I took a walk with God - let me tell you what I learned.
Since we met five years ago in the marching band at Vanderbilt, Colin Johnson has become one of my best friends. We’ve had lots of long life chats about just about everything, including faith, and the differences between what I believed as a Christian and what Colin thought as an atheist.
Two months ago, Colin asked to get lunch with me so we could talk about the ways in which God was starting to speak into his life. About two weeks after that, he texted me to tell me he had given his life to God on a walk that afternoon. It is a joy to welcome him to the blog today to tell you that story.
February 7th, 2019, only two months after I ended my six and a half year run of atheism, my life changed. I went on a hike through the Jones Mill Biking Trail in Long Hunter State Park. It was an unseasonably warm day for early February, and I wanted to take full advantage. What that meant ended up being far more valuable to me than a couple hours of exercise. I let God guide me, gave Him faith and trust, and He rewarded me through knowledge, guidance, and a relief of my doubt.
There are a number of issues involved with going from atheism to Christianity at the drop of a hat. Primarily, doubt. It is very difficult to put trust and faith into something that you didn’t believe even existed mere months ago. You worry that people will see you either as a quiet “church guy” that never has fun outside of the four walls of his ministry, or as a raging lover of God but hater of millions of strangers based on different lifestyles and beliefs. I know that I’m not any of those things, and all of the Christians I surrounded myself with weren’t that either, but I was concerned with my image nonetheless. I also struggled with the idea of obedience, and of living my life as an independent person. I didn’t want to be yet another cog in the wheel of God’s great machine, forced to live my life in service of something that I had not yet convinced myself existed. Keep these in mind, as they were all addressed in our conversation.
I asked God the night before my walk for faith and trust. I knew they would be the biggest assets for my growth in this spiritual area of my life, and I knew I was lacking. I also knew God could give it to me. In return, I put my trust in someone whom God put into my life to help me on this process: My small group leader, Brandon. He helped light the spark that God used to create a flame within me. My discourse with God, and therefore my life-changing lessons from Him, began after Brandon and I had lunch. I knew that I was going on a hike. From there, God took over, and I trusted Him to guide me. This is what I learned from Him.
Trust, Faith, and Obedience
As I said, I knew I was going for a hike. My plan was to take a trail that I had used previously, a four and a half mile loop that would take me down to the shore of Percy Priest Lake. The first instruction I got from God? Let’s try somewhere else. So I looked, and there was a second path, also four and a half miles. Perfect. Same exercise amount, but something new. On the way, I realized it had rained the whole day before. It was going to be muddy. And looking at the sky, the weather was just waiting for a reason to let loose again. The thought came into my head. Am I really doing this today? Yes. Alright. Off we go. I get there, grab my headphones, load up a leadership podcast, and start off down the trail. Five minutes in, I feel His presence. He’s there, but He can’t get through the noise. So I take my headphones out. This may seem like the most basic thing I could’ve done, but having noise in my head has been a security blanket of sorts for me for over a year. Helped me keep away from my thoughts. The first thing I heard when I took them off? All of this sound has been keeping you from hearing me. Cool. So whenever I’m trying to keep an ear out for God (which turns out is most of the time)? No headphones. No sound. Just listening.
And He wasn’t done there. The next thing I heard was You need to shave and get a haircut. Now I understand. God has more to deal with than how I wear my hair. But He understood that my haircut and beard were parts of my identity from the last year. I used them to hide myself physically, to make it easier for me to keep my real self hidden. God didn’t want that. He wants my true self to shine through. He wanted to take all of my prior identity and wash it away, so He can mold the who I am into the man I’m meant to be. And finally, He had me take my hat off, for essentially the same reason. I didn’t like my hair when it wasn’t showered in the morning, so I used a hat to cover it up. But He didn’t care about the state of my hair. He wanted me, uncovered, unprotected. Vulnerable.
All of this seemed so simple, but it taught me volumes. This was how we needed to come to God; vulnerable, open, and ready to listen and learn and talk with Him. Nothing that follows this could have happened without me doing these things, showing Him that I was ready. This was me putting my trust into Him. This allowed me to hear His voice clearly for the next three hours.
God Makes Me Who I Am
I knew that God wouldn’t hand me everything on a platter like He did my initial instructions. So as I walked, I looked, keeping track of common links. And one thing that kept popping up to me was a swirl of tan dirt mixed in with the dark brown mud. Now geologically speaking, that’s simply because the rain caused water to run down from the rock to the mud, bringing sediment of the rock with it and depositing it further down in its path. But this was nothing new or interesting, and yet it never escaped my eye when I saw it. So I stopped and listened. Does the dirt mixing with the mud change what the mud is? Well, no. They swirl together a bit, but the mud itself doesn’t change. Having me be one with you does not change who you are. There it was. I am still the same person I have been, but there is something new. God adds color and vibrancy to the mud that we’ve always been. This is why those who walk in confidence with God are easy to spot. Their spirits are brightened with this flash of spiritual color that only He can provide. They are not made new, but made better.
Not Everyone Knows Who God Is
I was excited to see what came next. I followed His instructions, and in turn He gave me a piece of information I needed in order to increase my faith. Which is why I was taken aback by the next question. Why are you ashamed of following me? I mentally stammered a bit and tried to find the quick and easy answer that I soon realized was not there. He was right. I didn’t want to tell everyone in my life I was Christian again. My close friends knew for the most part, but I was unwilling to say anything to most of my non-Christian friends, or post anything on Facebook. Why? The first answer I came up with is something that I brought up previously. I didn’t want to be seen as a hateful person who loved America before anything or anyone else, and thought God was someone I could throw around to justify my hate. This obviously is not who I am, but it is how I was afraid of being seen. You know who I am, and you know who you are. Once they know one of us, they will know that is not true. Show them who you are.
Ok. Not everyone who claims Christianity follows God’s true heart. What matters is knowing His heart through building my relationship with Him, and following what I know to be true. It is the unique opportunity and privilege of those who build their relationships with Him to learn the truth about His heart. It is also our responsibility to show that to those who don’t know it yet.
Wants are not Needs
This was one of the hardest hitting lessons I learned that day. Continuing to answer His previous question, I admitted something that was hard for me to admit. Because it’s all about image. How others view me and how even I view me. And that is not wanting to be the typical “church type” I talked about earlier. I admit that I turned up my nose at those who prayed before their meals at a restaurant, or who never stayed out past 10. I always wanted them to take a risk and live a little. I always wanted to be the one people went to because I was fun, I wanted to be more than just another Christian person, I wanted to be remembered, I wanted…
This is when I was cut off. Do you want to live your purpose? Yes. Do you want to change the world? Yes, of course. Do you want to be happy? Naturally, yes. Then cast aside all of your wants and give me your needs.
Wow. Those words repeated in my head over and over. Just the night before I had presented my needs, and here they were being resolved. All I had to do was ask and show that I was willing to learn. That part had already been proven. But throwing my wants aside? Why?
A quote from the L3 Leadership podcast echoed in my mind. “God wants what you want for you far more than you do.” He already knows what I want. I don’t need to tell Him that. He wants me to get those things. I don’t need to ask them for those. So I just had to follow His heart and He would lead me to what I need.
As I walked, I thought more. How do we know what we want and what we need? You need what you need in order to do the work I task you to do. What you want will come from that. Brilliant. I need identity. Purpose. I can’t live my life in God’s plan without knowing who I am and what I’m meant to do. But from those things, I can get what I want. I can change the world. You don’t gain identity from happiness, you gain happiness through identity. What we want is merely a byproduct of what we need and using that to do the work of God. That’s why we can feel comfortable casting aside what we want if we present Him with what we need. They will both come, but we need to prioritize what comes first in the process.
I am a Christian because of What Values I Hold
The next one was a doozy. You see, when I want to write something, I start with the mental process. I think about everything I want to say, and what ordering of those words would be the most beneficial for the purpose of the writing. Once I have that, I write it down and edit it as I go along. This is what I did next on my walk. I started thinking about an article I would write and send to the publication for my collegiate Greek organization’s district publication. The topic revolved around why we do what we do in our organization. Do we do it to bring honor and glory and reputation to our letters, or do we do it to help people and make the world a better place? I thought it was brilliant.
However, after it was written, I had one doubt of myself. How will anyone know that we are here to help if no one knows we exist? As I stammered to try to find a good answer, I heard Him. You’re right. Ok, so what was the whole point of this thought? Why send me down this path? We as Christians do what we do not to claim to be better than anyone else. We are Christians because of the values I represent. Love, kindness, grace. That’s who Christians really are, and why we do what we do. My own thought article smacked me in the face. I’ve always believed that organizations are a composed partially of the founder’s vision, but most of the identity of a group comes from who its members are. And yes, some Christians make that identity harsh and hateful. But that’s not how I have to live. I value loving others, being considerate of their needs, and serving those who need it. The more I can spread those values and expand the loving community of God, the more we can help improve the hearts of all humans.
God is Always There
As I walked on, I started noticing some tracks. As it was not the most ideal day for hiking, there were not many people out on the trail. So any tracks in the mud were interesting for me, especially considering these tracks were hoof prints. Growing up in an area that had a lot of deer around, I knew that it was some species of deer that seemed to be moving in the same general direction as I was. A little bit later down the trail, I saw movement through the trees. It was a small white spot moving up and down, becoming smaller in the distance. A deer tail. Throughout the next hour, I would see it every so often. I never saw the full animal. Sometimes I saw flashes of the head and body, but I was always able to catch the white tail, bobbing through the forest. Its tracks weaved through the trail as I walked. What did this give me? I have always been there.
I’ve always struggled with the existence of a being that never showed its face. With my dad leaving at a young age, a person’s presence was always important to me. So where was God’s presence? Well, it was there. And I’ve learned that more and more as I look back through a new lens. The good that happened that I called luck, my ability to connect with people naturally that I called insight. He was always supporting me even when I was fully turned away from Him.
I never fully saw that deer. But I saw the tracks He left in my path. He let me see him, even if it was only as a flash of white in the forest. Keep track of this part of the story, as it comes back later.
Parenting is Important
One of the biggest aspects of the beginning of my spiritual journey is the idea of being fathered by God. This is something that, as I mentioned before, is difficult due to my past of fatherlessness growing up. It’s something that I’m working towards, but God gave me something important to consider in this conversation. As I was going through the trail, I would hear God, then I’d throw on my podcast until I felt His presence wanting to talk to me again. However, about halfway through, I apparently missed that desire of His. It had been windy all day, but the wind came in bursts through the trees. As I was listening to the podcast, another one of these bursts came through. This time, unlike the others, the wind didn’t stop. It only grew stronger and lasted a long time, and I took that as the obvious sign that it was. I turned off my music and lifted my hands in the air, letting the wind wrap around me. As it finally died down, I got a text. It was from my mom. Why doesn’t she know that you are with me?
There it was. The big question. When I told my mom that I didn’t believe in God when I was in high school, I could tell that it had an impact on her. A big one. And I get it. She thought her son was lost to the greatest presence in the world, and it had to be terrifying. So now that I’m back, why haven’t I told her about it? I didn’t want her to be happy for me. Ok. So why?
That’s when I realized it. I’ve always had issues about trying to gain my mom’s approval and consistently make her proud. But no matter how often she has praised me for things, I’ve never felt like it was enough. I was resisting her approval because I didn’t think all of the things that she did for me in my childhood, all of the sacrifices she made, were worth doing for me. I didn’t think I was valuable enough for her approval. I was actively resisting being mothered because of the lack of self-worth derived from not being fathered. I wasn’t letting myself be parented period. But now, I started letting myself be fathered. So why can’t I give her a chance? I knew I needed to. It didn’t make it easy, but it made it clear that I needed to let myself be cared for.
Progress is the Enemy of the Enemy
It was a windy day. Windy enough so that my weather app had icons of small gusts of wind up through five o’clock in the evening. With all of that wind, it is no surprise that later up the trail, there was a large tree blocking the path. Branches twisted and snapped in the mud, and there were a lot of them. With my newfound confidence that God was with me, I strode right up to that tree, took a few seconds to find the path of least resistance over it, and proceeded to walk into multiple branches and make very little progress overall.
Still, I tried to press on, knowing that this was a literal obstacle in my path that God had placed there for a reason. As I got scratched up by trying to win an uphill battle, I stopped. The tracks. Look for the deer. I stepped back and walked back, searching the ground for more hoof prints. Finding none, I looked back at the tree for the deer, and to my right, there was a mostly clear path to the base of the tree, where I could cross it with no branches. So I did. And not a minute after, there was yet another tree in the path. This time, there were no branches, and the tree was significantly smaller. Following me may not always keep you on the path of least resistance, but if you continue on my path, those challenges you once struggled with become smaller.
He Will Guide Us Even When We Stray
I was nearing the end of the trail. I came to a crossroads that had a left and a right turn. I didn’t know if this was somewhere I’d already been, or if it was new. All I knew was that God had something planned for me at a place on the path called Bald Knob. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the area where the strong gust of wind hit me and I was given the realization about my mom.
So, I followed where He led. I turned down the trail towards Bald Knob. Two minutes into this trail, I looked down and noticed something. A piece of knotted up cloth that was dropped on the trail that I noticed when I was first starting off on this walk. I will always be there, even when you stray. It didn’t matter if I slipped up. Everyone will every once in a while. But God will always show us that the path we are on is not the one He has meant for us. All we have to do is trust and find Him.
This is not Always the Path of Cleanliness
I sent pictures to my friends along my way. The path at times was pure mud, and some even turned into small creeks where the walkway once was. Needless to say, it was not the cleanest environment I’ve ever been in, and I realized as I walked the final leg of the trail, I was filthy. I had mud all over my legs, my shoes and socks were soaked, and it wasn’t until then that I realized how sweaty I was. And none of it mattered. When I sent those pictures to my friends, I got the question back: Why are you out there? As for the answer, it’s simple. A cosmetic change of cleanliness does not match the healing of my soul. It doesn’t even belong in the same thought process. God’s path is not always a paved road with seventy degree weather accompanied by a sweet breeze that makes what you’re wearing feel perfect. Sometimes it’s sliding through the mud, tripping over a rock and streaking dirt on your leg with your other shoe, or getting tripped and cut by branches. But it will always be worth far more than you lose from being dirty. Always.
God Will Never Lie
And now to my favorite part of my walk. As I mentioned previously, God was with me physically on that walk in the form of a deer that stayed slightly ahead of me. All I ever saw of that deer was a white tail hopping through the trees in front of me. This loop started and ended at a small patch of thick forest, with tall trees. Going past this, there was a small patch of land that had a few smaller trees, with lots of rock and grass. A majority of the path was embedded in the main section of the forest, with the lake bordering the latter section before you got to the entrance path in the grassy area again. There was a patch of this section of forest near the end of the trail that I went through on my way out, and it was silent. There was no wind, no birds, no podcast. Just the distant sound of the waves rolling onto the lakeshore. Suddenly, there was a rustling to my left in the leaves. I stopped walking and searched for its source. I was sure God would reveal Himself. I was going to see the deer. After ten seconds, more sound to my right. I was standing in place, swinging my head from one side to the other, desperate to see Him. Keep walking. Stop searching.
Sheepishly, I began moving again. I was disappointed. I knew I would see God. He put that knowledge in my heart. I would see the deer. No you won’t. I became disappointed again. But I still felt that I would see Him in my heart. Was that me? Am I making this up? Doubt filled my thoughts. I broke out of the forest into the more grassy area. Another sound to my right. I looked, but it was just a rabbit running through the trees. I felt foolish for even looking, hoping God would prove me right. So I created a narrative in my mind about how this was a lesson that we didn’t need to see God to know He was there. Which is true. But my heart still told me I would find him before this hike was over.
I walked through the patch of the forest closest to the parking lot, and saw my car. As I stepped out of the tree line, I heard another rustling of leaves to my left. Instinctively, I looked, and I saw the rabbit moving back into the forest. The last thing I saw before I left the trail was a white tail, hopping through the trees. God won’t always work in ways we understand, but when He puts something in our hearts, and we follow, it will always prove itself to be true.
As soon as I got to the parking lot, I messaged the men in my Life Group. God had called me to encourage them to meet Him in nature, the place He created with His own hands for us. So I did. I reflected on how amazing He was, and all I had to do was listen. I got in the car, turned it on, and searched through my phone for music on the ride home. All day, it had been cloudy, windy, and seemed mere seconds from unleashing its storm to the world. As I scrolled through my phone, I heard a slight *plink* on my windshield. Looking up, I saw a single raindrop roll down the windshield. In mere seconds, it had multiplied. As the rain came down, I realized that He would never have let it rain on us. He commanded the rain to wait until I was safely in cover. It was all according to His timeline.
There aren’t many moments in your life where you can pinpoint them as life changing as they are happening. But that’s the thing about God. When you are able to have a three hour discussion with Him, you know it will change you. Even thirty seconds of time with Him is huge. And I knew that it was what I needed to step fully into His light. All it took was a little faith, a little trust, and an open heart.
That’s all He ever needs.
Colin Johnson is a Michigan native, marching band expert, and friend. More than anything, though, he is passionate about spreading God’s heart to the world and helping people find their purpose.