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?

July/August
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A Shoplifter’s Search for God