It’s 12.30pm on 26 June 1993. At 32 years of age, I am sitting in a chip shop staring at the wall – reviewing my life, struggling with my guilt, and despairing in my heart as to what I should do.
In my mind I could see the letter ‘Y’. It was a picture of my life which had been trucking along in a certain direction, but was now grinding to a halt. It seemed I had come to that point on the letter where it divides in two. To the left it said ‘hell’; to the right, ‘Jesus’. A decision would have to be made.
I guess I first heard about Jesus Christ when I was a child, because my parents sent me every Sunday to the Presbyterian church in my village. I wasn’t always happy about it but I went because it was the done thing.
There I heard stories from the Bible about Jesus. These stories would come back to me from time to time years later, so I must have taken some interest in what was going on.
Whatever interest was there soon disappeared once my teenage years came along. Like the ‘lost son’ in the Bible story, I had had enough of listening to my father’s advice and refused to have anything more to do with church.
So the pattern was being established for many years to come. By my mid-teens I was fast adopting the lifestyle that says, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.
As far as I was concerned, life was for living to the full, and I desperately wanted to be in there and ‘get the t-shirt’. My life centred around pubs and discos. Along with my mates I got seriously drunk most weekends, and by my early twenties I had progressed to taking drugs.
Well, everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t I? I was locked into a lifestyle that, although it provided me with regular ‘highs’ and plenty of ‘laughs’, was doing me much more harm than I imagined.
As I stood in my village on Sunday mornings, hung over from the exploits of the night before, I often saw people going to church. I wasn’t quite sure what it was about them, but it seemed to me that they had got something in their lives that I didn’t.
Coming down off the drugs, I would regularly think about the existence of God and the meaning of life. What was it really all about? But I couldn’t answer my own questions, so I just continued with what I knew best.
Things were about to change. When I was 27, I went to my doctor with a shoulder injury but also mentioned a lump I had noticed at the side of my neck. It wasn’t painful and I was feeling OK, but soon another lump appeared. After some tests I was told that I had cancer.
My first reaction was to get drunk. I made my way to one of the down-town bars. But as I stood outside I decided instead that I should go home and tell my family.
Within three days I was in hospital on chemotherapy and later radiotherapy. This forced me to change my ways. Because of my medication I could no longer take alcohol or drugs.
My social life was severely curtailed and, not surprisingly, I began to think about the serious side of life. I remember talking to Christian nurses on the ward and I regularly opened the Bible that was sitting on my locker.
Twenty-four hours to live
My treatment over, I decided to go to London, get some work and enjoy myself. I managed all three, but after only a few months the cancer returned. I became seriously ill and ended up in the intensive care unit at University College Hospital. They warned me that if I didn’t fight with everything I had, I would probably be dead in 24 hours.
I never could understand why I was so calm. Looking back, of course, it was God in his mercy who preserved my life.
Eventually I got out of hospital, and slowly got my life back to normality. I remember praying to God to help me through, and that if he did I would try to sort myself out. But of course I didn’t.
I decided to go back home. I met up with many of my old mates again and revisited some of our old haunts. Alcohol and drugs again became a regular part of things, though nowhere near as much as in previous years. Somehow, the appetite I once had for this kind of lifestyle was diminishing.
Shattered and afraid
Then I was invited, with others, to go to a friend’s house for tea. I had been before and really appreciated her cooking, so had no problem going again! However the deal was that if we came for tea we would also go to church afterwards.
We enjoyed our meal and headed for the church. I hadn’t much interest in being there, but as the preacher began to speak the title of his sermon grabbed me. It was ‘The man who kissed the door to heaven and went to hell’.
I was intrigued, but by the time he had finished I was in pieces. The whole sermon had spoken to me. I felt that he was speaking to me and no one else. I was shattered and afraid.
For the first time in my life I knew without a shadow of doubt that there really was a God and I was not ready to meet him.
Prayer for help
The next two weeks were filled with questions about the Bible and what it has to say about knowing God. I had listened to a clear message from the preacher and was familiar with some of the issues he had raised – sin, repentance, faith, heaven and hell. Yet I needed to talk about it and read about it for myself. The reality of the type of person I was and the type of life I had been living was inescapable.
Saturday 26 was a morning when I had agreed to help a friend with some work. But we never got to the work. Instead, we spent three hours in his flat talking about God and how I was feeling about my life.
I needed to sort this issue out. I headed for home in an awful state of anxiety about how I had lived my life. All the wrong things I had ever done were spinning around in my mind, and I could find no peace.
At home, as I got ready to go to work that afternoon, I cried out in prayer for help, but the terrible burden and anxiety wouldn’t leave. Eventually I headed for the local chip shop for a meal before work.
And so I’m staring at the wall in front of me, reviewing my life, struggling with guilt and despairing in my heart. That’s when the letter ‘Y’ appeared in my mind’s eye. That’s when I saw one path lead to hell and the other to Jesus.
I thought back to the intensive care unit in London when my life had almost ebbed away. I knew I needed to trust Christ as my Saviour, there and then.
So I did. I cried out in my heart to the Lord to forgive me and save me. As I did, the incredible burden that I had been carrying around, like ten tons of coal on my back, just slipped away. My heart was filled with inexpressible joy and peace.
All of a sudden everything was new. I still looked the same but I knew I was different. The world around me looked the same, but now I saw it differently. God had done something marvellous. He had changed me.
So dramatic was this change that as I left the chip shop I asked the Lord to take me by the hand and look after me – because even the prospect of crossing the road seemed somehow to be new.
In days gone by I had experienced my fair share of fun and laughter, but here was something much deeper and stronger. Before, I had thought that the greatest thing in life would be to have a million pounds in the bank and freedom to do as you like. But now I know that the greatest thing in life is to be saved, ‘to know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent’.
Twelve years on, I haven’t changed my mind. I know I never will.