When I was in my early twenties, I would have laughed at the idea that God could be my friend. I treated religion like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together new beliefs as I found them. German philosophy, Eastern mysticism, pantheism—all of these held greater appeal for me than my parents’ Catholic faith. But none of them spoke to me of a personal friendship with God.
I brought this “build-your-own-religion” mind-set into my marriage in 1970. My husband was in the Air Force, and we were stationed in southern Japan. I could not speak Japanese, and there were few people in whom I could confide. Pretty quickly, the novelty of being in a new country wore off, and I felt waves of loneliness.
The belief system I had enjoyed building was no help; my cherry-picked answers to life’s questions could not untangle my confusion or ease the depression I was sliding into. I didn’t need ideas—I needed a friend to save me.
“If You’re Real . . .” The military base where we lived was on the South China Sea, along ten miles of pristine beach. Occasionally, I would visit another military wife who lived there; she swam in the ocean almost every day. On one visit, over coffee, this woman told me she had been very depressed and had recently tried to commit suicide.
She wanted it to look like an accident and planned to swim straight out and drown. When she got way out in the shipping lanes and tidal currents, though, she decided she didn’t want to die after all. By then, the shore was a thin line on the horizon. My friend had never really had faith, she said, but in that life-or-death moment, she cried out, “God, if you’re real, get me back to shore!”
Obviously, she had gotten back to shore! And she didn’t seem depressed. As she saw it, God had intervened to save her from drowning and had given her reason to put her faith in him. This was the first modern story I had heard of God working directly in someone’s life. It made me hopeful. Maybe God wasn’t just a distant, impersonal deity. Maybe he could help me too.
That day I cried out to a Savior I didn’t believe in but hoped was there. I made a bargain with him. On that same beach, there were never any seashells. I said, “God if you’re real, put a shell on the beach for me to find. If you do, I will try to find out who you are.”
The Holy Spirit must have already have been moving in me, because I spent several hours searching many miles of beach. But I did find a shell! God had answered me.
Keeping up my end of the bargain, I slowly started going back to Sunday Mass. I also did volunteer work and gave more generously to the poor. I was seeking the Lord by doing what I saw other Christians doing. But it all felt somewhat flat and uninspiring—not personal, like my experience on the beach.
Moment of Truth. Several years later, when my husband and I had returned to the United States, we got to know some Catholic students at a nearby college campus. Right away, I could see something different about how they practiced their faith. It seemed motivated not just by a sense of duty but by a deeply personal relationship with God.
When these new friends talked about prayer, it didn’t sound abstract. They would tell me, “I read this passage from Scripture, and God showed me I didn’t need to fear about changing my major.” God seemed very real to them, and they loved to worship him together—on weekdays as well as on Sundays. I found this mysteriously attractive. When the campus outreach announced a women’s retreat, I signed up.
On that retreat, I finally learned what I had been missing. We were told to draw a circle, representing our lives, and to place symbols of our priorities inside it. My circle included goals like financial security, children, and buying a home. It confronted me with the fact that Jesus wasn’t at the center of my life; he wasn’t even in my circle!
It’s Personal. I walked out onto the grounds of the retreat center, which was in the Oregon Cascade Mountains. The path took me near a clear, fast-moving stream. My senses were filled with rushing water, colored stones, pine-scented air, and tree-covered banks. Amid the beauty, I told Jesus how sorry I was for having treated him as if he were an optional activity.
He surprised me by bringing to mind his death on the cross. He told me that even if I had been the only person on earth, he would have died for me. Just me. Jesus wasn’t chastising me—he was showing me how important and personal our relationship was to him. Was it that personal to me?
I was overwhelmed. God was inviting me to be his friend! My priorities had to change. My faith could not be a mental exercise or a series of activities; it would have to come right from my heart. That was the beginning of my friendship with Jesus.
In the years since then, God’s promise has become a reality for me: “When you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me” (Jeremiah 29:13-14). In Jesus, I have discovered a friend who can counsel and console me, correct me and rejoice with me more personally than anyone else ever could. We have been through heartache and joy together. Hospice care of loved ones, births, financial troubles, everyday life and events—all have been opportunities to talk and grow closer to my friend and Savior, who gave his life in hopes of winning my whole heart. He always gets me back to shore.
Jeannie Dang writes from Vancouver, Washington.
Jeannie Dang’s friendship with Jesus blossomed when she met people who had been involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a movement that began in the late 1960s. A key element in this movement is an experience called the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit that brings faith alive and helps people experience Jesus in a more personal, intimate way.
In his new book, An Invitation to the Spirit-Filled Life, Charles Whitehead, a leader in the international Catholic Charismatic Renewal, offers a clear explanation of the baptism in the Holy Spirit and explains how this experience is available to everyone. “We regularly need to pray for and receive a new outpouring of the Spirit,” he writes. In simple and accessible language, Whitehead encourages all of us to open our hearts to this precious gift from God.
An Invitation to the Spirit-Filled Life (softcover, 144 pp.) can be ordered from The Word Among Us at www.wau.org or by on amazon.com.