Do you remember a time when you were overcome by sudden fear? Maybe when you were little and felt that overpowering need to tuck your bare feet under the covers so the scary thing under your bed couldn’t grab them? Or maybe when you were an adult and heard that your son or daughter had been in a car accident, but you didn’t have all the details about their condition yet? Maybe at the discovery of a small lump under your skin?
Sudden fear can be formidable. It can rattle your spirit and even abruptly displace your trust in God. It can also have a powerful effect on your body. It can cause your blood pressure to raise, your heart to pound in your chest, and your ears to flash hot. Trembling and dripping sweat can follow. If things are really frightening, you may lose your ability to reason or make decisions. I know. I’ve been there.
I remember the night some of our daughter’s teenaged, male, friends decided to scare her and play a “prank” on her. They drove up and down our road, got out of their car, and then stalked around outside our house. Problem was, she wasn’t home. I was and I was alone. My health condition was worse back then, and I was not prepared to defend myself like I am today. It is terribly unnerving to see dark figures circling your home and then menacingly approach when you are alone and have mobility issues! I also remember a couple of fire alarms that woke me in the middle of the night and started my heart racing. One alarm, years ago, detected a fire set by my ex-boyfriend who had started it in an attempt to kill me. Everyone got out in time, thank God; but we did lose our home. Additionally, when I was growing up, the distant voice of my abuser calling me down to his finished basement never failed to put my young heart in a vice. There have also been near misses in vehicles, something most of us have experienced. Life certainly provides no shortage of moments that can jolt us into fright.
Though I have experienced these and other frightening things, they can’t compare to the terror that I experienced before I was saved. I use the word terror because fear just doesn’t seem to cut it. I’ve decided to write about it in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of my new birth, which is today. There are a few other parts to the story in my blog. You can find links to them at the bottom of this post if you’d like to read them. I share them in the hopes of bringing glory to my awesome God.
From belief to emptiness
My pre-Christian life story and road to salvation is a bit long, so I will only be touching on part of it. The short version is that I was brought up Catholic and believed what I was taught. I believed up until the day I made my Confirmation, which I made while in high school. As the day approached, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I couldn’t wait to receive the Holy Spirit. But when that day finally came, after I was confirmed, my beliefs were replaced with a deep emptiness because the promised reception of the Holy Spirit didn’t happen. At the time, I did not know that teachings of the Catholic Church surrounding salvation and Confirmation could not be reconciled with Scripture or that the Holy Spirit does not work according to the sacraments of men. What I did know or think was that the Catholic Church and God were a matched set. They had been entwined all my life. So if one was a lie (forgive the harsh word, but that’s how I saw it) the other one must be too. Out went the Church and out went my belief in God. It was a pretty upsetting time for me. The loss of God was not small in my heart. But, I soon found that no God meant certain limits were no longer needed. So for years I lived without them, serving my selfish and sinful pleasures and not worrying about eternal consequences. I was very good at it. That’s not a boast. It’s a grave confession.
Forget fear of death, try terror
Though I happily did as I pleased, there was also a concurrent unpleasant development. The fear of death that I had carried with me since I was about ten years old started to get much worse. Every now and then at night, just before falling asleep, my mind would wander to that awful question: “What happens when you die?” At best, all I could come up with was blackness or ceasing to exist. Those answers didn’t sit well with me. Thinking about it scared me, and that fear sometimes escalated to share terror. All I could do was force myself to stop thinking about it. Thankfully, sleep would come; and those thoughts would not come to mind again for a while.
Terror from an unknown source
Another terror that I experienced on the road to salvation came from an unknown source. I always feel leery sharing this and certain other parts of my testimony because they are, well, not fully explainable and intense. I don’t want things to be misunderstood. They happened when I had no solid biblical understanding or charismatic like preconceptions. Through some parts are strange, they did happen. My husband Butch encouraged me to share by saying we don’t get to choose how we are saved. What happens is up to God and any understanding of it must be put through the lens of Scripture. I wish to add, the experiences were not the basis for my new birth. They only accompanied them. My new birth was God’s doing when He opened my heart to believe.
The first time I experienced this other terror I was visiting the home of my friend Pauline. She and I worked together at an art studio; and as a faithful, Bible-believing Christian, she often tried to talk to me about God. She wanted to see me saved and told me that her whole church was praying for me. I listened for the most part and got the gist of the gospel. I leaned that, according to her, Jesus was the only hope for forgiveness of sins and salvation. But I didn’t believe God was real, so it didn’t matter. And I was “fine” without Him, living wantonly and loving it. But to be completely honest, along with my denial of God’s existence, there was a part of me that was looking for Him. Contradictory, but true. I was open to the idea of Him, but I saw nothing.
Work is not the best environment for discussing these things, so Pauline often invited me to her home. She told me she really wanted to sit down with me and her Bible and show me what she was talking about. After many refusals, I finally gave in. She was so certain that I needed to see what was in that Book, so I went.
I don’t remember arriving at Pauline’s house or how long it took for her to crack open her Bible; but remembering her determination, it probably didn’t take too long. We talked and she quoted and read Scripture verses to me. The message was about salvation apart from works through faith alone, in Christ alone; though I never could have summed it up so concisely back then. During our chat, I was uncomfortable and a bit bewildered by everything. I listened with a reluctant heart, trying to be polite to my dear friend. She had such joy and such love for me in her eyes. At one point, Pauline turned her Bible around and pointed to a passage. She wanted me to read it for myself. I complied. I don’t remember where I started from, but I know for a fact I ended on Galatians 2:21.
“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”
Galatians 2:21 (KJV)
The last three words “dead in vain” tore into my heart. They pained me. Some new reality pressed in on the edges of my mind, but it was out of reach. However, something about my works meaning nothing and Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins meaning everything did penetrate; and a glimmer that He might be real flickered dimly. I was startled, and my uncomfortableness increased. My heart started to beat faster and harder. Then it happened; an unexpected change occurred in the room. It felt as if something had come in and was still advancing. There seemed to be a darkness moving in on either side of me, and somehow I knew that the darkness was there for me. It did not feel evil, but I was terrified and shaken to the core. The whole room seemed to get darker, yet I remember the white pages of that Bible so clearly. I feared that something was about to happen, and that it had to do with a God I didn’t believe in. I felt that if I didn’t leave something would change, and it was a change I didn’t want. There was only one thing to do: Get Out! I don’t remember what I said to Pauline to explain my sudden desire to leave, but I left. I got in my car, still shaken up. I was not saved that night. I was however undone.
My memory fails me in trying to retrieve anything else from that point on in the evening, but I do remember the next time I felt that terror. It was the weekend I was saved. This time I was with Butch. We were in his van on the way to chaperon a weekend Confirmation retreat for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program (CCD) that he was involved with. (CCD is Catholic religious education classes.) Yup, Butch, my then fiancé taught CCD. He was a born again Christian at the time, as God had worked in his life in the place he was at. However, he had not yet learned the contradictions between the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Bible. In his love for God and desire to serve, he taught CCD to ninth graders. His curriculum was more about morality than the doctrines of the Church. I used to accompany him to his classes sometimes, but I was not a good influence. I sat in the back of the room with my feet up on the desk in front of me and joked around and mocked. I was so cool. Anyway, he invited me to go with him as a chaperone for the tenth grade confirmation class; and I accepted.
The retreat was in another state about an hour and a half away. Our destination interested me, but I was not sure what all the fuss was about. Why go so far for something that didn’t matter? God wasn’t real. At some point when we had traveled a good distance from home, we talked about God and my lack of faith again. As we continued to talk, an uneasy feeling started to grow in me like it did that night at Pauline’s. Soon the uneasiness changed to fear because I began to have an overwhelming feeling that something was coming for me and was surrounding me. Again it didn’t seem evil, but it still unsettled me. This time, I sensed that it was big, really big and powerful. Its approach was certain, and something else was certain. I knew that it was going to do something to me. It was going to change me. Though it contradicted my stance on God’s existence, I feared it was God; and I was not ready. An awful, heart rattling, feeling of terror rose in me and drove me to tears. I wanted Butch to turn the van around and take me home. Of course he couldn’t. For one thing, we were on the highway. We were also too far and committed to the weekend. He kept driving and tried to calm me. I so wanted to run, to flee like I did at Pauline’s; but I couldn’t. There was no way.
Seeing that there was no possibility of going home, I managed to calm down. We arrived at the retreat house and settled in. What happened that weekend is another long story, too long for this post. But I will at least say that on that weekend I had a powerful experience. More unexplainable things happened. But most importantly, by God’s grace, some truths of the gospel were presented and together with what I had learned from Pauline and Butch, God worked in my heart and burst it wide open. He made Himself undeniably known to me. He was real! He also made Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins personal for me. He saved me, ironically at a Confirmation retreat. All terror was gone and a joy and peace that literally made it difficult for me to lift my legs filled me for hours.
The source of the terror
What was the source of the terror? I don’t know with a hundred percent certainty. Experiences are subjective and it might always remain unexplained. I can live with that easily, but I think there is good reason to consider what it was. If nothing else, it could bring out some biblical truth about God that we would do well to remember. That truth should be lifted up over any experiences we have.
I have not often shared these details in the past; but when I have, it has been suggested that it might have been demonic activity trying to keep me from getting too close to the truth. Terror, darkness, sounds evil or demonic, right? Maybe. But that option never sat well with me for a few reasons. Could it have just been a trick of my mind? That never seemed right either. Could it have been something holy? Whenever I’ve reflected on things, this has always seemed the more likely possibility. It is only with the Bible that I can hope to get some framework for understanding it, and I’ve tried to do just that.
The Bible does reveal that terror and sometimes even darkness (although more literally in some cases) are associated with God. Yes, He is light and love and merciful beyond our comprehension, but that does not tell the whole story. God is also an all-powerful, holy Judge whose wrath is righteously fierce and who ought to be feared. This is revealed in both the Old and New Testaments. Yes, even Christians are told to fear God; albeit, it is assuaged by our position in Christ.
So possibly the terror came from being close to the truth that I was a guilty sinner who had no righteousness of my own and who was due to be judged by a very Real and very Holy God. Getting close to God’s holiness, by His grace, cannot help but make a profound impression. I do realize that just because God is associated with terror does not have to mean my terror was due to God or some manifestation of His holiness; but in my spirit, I think it was.
Verses about the terror of God
It would leave my work undone if I did not share verses that speak about the terror of God. It would also mean that I would miss the opportunity to speak more about the hope that we have in Christ, a hope that answers to the terror of a holy yet merciful Judge. So I invite you to click through and read Terror, Wrath, and the Fear of God in Bible Notes here on Chapter 3 Ministries. I implore you to read it especially if you do not know Him or are unsure how you would fair standing before Him. Terror in the life of an unbeliever or joy and peace in the heart of a saint. Where are you on this? God is real and He is our Judge. There is nothing more terrifying than facing Him without the justification that comes by His grace through faith in His Son Jesus. May God be glorified!
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Romans 5:1)
“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)