This story begins about twenty-five years ago. I was just about 13 or 14 when I stopped believing in God. The reasons are numerous but they aren’t particularly relevant to this testimony. What is relevant is that my disbelief in God was total. He did not exist. Period.
As the years went by I saw no reason to change my mind. If anything, I just grew increasingly certain that God was nothing more than an invention by people to explain the things they couldn’t explain. The philosophers that I read only further reinforced my belief. And if intellectual certainty wasn’t enough, my life itself seemed to bear witness to the nonexistence of God.
Arrogant and Proud
If you had met me a few years ago, you’d have met a man who had just about everything a man could possibly want. I ran a successful business with offices in three countries. I had a beautiful wife and two lovely children. I had a house with all creature comforts in it. I had it all.
But more than this, I was a man to whom nothing bad ever seemed to stick. I got into fights, accidents, and other situations that should have seen me arrested, injured, or even dead. But I walked out of each and every one of them without anything to show for them other than an increasing feeling of invincibility. I never even fell sick, other than for a rare cold once in a while. It was like I had an invisible cloak of protection around me, keeping me safe, making me invulnerable to any kind of harm. And I thought that the protection was something I generated myself. I began to get arrogant in my belief that I was untouchable, that I was a power unto myself, that I could do anything I wanted.
And for a long time I could.
In Free Fall
Then one day things started changing. I sold my business to an American dot.com company, but rather than cash out completely, I clung on to the major part thinking that I would make a lot more in a couple of years. Hardly did I sell it, the dot.com market crashed and along with other companies my own company went hurtling downward. I shrugged it off; believing as I always did that nothing bad could stick to me. Sure enough, while the company continued to plunge, I got a job offer with a publishing company to edit one of their magazines and the title of Vice President thrown in for good measure. And everything would have been great, except less than three months later, the company began going down the tubes. I couldn’t believe it. People started quitting, but I hung on, sure that things would get better–after all, I was untouchable, wasn’t I?
The company went bust.
I kept waiting for the old “magic” to work, but it seemed to have gone. Where once, everything I touched turned to gold, it seemed like everything I touched now turned to dust. And I began to get angry with the world as if it was the world’s fault that things had started going bad for me.
One hot night in July, as my life continued to collapse with great rapidity around me, I went out drinking with some friends of mine. I wasn’t an alcoholic but I was a rather heavy drinker, and like most drinkers–heavy or otherwise–I thought that I had control over alcohol. I was to find out just how much control I had that night.
I don’t remember returning home. I don’t remember anything that followed until some time in the morning when I found my bedroom suddenly filled with policemen and realized I had done something terrible. Within fifteen minutes I was in the police station. Five hours later I was behind bars, locked up with rapists and drug pushers and murderers like an ordinary criminal.
I found out a little later what I had done. I had torn up my house, smashing some of those symbols of prosperity I had been so proud off. I had hurt my wife so badly she had to be taken to hospital. And I had pulled a knife on her threatening to kill her and my little daughter. I was never a particularly good husband or father, but I loved my wife and children in my own peculiar way and it was unfathomable to me that I would do anything like that, but in one of those rare flashes of brutal honesty, I realized that in a rage–especially a drunken rage–I just could have. The thought was horrific.
When I spoke to my wife later, I told her that I was sorry but she wasn’t interested in accepting my apology. She said she was going to take the children and leave me. And I knew she meant it because I could hear the fear in her voice and realized that she was scared witless of me.
And I knew my life was over.
In less than twelve months I had lost everything I had–my business, my money, my freedom and my family, not to forget my self-respect–and I knew that it was all over for me. When they let me out of there, I would go for a swim on the beach one day–and just keep swimming.
Jesus, do you exist?
I sat down in the corridor (all the cells were full) and wondered how things had reached this point where death became the most appealing of options.
As I brooded, I happened to notice a young man in the cell facing me. He was reading a Bible and there was a look of such peace on his face he looked almost beatific. I found myself envying him, and even more so a moment later when I realized I had never known peace, not one day’s peace in the twenty five years gone by.
How did this guy manage it? Especially in a place like this which was sheer bedlam. There were three radios blasting three different kinds of music. There were people yelling and fighting with one another. There were people stomping up and down the cell block. But none of it seemed to bother this guy.
I went up to him and asked him how he managed it. He smiled and said, “Jesus.”
At any other time I probably would have been scornful, but then I was just conscious of this tremendous feeling of sadness seep through me. “Jesus,” I thought. “Do you even exist? To be able to give people anything, much less peace?”
I didn’t believe it any more than I had a day earlier, but hope springs eternal in the human soul and death was too final a solution not to turn to one final possibility of saving myself. And I did.
“Jesus,” I said. “Help me get out of this mess.” I almost imagined I heard someone sigh.
The next time I spoke to my wife, I told her that I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep the family intact, and that included getting back to God. She didn’t quite believe me, which was not surprising given my previous antipathy toward religion, but she seemed prepared to give me a chance. And I was grateful, because despite her skepticism, I meant it and the very first morning after I was released I went to Mass.
July 14, 2002
It was the first time in twenty-five years I was walking voluntarily into a church–if you exclude my wedding ceremony, which to me was an exercise in role-playing.
I participated in the Mass the best I could, which wasn’t much really. I stood when everybody stood and sat when everybody sat, but I just couldn’t bring myself to kneel.
When Mass was over I went to meet the parish priest, Fr. John. He had been the priest serving the Mass. I told him that I wanted to get back to God. He gave me a long studied look before saying he wasn’t sure of my sincerity and that I should go back to church and meditate for a while.
I stared at him in complete disbelief. Wasn’t the fact that I was there an indication of my sincerity? But I was tired and wasn’t inclined to argue; besides, there seemed to be an element of truth to what he said, so I returned to the church and sat down, not quite sure what I was supposed to do. My heart wanted to accept Jesus, my heart needed to accept Jesus, but my mind rebelled. I hadn’t believed in God for 25 years! I had been so sure that He didn’t exist, I hadn’t even let my two kids, one 14, the other 6, be baptized. How was I supposed to suddenly start believing He existed? I wanted to, but it was so difficult.
The First Miracle
I looked around the church helplessly, glancing at the various images hung on the walls, wondering what I should do, when I found my eyes drawn to a gold and black mosaic of Our Lady in one corner. It was a beautiful picture and I admired it, thinking how lovely the lady in it looked, when suddenly I heard her say, “Aneel, come to me.”
I looked away, thinking my imagination was running wild, but then a moment later, I heard the voice again. This time there was no denying that I had actually heard it. It was so clear, I can still hear it in my mind.
“Aneel, come to me,” she said.
For a man who had lived his life on the altar of reason, this belonged to the storybook world of fantasy. But to deny I heard that voice was tantamount to denying my very existence–or my sanity. I began to get a little scared.
“Aneel, don’t be afraid. Come to me,” the voice said for a third time.
There were only five or six people in the church at the time, which was fortuitous, otherwise I might never have done what I did. I got up and walked to the picture. When I reached there, however, I found myself unable to look up at it for a long moment, until finally I managed to raise my eyes. The instant I did so, I felt a wave of fire run through me, filling every pore of my body. But the fire wasn’t hot, it was cold, and was the most delicious sensation imaginable. It went on and on for nearly half a minute and was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced.
And then I believed!
It has been said that all we need to do is take one step towards God and He will cross miles and miles to get to us. I saw evidence of this in the church that day. I was a man who wanted to get back home, but was unable to find his way back. God didn’t wait for me to ask for directions; He came and took me home. And on the way He gave me the gift of faith.
Peace at Last
I stayed on for the next Mass, and this time when people knelt, I knelt too. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.
I went to Communion and received Jesus for the first time in twenty-five years. I experienced a feeling of peace in my heart like I had never experienced before. It was like I was one with the world, one with the universe, one with God Himself. The sensation was utterly amazing.
I went back to the priest after the service and this time there weren’t any questions about my sincerity. Very graciously, he took me under his wing and, over the course of a week, he gave me instruction on various aspects of Catholicism, some of which I remembered from my childhood, before he finally told me that I was ready to make my confession.
The Love of Jesus
I wanted to make a good confession, so that night I sat down and began going through all the bad things I had done in my life. I discovered I had committed every sin imaginable, short of murder, though I was perhaps guilty of that too. When we think something in our minds and want it with our hearts, the deed is as good as done, and I had so much of hatred within me, I had delighted in fantasies of destroying the world and everybody in it. I was horrified. Not so much by the sheer volume of my sins, but by the fact that I hadn’t even realized that I had been doing so much that was wrong.
The next day I went to Fr. John and made my confession. At the end of it, he told me to say a rosary as penance. I was shocked. A rosary! Was that it? For 25 years of sinning!
“That’s not enough,” I protested.
“What do you suggest?” he asked mildly.
“I don’t know. Make it 25 rosaries; one for each year I’ve been away from God.”
The priest said okay, but I couldn’t help feeling I was getting off very lightly. This wasn’t justice in my world. I wanted to be made to pay for the things I had done to hurt God.
Fr. John was a wise man and he seemed to discern what I was thinking. “Aneel,” he said, “I want you to know something. This is not punishment. Your sins have been forgiven. All of them. Jesus paid the price for them when he died on the cross.”
It was at that moment that the full love of Jesus struck me and I swore to myself that I would never, ever do anything deliberately to hurt Him again.
I returned home and began dismantling my old life, systematically burning, smashing and otherwise voiding myself of anything that I felt would be an offence to Jesus. Bootleg CD’s and video cassettes, pirated software, and a collection of pornography that was as vast as it was depraved, were all destroyed along with letters and photographs from old girlfriends.
As if in appreciation of my efforts to purify myself, Jesus performed another miracle in my life. He totally wiped away my desire for alcohol. A single drink at that stage might have blown my new life to bits, but now there was not the slightest temptation to imbibe, not even when I was in a room full of people who were drinking.
Divine Retreat Center
Two months after my conversion, my wife and I went for a retreat at a place reputed to have brought about amazing transformations in the lives of those who visited. I figured I already was transformed, but if there were to be further improvements in my life, I would only be too happy.
When we reached the retreat center I saw a large sign at the gate that said smoking was strictly prohibited inside the premises. I grimaced. I still retained much of my contempt for rules–arrogance dies hard–and I had no intention of following this one. Besides, I wasn’t sure I could follow it even if I wanted to. I was a chain smoker and I smoked three packets of cigarettes a day, five in the days when I drank. That is sixty to a hundred cigarettes a day!
I had heard that people who attended the retreat quit smoking and if that happened in my case I would be delighted. But I wasn’t taking any chances–I had four cartons of Benson & Hedges in my backpack!
We checked in and then went to the first session. After it was over, I rushed up to my room and in the twenty minute break we had been given I smoked five cigarettes one after another. If anyone needed evidence of how hopelessly addicted to tobacco I was, this was it.
During the next session, one of the speakers spoke about the sanctity of life and how it was an unforgivable sin to take life, even if it was one’s own. The statement was made almost in passing, but the effect it had on me was enormous. It dawned on me that when we smoke–just like when we drink or do drugs–we are taking our own lives. It isn’t an instantaneous death, but we are killing ourselves just as surely–and as deliberately–as if we were to ingest a little poison every day. And that made it a sin!
By this time, the moment I discovered that something was a sin, I no longer wanted to have anything to do with it. I wanted to quit right then and there, but quite honestly didn’t know how. I had been a chain smoker since my early teens and had never quit for more than a few days at a time, despite trying my best several times.
God of the Impossible
We broke for lunch, which turned out to be entirely vegetarian. I loathed vegetables and unless they formed part of a meat dish–like Chinese fried rice or noodles–I avoided them altogether. “I’m a pure non-vegetarian,” I liked to say. Deciding not to make a big deal of it, however, I served myself a small portion, glad that it didn’t take much of an effort to put everything away. (As an incidental part of this testimony, I was rarely to eat meat again!)
I returned straight to the retreat hall after lunch. My thoughts were still very much occupied with how to give up smoking when I heard Jesus say, “Aneel, give it up.” By this time Jesus and I were good friends and we spoke constantly so I had no difficulty recognizing His voice.
“I don’t know how,” I replied.
“Just quit,” He said. “Leave the rest to me.”
That evening, there was a session called “Surrender” where we were invited to surrender something to the Lord. This could be a weakness that we had, or a burden that weighed us down, or–as in my case–a habit I couldn’t give up.
This seemed to be my cue. I got up, went to my room and after collecting all the cigarettes I had, I returned and dumped them into a trash bin that was kept there for this very purpose.
And my addiction was gone! There were no withdrawal symptoms. There was no unbearable craving for a cigarette. There was no moodiness or grumpiness. A habit I had thought I could never break was broken with only the effort it took to make a decision, a decision to surrender it to the Lord.
The following morning we were in the middle of prayer when I suddenly felt a massive wave of something like electricity shoot through my body. It is an experience that goes beyond words. The closest I can come to describing it is by comparing it to electrocution. It was like I was plugged into an electric machine and someone had turned the juice on. I had no clear idea what was happening, except I knew that something momentous was taking place. When it ended, I felt more alive than I had ever felt in my entire life. But at the same time, I felt strangely empty, as if I had been given a taste of paradise only to have it taken away.
I waited for the experience to recur, wanting it, needing it, but the day passed into night without anything happening other than a few shivers that might have been from a breeze that had begun blowing from seemingly out of nowhere. Just before the session ended for the day, some intuition told me that something was required of me. Immediately, I engaged Jesus in some intense conversation, mostly impassioned appeals for Him to repeat the experience. I promised Him a total surrender of self in return. I promised Him I would never sin again if I could help it. I promised Him that I’d do anything and everything He wanted me to do, even die for Him.
“Are you sure?” Jesus asked, before adding softly, “You might have to.”
“Yes, Lord,” I said with utter and complete conviction.
And then I got blasted again, this time nearly off my feet. For about five minutes–it could easily have been ten or twenty–I had this current pouring through me, unceasingly. The experience I had earlier that morning was wonderful, but it was nothing like this. This was raw, naked power. This was the power that parted the Red Sea. This was the power that smashed the walls of Jericho. This was the power that helped Samson bring down the temple. This was the power of God Himself. And it was in me!
I knew that my life would never ever be the same again. And it hasn’t been.