People often ask how I found God. I was never taught to believe in him. I didn’t read books or go to church to discover him. I simply knew he was with me. My path to faith may not seem so unusual if you know the miracle of my life—a miracle of survival that could only have happened by the hand of God.
I grew up in South Africa, a normal, healthy child, until I came home from school one day in 1988, complaining of a sore throat. I was 12 years old. From that day on, my parents fought for a diagnosis from doctors who couldn’t explain what was happening to me. First I stopped eating. Then I stopped speaking. I lost all sense of time. The bonsai trees I had once tended grew dense as I lost mobility in my limbs. My body weakened as I stopped using it.
Test after test was run, but doctors couldn’t say what had happened to me. They concluded I had suffered profound brain damage due to a degenerative neurological disease, and that I would soon die. I spent my days in a center for children with severe disabilities, and my parents cared for me at home at night.
For the first four years after I fell ill, I was lost in a dark, unseeing world, unaware of anything around me. I was awake but unresponsive. I have no memory of these years. After the medical profession had washed its hands of me, my parents were left to care for me, having exhausted every avenue in search of a cure.
Then, when I was around 16, I started to become aware again. It was flashes at first, moments of awareness that left me almost as soon as they appeared. It took time for me to realize that I was completely alone in a sea of people.
Since my limbs were unresponsive and my voice was mute, I was entombed in my own body. I couldn’t tell anyone that I had returned to life. People knew that I had become more responsive, but they still believed I was severely brain damaged. And so I was fed and cleaned while being sat in front of reruns of Barney. I dreamed of smashing the television screen.
People looked around me and through me. However much I tried to beg and plead, shout and scream, I couldn’t get them to notice me. I had woken up as a ghost.
Soon after I started to become aware, God came into my life.
One night I suddenly “awoke” from sleep. It felt as if I were floating far above my bed. Instinctively, I knew that I was not breathing. I could see angels with me, a male and two females. They were comforting and guiding me, and although we did not speak, I could hear their voices. They wanted me to come with them.
For a moment, I wanted to go with them. I had nothing to live for, no reason to continue my journey. But I couldn’t leave behind the family that loved me.
The next moment, breath filled my lungs.
As I became fully aware, the only certainty I could cling to when so much didn’t make sense was that God was with me. Without understanding the rules and structure of the church, without a concept of sin, the Bible, or repentance, I simply believed in him. I can’t explain it, other than that, on the fringes of human experience, perhaps I was in a place in which I didn’t need theological teaching to understand faith. The people around me didn’t know I existed, but God did. And I knew he existed. It was instinctual, not intellectual.
I started praying to God. I couldn’t clasp my hands or kneel, of course. But as I lay on a beanbag or sat strapped in a wheelchair to keep my useless torso upright, I started to talk to him. I prayed for someone to come and move my aching body. I prayed for him to keep my family safe. I prayed for some sign that one day I would be rescued from my silent world.
Sometimes my prayers were answered. Sometimes they weren’t. But when I felt disappointed and powerless, my conversations with God taught me that gratitude could sustain me. When the smallest prayer was answered, I gave thanks to the Lord. Caught in perhaps the most extreme isolation a person can experience, I grew ever closer to God.
I lived for nine years without anyone realizing there was intelligence trapped inside me. During this time my family occasionally took me to church, but formal worship meant little to me. Visiting my grandparents, I would watch as they said grace but felt no connection to the words.
One day, my father pushed my wheelchair into a shop where a woman, seeing my broken body and staring eyes, prayed for me as she touched my head. But all I felt was confusion that a stranger would do this. My faith was so tightly locked inside me that seeing people practice theirs together or in public seemed strange.
Then, in 2001, my most central prayer was answered.
Finding Love, and Church
A massage therapist at the care center I attended became convinced that I could understand what she was saying to me. After she persuaded my parents to have me assessed, I was taken to a specialized communication center. I sat on one side of a transparent screen, praying once again for God’s guidance and grace. An expert sitting on the other side asked me to identify pictures of everyday objects with my eyes. Seeing that I looked at the correct pictures on command, she told my parents that I could learn to communicate.
The intelligence that had been trapped inside me soon became apparent. I quickly learned to use flashcards and switches to communicate. Then I mastered advanced computer software. Within 18 months, I was able to speak using my “computer voice.” I started to lecture about alternative communication and to volunteer. In the years since, I’ve graduated with an honors degree and set up my own business as a web developer, all the while communicating via computer.
During this time, my faith remained an integral part of my life, but I still didn’t feel connected to the church. On New Year’s Day 2008, I met someone who did. My parents and I had Skyped with my sister, who was living in the UK. Her friend Joanna was in the room. She captivated me. We started to exchange emails and chat online, Joanna talking and me typing. We quickly fell in love.
Joanna had been brought up as a Christian and understood much about the church. As we talked and discussed faith, I began to understand more. Six months after we met online, I visited Joanna for the first time in the UK. One of our first activities together was to attend a church service. There, for the first time, I understood that
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return
for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up. (Ecc. 4:9–10)
That December, I moved to the UK, where Joanna and I did a Bible study class together. I began with a child’s Bible before moving on to an audio Bible that I could listen to alone. Six months later, Joanna and I were married. The Lord had brought us together, and now he was with us as we were joined in his presence.
Joanna and I continue to attend church. My life, like that of so many people, has become so full of work and commitments that it’s sometimes hard to find the time and space to connect to God. It’s the time and space that I had so much of during my enforced silence. Now I find peace in worship.
In many ways, my relationship with God looks the same as it always has: quiet, private, and intrinsic to my life. Without the Lord, I would not be here today. I have no doubt that it was only his intervention that saved me. It is only through God that I have found my voice.
Martin Pistorius has written about his experience in Ghost Boy (Thomas Nelson).