GOD'S GRACE TO A SEARCHING AGNOSTIC

by Wendy Stromberg

In my journey towards salvation, I traveled down many dead end roads. I was continually searching for THE WAY to ease a gnawing inner emptiness that I didn’t usually admit was there – even to myself, much less to anyone else. I grew up in the country, right next door to where I live now. I was the youngest of four children and the only girl. My dad was an active member of the Socialist Labor Party (or as it was always referred to, the SLP), and my parents were both professing atheists. I grew up without being able to outwardly acknowledge God’s existence and was taught that IF Jesus had been a real person, he would have been just that – a man, nothing more. I was also taught that religion was an upper class invention created to control the masses through mysticism and fear. I learned at an early age, without ever really having been told, that the VERY WORST thing I could do in my parent’s eyes would be to "go religious."

Because of where we lived; my parents’ political and religious beliefs; and the fact that my brothers and all of my cousins were so much older, I grew up isolated both physically and socially from the outside world.

As I said, until just recently, my dad had been a lifelong member of the Socialist Labor Party – the SLP. The SLP was his religion and his obsession. He preached against the Capitalistic society that was bringing our world to ruin with a fervor and devotion that could put any "Bible-Thumping" minister to shame. The SLP was the focal point of our life. I attended many SLP functions with my parents as I was growing up, and was not allowed to question, doubt, or criticize the teachings of the SLP. This actually was not hard, as I really did not understand any of it anyway! As I got older, I grew to hate the "SLP" in the same way that the family member of an alcoholic hates the sight of another bottle of booze in the house.

At home, our family celebrated X-mas, not Christmas; but Easter and X-mas consisted of an egg hunt, and lots of candy. I was a probably a teenager before I really realized that Easter was actually a religious celebration. As children, we were not allowed to believe in Santa Claus – I did not. We were not allowed to believe in the Easter Bunny – I did not. We were not allowed to believe that God existed or that Jesus was His Son – but for some reason I DID!

I remember one Christmas when I was about 6 years old. In those days my parents always wrapped our presents on Christmas Eve, after my brothers and I went to bed, and then put them under the Christmas tree to be opened in the morning. On this occasion, I woke up very early and snuck downstairs to get an early peek at the presents. One of my brothers apparently had the same idea and as we were under the tree shaking presents we began talking. I asked him if he believed baby Jesus was real and told him that I thought he was. I knew Santa Claus was a fairy tale, but for some reason I believed that the stories I’d heard about baby Jesus were true. I remember my excitement and the bigness of my secret belief! I couldn’t let my parents know what I thought! Of course at that time I didn’t know the gospel, and I wasn’t saved. I only knew that in this one area, my parents’ beliefs were wrong.

When I was fourteen I rebelled, as teenagers often do. I, however, didn’t drink alcohol, take drugs, or run away from home. No, what I did was far, far, worse. Without asking permission, I dared to go with my friends to confirmation classes at the local Lutheran church! I had absolutely no idea what confirmation classes were, except that I would have a chance to learn more about this guy named Jesus! This decision led to one of the biggest fights I have ever had with my dad – to this day. What was, and is still, most amazing to me is that my mom backed me up. Even though she now claimed to be an atheist, she had been raised a Lutheran and had insisted that all of us kids were baptized as infants. Now she insisted that I be given the opportunity to be confirmed if that was what I wanted to do. She even came to church to witness the confirmation ceremony when I graduated! I don’t remember hearing the gospel during these classes and I didn’t get saved, but I did earn the freedom to actively learn more about God.

After this, I joined a local youth group that was really more of a social group than one based in Biblical truth. I also tried reading the Bible on my own, but it never really made much sense to me. I talked to God often and hoped that I would some day be worthy of his love. When I was 15 or so, I went with friends to a "Jesus People" rally at what was then the Duluth Arena Auditorium. That night I asked Jesus into my heart and raised my hands in worship along with hundreds of other people. After the service I walked backstage and received a brand-new copy of the Good News for Modern Man Bible. I learned that Jesus was "the way, the truth, and the life" and that he was the "one-way." Though I was not yet saved, I considered myself to be a "born again Christian" and tried, with some friends, to start a bible study in school, but soon all of us found other things to keep our interest.

Throughout my adult years I had an on-again / off-again interest in the Lord. My two oldest brothers had become Christians and I sometimes went to church with them. However, most of my experiences with organized religion left me with the feeling that I was not good enough, and that I was somehow lacking in religious zeal. I felt that I was never "hot enough" for the Lord and that when the judgment day came, Jesus would "spit me out". Over the years, I tried several kinds of churches: Lutheran, Evangelical, Charismatic, Four Square Gospel, The Salvation Army, etc.

Finally, I gave up on religion altogether. I felt that I was better off creating my own belief system at home, than suffer the emotional abuse I often felt subjected to in the name of organized Christianity. I became afraid of going to church and having people try to make me believe what they believed, without showing me any evidence of why I should believe those things. After awhile I just stopped trying and didn’t go to church at all for about seven years.

I still believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and had regular conversations with him. (Usually when things were going bad for me.) I convinced myself that as long as I practiced some form of worship, God would see that I was sincere and would let me into heaven eventually. After all, I said to myself, there are so many Christian denominations with so many conflicting doctrines, what difference could it make to God if I just did things my own way?

Well, I know now that it does matter. Romans 3:10-12 says,

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no not one.

And Isaiah 64:6 states:

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

NOTHING I was doing made me acceptable to God. I was blindly and self-righteously stumbling down the broad road that leads to hell!

Up to this point, I had done everything in MY POWER to raise my kids right, to be the best mom I could be, and to be loved by others; but nothing I did was ever enough to make my life right. I had married when I was 20 years old and was divorced seven years later when my children were 5 and 3. In the ensuing years I participated in several failed relationships. By 1994 I had reached rock bottom. I was living with a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic, and spent most of my time babysitting him in the bars and neglecting my own children. During these years my children, Renee and Will, pretty much raised themselves, though they always had the phone number of the bar I was in so they could call and ask permission to do things! I didn’t sit in these bars and drink, I was there to take care of another adult and to make sure he’d get home in one piece. While I was busy doing this, my kids were left at home to fend for themselves!

Things got so bad that Renee and Will would often go to bed at night in fear that when they would wake up in the morning, I would be dead. I would go to bed praying that if anything happened during the night it would be to me and not to them. Renee began drinking and running away, and finally made a suicide attempt to try and escape the horrible atmosphere at home. Ultimately she was placed in an adolescent CD treatment program for several months. Will simply withdrew into himself as he watched the rage rule our home. He lost faith in me, as I almost weekly told him that THIS would be THE LAST TIME that I would "throw the jerk out of the house."

Our lives were out of control and NOTHING I DID made it better. I kept trying, only to make things worse. I had been in and out of counseling for years, and had all but exhausted the local bookstores’ supplies of self-help books – NOTHING WORKED. Then Will and I attended "family week" at Renee’s treatment center. There, I finally learned that I couldn’t do anything to make Renee, myself, or anyone else "get better." I had to let go of a lot of things in my life and give them over to God. My problem then was that I did not know who or what God really was. How could I trust a being that had let my life become such a shambles? I turned to Al-Anon which provided some temporary help. I learned to "let go and let God" and to "Live one day at a time." I finally got out of that abusive relationship, got an order for protection, and then had the guy arrested for harassment and stalking.

My family was finally physically safe again, but I realized that I still needed something more as there was still a spiritual void in my life. I began to ask God to direct me to a church that would be right for me. I asked him – no, I got down on my knees and begged him, to help me, because I finally understood that I could not help myself.

In June of 1995, I met Bruce Stromberg, who is now my husband. He invited me to come out to church with him, and in July I finally got up enough courage to do that. I was absolutely terrified to walk through those doors and literally had to lean on Bruce for support. I was ready to run, but God helped me to sit still that day long enough to hear his message. I began to relax and thought that maybe God had finally led me to a place that I could feel safe. I began attending church regularly, every Sunday and Wednesday, and slowly, over the next month, the truth of the Gospel began to sink in and make sense to me. Sometime in early August of that year, I understood the Gospel.

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. (1 Cor. 3:3-5)

I truly became saved!

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17)

Bruce encouraged me to learn some Bible passages, and the first one I memorized was Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by Grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)

I repeated this passage over and over, asking God to help me understand what it meant. Finally, I got it! I understood that there was nothing I could ever do that would make me deserving of Salvation and a place in heaven. God did all of the work, and I would never be able to take credit for it!

I was able to see the enormity of God’s grace for me, a horrible sinner. Romans 3:23 states,

For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

That part was easy for me to understand; I KNEW that I was a sinner! But to see God’s love for me, even in my sinful state, was more than words can express.

For God so loved the world (including me), that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him (including me) should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

I saw that Christ, knowing me as a sinner, died for me anyway, as it is stated in Romans 5:6,

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)

God made salvation so simple, that even I could finally understand it! I read:

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:17-18)

I BELIEVED! My sins, past, present, and future are forgiven. I am no longer condemned and my place in Heaven is eternally secure!

My favorite song has always been "Amazing Grace," but it was not until after I got saved that I understood what those words really meant! Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philipians 4:7)

Do you remember that inner emptiness that I mentioned at the very beginning of my testimony? It is gone! God has allowed me to go through some trials since becoming saved, but even through those trials, that empty feeling has not come back. God filled that space with his love and his peace. GOD’S GRACE. It set me free, and I will forever be thankful. ˘

 

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