I grew up in an Italian-American family in Central New Jersey, hearing the Gospel and going to church. And as long as I can remember, I mentally assented to the Gospel. It had always made sense to me: if I broke my parents’ rules and disobeyed them, I was punished; similarly, I had broken God’s rules and disobeyed Him, and so I would be punished on a much greater scale. But because God loved us, He sent His Son Jesus to earth, who didn’t deserve to be punished, and He took our punishment by dying on the cross. And if I believed that, I wouldn’t have to be punished for my sins. I can’t recall a time that that message didn’t make sense to me. And because it did make sense, I thought that I was saved at a young age.
But I really hated church. It was boring. Every Sunday morning, my brother and I used to pretend that we couldn’t be shaken from our deep slumber, hoping that our parents would throw in the towel and let us stay home on Sundays. When they managed to get us in the car, church was still at least 15 minutes or so away, so it was plausible for us to once again be sound asleep by the time we arrived in the church parking lot.
I don’t know if the fake sleep routine ever actually worked, and so despite our commitment to stay out of church, we were there pretty much every Sunday. Usually, I would endure the singing and the preaching and then do my best to get my parents out the door as quickly as possible. But one Sunday when I was 11, I was particularly pricked in conscience as a result of something the preacher was saying. I don’t have any idea what it was, but it made me realize that though I thought I had been saved since I was 4 or 5, I hadn’t been. At the end of the service, “with every head bowed and every eye closed,” I “slipped up a hand” to indicate that I believed I was saved that day. But I didn’t tell anyone about it, and soon after that I reverted back to my old pattern of feigning sleep and living for myself.
The next few years—11, 12, 13, and 14 –were those key, formative years when one becomes who they’re going to become. As I was “coming into” my identity as a young man, I denied by my life whatever profession(s) of faith I had made in my childhood. Though I was respectful to teachers and other adults, I was characterized by being “disobedient to parents” (Rom 1:30; 2 Tim 3:2). I was an angry kid with very little to be angry about. And I was enormously self-absorbed, and would employ every faculty in my being to manipulate people until I got what I wanted from them, which was mostly attention, agreement, and applause. I lived my life for the praise of myself. I derived my identity in other people’s opinions of me. I was wholly and thoroughly self-centered. Nevertheless, throughout this entire period of my life, I thought I was a Christian because I believed the facts of the Gospel. On my better days I even evangelized my openly-nonbelieving friends, even though I wasn’t saved myself. I was entirely self-deceived.
During the summer just before I turned 15, my great aunt and uncle were planning their yearly summer vacation to southern Italy, where my uncle had grown up. For years I had begged them to take me with them, and in the summer of 2000 they finally did. I spent three weeks in a small town in Calabria, and I had the time of my life. I got to meet family that I had never met before. There were a number of kids my age that all hung out together every night, and I, being the American kid, was a novelty. I really enjoyed getting to know them and learning about life as a teenager in Italy. On top of that, I had always been one to admire the beauty of creation, and the wide open valleys, rolling hills, and starlit skies in this small town in southern Italy were exponentially more beautiful than what I had grown accustomed to in densely-packed Central New Jersey.
One night as I lay awake in my bed, looking out the window at those brilliant stars lighting the silhouette of a small mountain range in the distance, I found myself thanking God for the good things I had the privilege of enjoying. Thinking I was already a Christian, I knew that these good gifts were from God’s own beneficent hand (Jas 1:17). And so I was overwhelmed with the kindness that He had shown to me in allowing me to enjoy the pleasures of family, friendships, and a beautiful creation. I had even begun reflecting on how good I had it as a kid growing up, with a family who cared for me and who provided me with everything I needed. And at the very same time, I was confronted with the reality that my life before God did not match those good gifts that I had been given. I did not live in a way that was commensurate with the mercy that God had shown me. He had given me all these good things, and I had given Him nothing worth writing home about. And I felt terrible about that. On that quiet summer night in southern Italy, God’s kindness led me to repentance (Rom 2:4).
When I got back from Italy, I had a renewed interest in going to church. By God’s grace, the church I had been attending for the past two years had a dedicated layman serving as the youth group leader. Alan was a 26 year-old guy with a wife of four years and his first kid on the way, who (because of the influence of his own youth leader when he was in high school) wanted to do nothing more than spend time with annoying teenagers who thought they knew everything, and to teach them how to love and follow Jesus. It really was an amazing providence of God, because what Alan had at 26 was exactly what I wanted for myself by the time I was his age. I had always wanted to get married young, be able to work hard to support my wife, and raise a family to enjoy life with. Alan had just that, and yet what he wanted to do was spend time with kids like me. He was the best living example of Christ’s compassion, dedication, self-sacrificing love, and patience that I’ve ever witnessed. He helped me see the priority of reading Scripture, helped me interpret it when I didn’t understand it, and guided me in making the practical applications that Scripture prescribed so that I could be the young man that Christ wanted me to be.
Over the next year and a half, I began reading the New Testament, and I was absolutely blown away by the Jesus that I found revealed in its pages. This Jesus whom I had always heard about—this Jesus whom I had always said I believed in but had never truly known before—this Jesus was glorious. I was floored by how compelling He was. Night after night, I devoured chapter after chapter, hoping to catch a fuller glimpse of Him—looking forward to getting to know Him even more. And it wasn’t long before the testimony of the Pharisees’ officers became my testimony: “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks” (John 7:46). Christ had captured my affections. I was hooked.
And as I continued to read through the New Testament, I had never felt so found out before. I recognized that this Book wasn’t like any other. This Book was alive. This Book knew me; it saw right through the façade of self-righteousness that I had erected for myself and exposed me for the helpless sinner that I was. But as fast as it was wounding me, it bound up those wounds with revelations of the glory of my Savior. While I had used to find my greatest satisfaction in my own self-exaltation, I had now come to desire nothing more than that He should increase, and I should decrease (John 3:30). I had never known what it was to find joy in the exaltation of another’s glory, but by the grace of God I had found out; and I loved it.
And from that time, I’ve wanted nothing more than to understand what Scripture says, so that I could have an accurate picture of the Savior that I had come to trust and treasure. By His grace, that desire still drives me today. And it’s a privilege for me to spend my life as a shepherd of His sheep, laboring to display the glory of Christ to others, for His honor and their joy. May He get what He is worthy of in me.
But whatever things were gains to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria