“A man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit to obtain the grace of Christ.”
– Martin Luther
This is going to be a long one…
I am thankful to be very observant. I’ve seen great beauty and marvelled at the wonders of our world as well as perused through the present and also history at its darkest moments. I’ve had the chance to exercise the gift of reflection and immerse myself into the questions that rise out of the human condition and the world as we have come to know it. I was always this way; very inquisitive even in childhood; noticing things others my age did not and paying heed to things I shouldn’t have as well.
I remember a conversation about Richard Leakey taking place at home. I cannot recall when or where it happened but the essence of it gripped me greatly – I heard of his escape from death and his subsequent claim; that despite having survived a fall from the sky in an aeroplane, and had his legs amputated, that he wouldn’t acknowledge God’s mercy in his survival. I wondered who this was who could ‘defy God’ and live. The man was one of Kenya’s most brilliant sons and an atheist.
You could say that I’ve been interested ever since about religion and worldviews. I may have been about 9 years old but the interest began early as well as the realization that I saw myself as an alien; an outsider to the Christian worldview. So you could say that I had an inward leaning towards atheism from around the age of 9. However I never professed it with my mouth.
If you’re African or at least have had an interaction with African culture in general, then you know that everyone is a relative and that we are defined by community. It was in my silent musings over spirituality that I realised I was never ‘always’ a Christian or Seventh Day Adventist for that matter (as I have a Seventh Day Adventist background) because according to my understanding, culture was an unending and unbroken stream of which I was a part but my mother was brought up a Catholic (whilst straddling the line between Catholicism and S.D.A) during her short upbringing in Central Province. Her father; my grandfather, was himself a Catholic after his conversion from Islam. His name was Alsalmus having changed it from Saleh. Not much is known about his life in Islam prior to marriage. My father from the little I can remember wasn’t exceptionally religious though he was brought up an S.D.A. Eventually after their marriage, they attended a Kenya Assemblies of God Church on a couple of occasions (not P.C.E.A as I thought a while back) before fully immersing themselves into the Seventh Day Adventist community. Additionally, a ‘cousin’ (and if you’re Kenyan/African, then you know what that means!) was in fact an adherent of the Baha’i faith. So if indeed I was the product of my community, then I too could make a choice regarding what I believe. And atheism was now one of many factors in the equation.
Given the trouble I had in my childhood; consistently facing bullying throughout primary school also partly in high school, I wondered wildly if this was the product of my Christian upbringing. Bullying further heightened my introverted and reflective nature… Salvation when I considered it, was an unattainable goal and yet one that ought to be worked for. In essence, my mind was unable to fathom what salvation really was about because I believed it to mean total freedom from trouble. I’m sure I wasn’t even ten by the time I decided to remove myself from emotional ties to objectively evaluate from the outside the merits of Christianity from community and family. Whatever merit I saw in my own family life would taint my objectivity due to familial ties and could not be relied upon no matter how true they were. It was my observations and especially my disregard of grace in light of human frailty that really emboldened my irreligious leanings from childhood up to adulthood.
However, something still attracted me to the life of the church. On hindsight I believe it was the traditions and the form of piety that was attached to a romanticized spirituality that attracted me. Not the historical Jesus Christ of the faith. There had been a time when I sought to reconcile Christ to the term Christian but passed over that task given the counterintuitive actions of professing Christians around me. So I swiftly without much inquiry, concluded that there was no power to be found within the model of a flourishing Christian society. Christ had now subconsciously become a bothersome hindrance to the enjoyment I sought from the cultural and familial. However, I dared not confess this even to myself lest I lost the ties that bound…
Reflecting on the lives of people who I deemed to be successful, I realised that not everyone was a Christian and I wondered what their fate would be on the other side of eternity. I had no assurance that I wouldn’t end up the same way and I realised that no bridge constructed by human resource and effort had ever bridged life and death. Was there someone who could bridge this gap, and proclaim what lay beyond no matter what it was? I didn’t linger for too long on the thought. I had no desire to do so, nor could I find any answer. Bible verses made no real sense because I just didn’t get what they meant. One thing was for sure though; my human efforts were susceptible to time and memory. No matter how lofty my victories would be, someone could very well surpass them or they would be forgotten in their entirety.
While in high school I was baptized in form 1; believing I would somehow understand what life; the spiritual life, was really about and that even though in my heart I didn’t believe a word of what was written in the vows (which we mouthed at the stage of Maxwell Adventist Church), that somehow, when I got out of that water, clarity would come. It never came and my pious, ‘God talk’ cover-ups betrayed the fact that there had been no inward change…
Three years passed, and K.C.S.E was near. I had recently rediscovered my love for writing and wrote more than I studied. I had lost all value for my life or others and was no longer driven. My drive for salvation had been replaced by a nihilistic complacency; once, one of my sisters asked me why I was no longer driven like I was as a child. Little did we know that these were the obvious signs of ‘a lifeless life’ as it were…
One more obvious sign was when I beat up a friend who would not let me into the library at night during night prep. Though I cried afterward and followed him to beg for his forgiveness because I did not know what came over me, I really didn’t understand why I was behaving the way I did. I didn’t understand why I had to ask his forgiveness and tried to explain to him that I just…pounced…for no apparent reason.
Reflecting on my life from the age of 9 till 18, I realised I was not honest with myself. I had to admit what was apparent and get my life sorted from there on. So I did what I had desired to do for so many years before. I opened one of the classroom windows and yelled expletives at the world declaring that there was no God. I renounced God in 2004.
Almost immediately I felt immense liberation. No longer did my conscience bother me. I was rid of it and its haranguing nature. My mind was clear for the first time. What followed was a life rife with explicit blasphemy and an addiction to immoral living. I could have cared less. I was no longer attached to false traditions especially that ‘worthless’ human tradition passed down in every society; the concept of God…
The ‘freedom’ didn’t last for too long. Before I knew it, I was having anxiety attacks and sleepless nights. I was still at home surrounded by Bibles and around religious people. My newfound reality surfaced at home once in a while through my increased aggression, and my one time open mockery of prayer when its use was suggested by my sister to my father in light of my father’s business problems…
When my KCSE results came out, I realised I wasn’t going to join public university as I’d hoped. I scored well, but competition was great. The only option was to join a private college/university. During one of my many anxiety attacks, I made a ‘futile prayer’ – to join the Christian university I’d applied to, to do a B.Sc. in Economics and to be surrounded by real Christians. I never really meant the prayer but God answered it anyway despite having faked a testimony in the application…
So once in, I forgot about that ‘futile prayer’ and continued to blaspheme God…his mercy towards me is beyond comprehension. In his mercy and grace, he also surrounded me with people from varying tribes and nationalities who had a real love for Jesus as well as people who had a ‘by name only’ affiliation to Christ. It was apparent what was real and what wasn’t. I could sense for the first time, the power to live out the model for a flourishing life. And as hard as I tried to be the tough irreligious don’t care guy, I knew I wanted in. I also had the opportunity to read ‘The Death of Ivan Illych’ by Leo Tolstoy in my literature class and it gave me for the very first time a realisation that the spiritual life was not a tradition but a real fact. It was also in my university years that I listened to a lot more heavy metal music than I do now, a lot of which was Christian. Bands such as Extol from Norway and Becoming the Archetype who I still listen to, reflected the same despair I saw in my own writing but dared to follow it to its logical end and literally scream Jesus Christ as the answer to all of my despair. Not only did they do so, but they also proclaimed a life in Christ that I thought was a fantasy; a life worth having.
In July 2008, two years after joining university I was confronted with the frailty of human endeavours especially my own. It was ‘blocks’ or summer classes as some may know them, and I was home, having opted not to attend university that term. I had felt suicidal numerous times but today was different…so I left the house, with an unkempt afro, and walked to Yaya Centre looking for a vantage point from which to jump off…I’d had enough. Life within the construct I envisioned would never work. I was at the end of myself. I remember seeing a guy in the elevator who I knew from childhood carrying produce in a box; he was a chef now. He glanced at me and I ignored him. I did not need any distractions…
I can’t be sure how I got home but I did. I was coming from Gatundu Road to Siaya Road on foot. I should have been coming from Othaya Road but I was not coming from the most obvious direction. I believe God led me home. Whether by matatu or on foot I can’t quite remember. All I remember as I headed back home was the fact that everything ends. That death is the most natural course there is, and yet I had a strong desire to live. I couldn’t make sense of it because the desire was not my own. It was a gift.
That same night, in the middle of the night with my two brothers sleeping in the same room was one of the loneliest nights I’ve ever been through. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the now alien worldview I had trashed so many years ago. All the logical conclusions affirming the historic views of Christianity were now all I had but they were not enough to give me new life…it was all head knowledge. it was at that point that I remembered a clip I had watched of an Indian guy on TV talking about how a true change had to not only be in the mind but also had to move down to the heart to be real or else it was futile. That man was Ravi Zacharias.
I wondered how this change would come to me. How this abundant life could be received. I was absolutely exhausted of having to account for myself. I had no limitless perspective. I couldn’t see into the future to ascertain my life…it was then that I sensed a ‘dark impression’ of sorts. It wasn’t a voice or a vision but more like one sweeping emotion that conveyed one statement; that I would remain this way forever – like someone seeing the promised land through a seeing glass from a concentration camp and forever unable to cross over. And it made me realise that knowledge was not enough, an experience was necessary.
Suddenly in my despair and in my questioning in the middle of the night, Bible verses came to mind in a way that I had not encountered before. The Holy Spirit convinced me that in the face of death, Christ’s love constrains me and that I would live. I believe now that this communicated truth is in fact in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15.
I wondered to myself, how then would I be brought to life? And a second impression came upon me. That I had to come as a child. I believe this is captured in the verse Matthew 18:1-3. In wondering how I would do that, I realised that a child comes to the father in this way: The child knows the father won’t let him fall because they see how strong the father is, but that’s not the reason why they come. They come because they have faith that the father will hold them and has every good intention for them despite having the strength and seeing it with their own eyes. The response to sight alone limits, but the faith in one’s heart brings about a wholesome reaction. The cognitive is important but it is the faith which moves that is more important.
In a wave of emotions, I surrendered to his sovereign grace. It was no longer me dictating the terms. It was not me answering the door to a desperate and hapless Jesus begging me to let him in. It was an absolute surrender of my life and my future to his irresistible, most alluring grace. I knew from then on without a doubt that I was his, and that I would never be grabbed from my Lord. That he meant what he said when he said in John 6:47, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life,”
I understood that every moment in my life was bringing me to this point in my life. That I was known and loved before I ever was.
In that ‘summer of 2008’, the 3rd of July, I received the ultimate gift; eternal life. And as if that wasn’t enough, that same night, I got a gift only a loving father could have given to this son; a restful night at last.