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When I was 17, I was in a car crash that would change the course of my life. It brought me to nothing, and then God made me new.
It was July 5, 1995, and I was throwing a party at my parents' house. After years of anxiety and depression, a recent breakup, and growing discontent with life, I coped in the way I had done many times before and turned to alcohol. I was fed up with my friends, my family, and myself. This particular night I became more upset with each passing hour.
Around 1 a.m., I had an overwhelming urge to leave the party. Although my friends tried to stop me—they knew that I had been drinking for hours—I grabbed the keys and got into my 1995 Z28 Camaro. My friends used their cars to block me in, but once they left me alone to cool off, I managed to jump the curb, get around their cars, and drive away.
As I sped through our neighborhood in a Houston suburb, emptiness and hopelessness consumed me. I couldn't think straight. I wanted to be as far from home as possible; at the same time, all I wanted was to be home. When I approached the road that led out of our neighborhood, it struck me that it was foolish to drive farther. I didn't want my friends to worry, and I certainly didn't want to get in trouble with my parents, so I turned to go home.
I woke up covered in glass, a deployed airbag lying lifeless in my lap. As the fog cleared, I was able to make out a huge hole in my windshield. A sharp metallic smell mixed with the pungent odor of car fluids. Suddenly a friend was opening the passenger side door. And I remembered what had just happened. "Who did I hit?!" I screamed over and over.
"You didn't hit anyone, just some trees," he assured me. He dragged me from the car and put me down in the grass as I continued to panic.
"No, I hit somebody! Who did I hit?!" I kept trying to sit up as Blake ran past me to the front of my car. He looked down. Then he ran to get help.
Other people began jumping the fence separating my parents' cul-de-sac and the road I was lying next to. Chaos erupted in the strange silence as I fought to stay conscious lying in the grass. I heard screaming and crying. Someone was yelling, "He's not breathing!"
Soon fire trucks, an ambulance, and police vehicles were lighting up the night. As they put me in the ambulance, I heard my sister let out an awful, bloodcurdling scream as the ambulance doors closed. She had arrived on the scene, saw my car, and thought I was dead.
I was taken to the hospital, where I laid for a few hours. A tall state trooper walked into my hospital room. "Son, I need to have your blood tested. There's been a fatality."
Finally, someone answered my questions. My friend John had been in the street when I came around a slight curve near my house. He had raised his hands, trying to stop the out-of-control Camaro, and had crashed through my windshield. He died on impact.
Before the accident, I thought my life was falling apart. After the accident, I wanted to die. Yet it was there, in the deepest, dirtiest, darkest pit of my despair, that God began to make himself known to me.
I was raised in a "Christian" family that attended church off and on. I prayed, sang the worship songs, and believed that I would go to heaven. But for the few years leading up to the crash, especially as I faced depression and anxiety, I questioned whether the faith was true. The Christians I knew either went to church but then abused drugs and alcohol the way I did, or went to church and didn't talk to people like me. Either way, if their faith made any difference at all, it was too small a difference to interest me.
Nevertheless, after the crash I longed for direction and tried going back to church. The adults were surprisingly nice to me, even knowing what I had done. Encouraged by their kindness, I decided to go to youth group but was quickly turned off by the goofy games. And my peers turned out to be far less welcoming than their parents.
At this point I entered an extremely frustrating season that lasted for months. I struggled with many questions about the Bible. I would listen to the sermon at church and wonder if God would accept me, let alone love me, after what I had done. There weren't many people my age with whom I could discuss my concerns. So I resolved to read through the New Testament of a student Bible that my mother had given me. I began reading about Jesus every night.
When I did, I bounced back and forth between self-condemnation and false hope in my good behavior. It was exhausting, to say the least. The more I tried to be a Christian, the emptier I felt. The more I tried to figure faith out, the more confused I became. There were many times that I wanted to wash my hands of the whole thing, but there was a gnawing in my heart drawing me back to the Jesus I was reading about. I could not get him out of my mind.
During the spring of my senior year, Sugar Land First United Methodist hosted a revival weekend featuring a guest preacher from a Methodist church in Tennessee.
The preacher recounted the biblical story of a man who had been paralyzed for a long time, lying by a pool of water in Jerusalem. His community believed that when the water of the pool was stirred, whoever could get into the water first would be healed. For a man who hadn't moved for 38 years, this proved to be a challenge.
Jesus asked the man a question: "Do you want to be well?" It seemed to me like a strange question. The man answered that he did, but began making excuses about why he couldn't get into the water. Jesus then healed him on the spot.
The preacher turned to us in the crowd and asked the same question. "Do you want to be well?"
All my life I had been paralyzed by fear, by depression, by pride. And I always had an excuse for why I did what I did. The preacher cut through all of that by repeating the question that Jesus asked the man. I remember vividly thinking, If Jesus will heal me, I want to be well.
That night, I didn't pray a special prayer or speak in tongues or fill out a card or even cry. But I did ask Jesus to make me well. It was a quiet moment between the Lord and me, but that day he began to open my eyes, open my ears, and soften my heart. He made me his own.
Old sins die hard, and without much discipleship early on, my first years as a believer were a little unstable. But the God who justifies us also sanctifies us, and at the right time, he brought into my life wise and faithful men to correct me and disciple me. Over the next few years I began to realize that my sins were forgiven, not because of anything I had done but because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. I learned that I was called to live for him day in and day out, not just when I found it convenient. God had purchased me completely, not just partially, and because of that my life was no longer my own. I belonged to him.
Because of Jesus, I learned to face the consequences of killing my friend—which included five years of probation and community service—with courage. I began to stand in front of other teenagers and talk to them about making good choices and the foolishness of drinking and driving. God turned my desires to make much of myself into a desire to make much of him. He enabled me to use my past and experiences to encourage others away from sin and toward Jesus. He transformed me, empty and lost and alone, into his very son, forgiven, full of hope and purpose. It has been a long and bumpy road for sure, but God has changed me and is still changing me.
While I still lack answers, I am confident that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is able to forgive sins, and that he is in the business of making broken people brand new.
Casey Cease is lead pastor of Christ Community Church of Magnolia in Magnolia, Texas, and author of Tragedy to Truth: A Story of Faith and Transformation (Lucid Books). Read more at CaseyCease.com.