A Shoplifter’s Search for God

I equated material possessions with happiness, until a high-school mission trip changed my thinking.
A Shoplifter’s Search for God
Image: Zachary Bako

Growing up, I was something of a nomad. I spent the first years of my life in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Then, at age six, I moved to Hong Kong, where I would remain until the third grade before moving back to Maryland. I grew up speaking Chinese at home but learned to master English at school. At a young age, I became adept at adapting to different environments.

My ambitions were as quirky and unorthodox as my upbringing. Since I loved watching movies and morphing into different personas, I thought I might like to become an actor someday.

My dad was a musician, and my mom was a journalist. They raised my brother and me in the church, but they gave us a long leash to explore. By the time we returned from Hong Kong, both of us had stopped going. In any event, my priorities lay elsewhere. I was obsessed with four things in particular: video games, sports, acquiring material things, and chasing women (at one point, I found myself trying to see three different girls at once).

On the court, I loved playing basketball and tennis. But I really excelled with the video game controller in my hand. I hung around with a community of hackers and pro gamers, and at one point, I was one of the top 10 Warcraft 3 players in the United States.

But my grades were suffering. And meanwhile, I had begun regularly shoplifting at the mall. On a weekly basis, my friends and I would compete to see who could walk out of the mall with the highest dollar value of stolen goods. Thankfully, God wouldn’t let me drift too far down this dangerous road.

Appetite for God

At age 16, I began attending church again, hoping to find another source for friends and fun. Instead, I found myself slowly developing an appetite for God. I had always believed that God existed. From my perspective, it seemed likelier that nature and human creativity resulted from creation, rather than random chance. Everything had to come from something, so who started it all?

Still, for all my curiosity, I wasn’t eager to hear the answer. I knew well enough that discovering a righteous God could interrupt my preferred lifestyle of pursuing pleasure and doing as I pleased.

After attending church for a while, my youth pastor invited me on a mission trip to a rougher part of Nashville, Tennessee, and I went because I thought it might be fun. During that trip, I met a missionary couple from Germany and a missionary from Florida who helped reignite my search for God. These missionaries had lived in the inner-city projects for extended periods, and materially speaking they had next to nothing, but they were the most joyful people I had ever met. I had always assumed that more riches and possessions led to greater joy, but these missionaries were debunking that theory. How could people who were living in a place with so little have so much joy?

After returning home, I embarked on an all-encompassing search for God. I studied the major world religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. I figured that if God was real, then he would probably make himself known. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, the most logical expression of faith that I had encountered. All of a sudden, it struck me that running away from Christianity would require more faith than running toward it. I felt that the gospel offered the most compelling answers to life’s most important questions: Where does all of the good in the world come from? Where does all the evil in the world come from? How do I deal with personal guilt over the way I have lived my life?

Other factors were decisive in my embrace of Christian faith. The first was my dissatisfaction with the idea of karma and many similar concepts found in Eastern religions. Getting the sort of life you deserve sounded too good to be true, and it didn’t line up with my experiences. In real life, the wicked often escape punishment, and the righteous often live with pain and suffering. The Bible presents a more realistic view of the wicked when the psalmist says they are “always free of care, they go on amassing wealth” (Ps. 73:12).

This got me to thinking: If a concept like karma is not true, how do we explain suffering and the problem of injustice? The gospel presents a fascinating solution. In the instant someone accepts that they are a sinner and that Jesus is Lord, they are made righteous not because of what they have, but because of what Jesus did on the Cross. That was the most simple and complete solution to the problem of how God can punish sin without crippling sinners—that is, all of us—with guilt and condemnation.

Finally, the character of Jesus fascinated me. Jesus grew up in a remote village in the Middle East, and he became the most influential person in human history. His Word has shaped everything, from literature to art to politics—down to the curiosities of how we name our kids and our cities. Jesus has transformed billions of people over the last 2,000 years, even though he spent most of his time on earth serving the poor and downtrodden with a group of 12 people who would have been regarded, in their day, as losers and outcasts. It seemed utterly improbable that someone with such a lowly social profile could have altered the course of history so radically.

But as Lewis remarked in Mere Christianity, “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up.” Gradually, it dawned on me that Jesus couldn’t have just been crazy and lucky. He had to be exactly who he claimed to be—God’s only begotten Son.

Staying Grounded

There wasn’t one specific moment that led me to become a Christian. It was God’s pursuit, month after month, that slowly broke through to my skeptical soul. Of course, I’ve had periods of growth and periods of failure. Like the actor of my childhood dreams, I’ve bounced around between different career “roles,” uncertain which one I wanted to embrace. First, I pursued youth ministry in college. Then I detoured into a career in finance, working as an investment banker and then as a hedge fund manager.

I realized that God had given me an ability to provide wise counsel to others in business—and hence a platform to share and reflect the love of Christ. But on many occasions, I found myself putting this “ministry” ahead of my actual faith. The business world was influencing me more than I was influencing it.

To stay grounded, I kept pursuing missions opportunities in low-income environments. I ministered in the projects of Washington, DC; Philadelphia’s West Kensington neighborhood; and in South Central Los Angeles. A little over two years ago, my wife and I moved to a home in South Central because we felt that God was present in the diversity and humbleness of its people.

Today, I head up a creative agency called Fishermen Labs. We make virtual- and augmented-reality experiences, apps, websites, and emerging technology for startups and Fortune 100 companies. We hope to emulate the 12 fishermen that Jesus called to follow him—the most influential band of misfits in the history of the world.

Eden Chen is the co-founder of Fishermen Labs. He and his wife live in Los Angeles.

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A Shoplifter’s Search for God