She told me things she was learning about Ellen G. White and Adventist history. It sounded like conspiracy stuff, but after a couple years I began experiencing my own questions about EGW and Adventist doctrine. Where was Adam when Eve ate the apple (Gen. 3:6)? How could the Sabbath be the seal of God when Ephesians 1:13-14 says it's the Holy Spirit?
Moreover, I began to realize that I did not know what was Scripture, and what came from Ellen G. White. Where was the story of Satan walking past a pool and seeing his reflection? Where was the story of his accusing God's law of being unfair? In addition, the more my husband and I attended interdenominational Christian events and experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship, the more I became uncomfortable with the idea of the "remnant" and the teaching that evangelical Christians would one day hunt and persecute us for our Sabbath-keeping. My husband and I decided we needed to know exactly what we believed and why we believed it, and we became increasingly disturbed at how much Adventist doctrine we could not find in Scripture.
We weren't thinking of leaving Adventism; we just wanted to know what beliefs we would keep as our own and what we would let go so we could be clear with our children. After a while, however, it became impossible to feel good about raising our children in a denomination that not only contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture but also placed obstacles in the way of believing the simple truth of God's grace—His unmerited favor.
We knew our children would look toward mentors and away from us as they matured, and we needed to know that we had established them in a community where the adults would tell them biblical truth. We began to consider leaving Adventism. Where would we go? What would our friends and family say? What about the Sabbath?
We began to wonder what other Christians taught on the dividing issues. We had been told what "apostate Protestantism" believed, but we wanted to hear from the "apostates" ourselves. We never expected what came next.
We became aware of a large community of people who had left the Adventist church. We learned about publications that exposed not only the unethical behavior of denominational leaders but also the error of Adventist doctrine using only the Bible. As we investigated, we were deeply shaken. Like a child looks to its parents to see how they will respond, I looked to my denomination to see how it answered allegations such as Ellen White's plagiarism, full of hope that it had good answers. Instead, I only saw defensiveness, cover-ups that had been exposed and proven, and man-made arguments that could not be backed by Scripture. We found that the allegations were not just rumors; they were substantiated, and they were not denied by the organization. It broke my heart. Instead of dealing with the issues, my church retaliated by slandering the character of those who exposed them, or by kicking them out of the church.
One Saturday morning I awoke before my family and prayed that Jesus would show me something in Scripture to give me direction. I told Him how much I missed Him and opened my Bible "randomly" to Galatians. I was irritated. What was Galatians about? I read anyway, beginning to end. By the time I got to the explanation in chapter four of the two covenants, which were compared to Sarah and Hagar, I was in tears. The last obstacle to our fellowshipping with the rest of Christendom had fallen. I shared my reading with my husband when he woke up, and we decided to go to church the following morning—a Sunday.
Going to church on Sunday
So much of my life had felt like a race to keep up and play a part. I knew that if we were going to start over, we had to be in an environment of acceptance where broken people can heal instead of hide. I did some internet research, and I found Trinity's webpage. It described the church and addressed the issue of how to dress for services: come as you are. We decided we would attend Trinity that Sunday morning, and we did so in blue jeans and high hopes.
As I looked through the worship folder that morning, I could not find any mention of the names of the people up front. Instead, I was overwhelmed with the number of support groups and opportunities to connect that were listed. There was something very right about this church. The music was fun, but it was more than that; it went up like a burnt offering to the Lord. Grown adults reached to heaven like my babies reached for me in their need. People did come as they were: wet hair, sweat pants, blue jeans and hoodies, dress clothes—I saw it all. The couple behind us smelled of cigarette smoke—as I had as a little girl in my mother's home. Tears and goose bumps marked that service for both my husband and me. We knew God wanted us there that morning, and we felt His hand on us powerfully in a way we had not before. It was impossible to miss His voice, and it has been impossible ever since.
Not long after that day, we connected with the Former Adventist group—in spite of its reputation. After seeing the habit of slander from the denomination and the group-think mentality that permeated the lay people, we decided to find out for ourselves what these Former Adventists were all about. After all, hadn't they also once been right where we were? We learned that these people loved in a way we had never known. They were anything but angry or disgruntled. The light in their eyes and their love for strangers was so bright, I wanted every drop of whatever they had. I saw their love for each other and the passion for Jesus that I had craved, and I was in tears by the end of my first afternoon with them.
My husband and I attended the annual Former Adventist Fellowship weekend convening the following weekend—and God broke into my life like the sun shining at midnight. It was as though my life were a stage that slowly disassembled in front of my eyes, and behind each backdrop was an entirely new reality that I could neither deny nor ignore.
At the end of the weekend Carolyn Macomber, the woman who had given her testimony on Friday night, asked me if I was saved. I wasn't sure how to answer. I had been aware of God's presence throughout my life, yet I did not have assurance. I began to fumble for an answer. Carolyn took my hand in the middle of my confusion and said, "Do you want to just seal the deal?"
We prayed together by the pool that afternoon, and I surrendered my life and will to God in the name of Jesus. I relinquished any role I thought I had in my obtaining and maintaining my salvation, repented of my sinning against Him, and finally bowed the knee to His sovereignty. I understood that nothing I could do would add to or take away from the finished work of Jesus Christ—Almighty God.
I am now alive!
Believing in just Jesus without the overlay of Sabbath as the seal of God, the sanctuary doctrine, and law-keeping to remain saved, I knew I had embraced a new gospel and different facts about Jesus. I had no idea how profoundly my embracing this powerful Jesus would change my life! Neither did I have any idea how much more there was to learn.
Nicole holding her daughter Abigail with Carolyn Macomber and Richard and Colleen Tinker (left), moments after committing her life to the Lord Jesus and experiencing being born again.
Since that moment, God has confirmed to me that I am different. Chains have fallen from me that I did not know I was carrying. I feel as if I already exist in eternity somehow. I am alive for the first time. I have new eyes, new senses—I am motivated by something bigger than myself. I know I am no longer a child of the world, yet I no longer hide from the world behind a fortress of tradition and the subtle arrogance of having "Adventist Truth." Now I engage with the world as God's child and see the value of each person through the eyes of my Father—Almighty God.
God's spirit bears witness with my regenerated spirit (Ezk. 36:26) that I am His daughter (Rom. 8:16). Reading the Bible is no longer a habit to encourage, but a thirst to quench; it is as if I have discovered I have wings and all I want to do is fly. I am no longer a slave to my idols (Ezk. 36:25) not the least of which was my reputation. Nor am I a slave to my fears.
I see my husband through the eyes of Jesus, and because of Him, my marriage is healing. I love and respect Carel deeply. As he has submitted to the lordship of Jesus, he has become a man who honors God with his life and leads his family knowing he is loved and supported in his God-given role as the head of our home.
When Jesus confirmed to me as a young girl that I was His, it was because He knew I would be born from above and adopted according to His will. He continues to confirm my place in His family—knowing what is still ahead for me. God is not a liar, and that is my assurance! I now know an eternal rest in the finished work of Christ alone—for His glory alone! I am now a member of a family with Jesus as its head, and I no longer fear rejection.
Jesus continually shows me reality and the truth about Him, as well as the truth about myself and my life. He meets me in my places of pain and heals me as I submit my life to Him. Jesus is redeeming broken relationships and freeing me both to forgive and to give to Him the wrongs done to me. I love Him with a love I have not known before. My obedience to Him comes from this place of love.
I understand deeply that His blood has purchased me, and He owns the rights to my life and to my story. I share that story out of obedience to Him—not obedience to tablets of stone, but to Him—the One who lives in me and convicts me of the ways I need to trust Him as I find His will for me in His word.
My life and my salvation are actually not about me at all. As soon as I gave up hiding and controlling my life with drugs and religion, Jesus finally had the room in my life to do what He does.
Leaving the religion of my youth has not come without a cost. Relationships have changed; my leaving has hurt many who love me and whom I love deeply. I pray that these relationships will be healed in Jesus, but this I know: Jesus Christ is faithful, and He redeems everything we submit to Him. In fact, He has already begun answering my prayers for my family; my mother and my father have both accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. My father, in fact, received Him this last February at the 2011 Former Adventist Fellowship weekend!
There is no cost too high for knowing Jesus Christ—Almighty God. He knew there would be a high price to pay when He said, "…If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me," (Matt. 16:24). He demands nothing less than your heart and life, but I promise you—He is worth it! †
Copyright 2011 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised October 17, 2011. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicole Stevenson and her husband Carel live in Southern California. Nicole graduated from La Sierra University with a degree in social work and Carel attended Walla Walla College and graduated from Cal Poly Pomona. Carel is a structural engineer in a firm in Ontario,California, and Nicole stays home with their two children, Joshua (4) and Abigail (2). While Adventists, Carel and Nicole volunteered their time as mentors to youth, and they are now involved in helping design an outreach for Seventh-day Adventist youth who are processing out of Adventism or are questioning the religion they've inherited.
July August September 2011
VOLUME 12, ISSUE 3
D E P A R T M E N T S
STORIES of Faith