When I was in college, my now-husband was an atheist.
We met in a philosophy class. He defended Nietzsche, I defended Plato, he offered me some pixie sticks, and from then on a friendly intellectual rivalry was born. For the next year and a half, we spent a good deal of our spare time arguing about philosophers, and also about God and religion.
He was and is very smart, and had a lot of challenging, piercing questions about Christianity and about God. I dug into my apologetics books and my Bible and tried to answer all of them. Sometimes he accepted my answers, sometimes not. I sent him a Bible, encouraging him to at least read in full what he wanted to debate. We continued apace. And then – just before we went on summer break – he delivered some painful honesty to me: “Look. I’ve really tried to listen with an open mind. And I don’t think you’re wrong. But I am not interested in becoming a Christian and I’m never going to be one. So there’s no point in doing this.”
I mourned the words. We stayed in touch all that summer, but we didn’t debate philosophy and religion like before. Our friendship faded into something a little plainer and less rich. When I came back to school in the fall and ran into him sitting on the steps by the student union, I was overwhelmed with sadness – and nervousness too. We made awkward small talk for a few minutes.
And then, right before I said goodbye and went to walk back to my dorm, he glanced up. “Hey,” he said out of the blue. “I’ve been reading some of that Bible you sent me.”
Before the term was over, he became a Christian.
I think about that often. I think about how all of my answers and explanations and encouragements felt like hog-tying a bull and dragging it to the barn, only to watch, helpless, while it refused to go in. I marvel that somehow – in a summer where we only communicated by email, never spoke of God, and the shape of our friendship was outlined by his rejection of faith, the Spirit somehow unleashed itself in his heart and completed a transforming work in secret beyond the understanding of everyone who knew this man.
And then I think that I shouldn’t marvel at all, because I have experienced it, too.
The knowing. The certainty. The bone-deep understanding that God is, and will be, and is there with me, and has endured much for me, and that I am His, and all is well. There are days when my Bible studies lead me to nowhere particularly useful and watching the sadness and hurt in the world makes me tired, and there are questions I know I will never be able to answer and secrets I know I will never be able to learn – and I still just know. I know with a bedrock certainty that sometimes frightens me because that certainty is not of me. I am weak. I waver and over-analyze and become tangled up in the insignificant. That faith has grown up in ground I never tended; it is of God only, the revelation of the Spirit that He gave to me.
God works in the dark, in the quiet depths, in the places where all other light fails. And sometimes when people ask me how I know – how I know I am a Christian, how I know Jesus loves me, how I know any of this and how I can believe it when, in the end, I cannot prove it in the way we expect things to be proven – I start to gesture to my books, I start to reach for my stockpile of answers, and I stop.
All I can say is this: that God sought my spirit and my heart and somehow, inexplicably, conquered them and made them His. The spirit that cries out in me isn’t my own; it’s His, calling back to Himself. And the blessed knowing that exists in me beyond what my own capacities should allow comes directly from Him. Because “flesh gives birth to flesh, but spirit gives birth to spirit,” the gift of understanding in us is a privilege of faith, a mark of who we are and who we are becoming (John 3:6).
I hope always to remain grateful for that.