By Evan Wilkerson
Growing up, I was bullied a lot in school. Quite a few times, whether it was in class, the cafeteria, or the gym, I was publicly humiliated. I became an easy target — not just because I struggled in school but because I let kids push me around. More than anything else, I wanted to be accepted. Yet, year after year I was bullied and put down, even by people I considered “friends.” I felt inferior and began to hate others and myself. As a result, I went through most of my school days wearing a cloak of shame that I would carry with me for a long time.
When I was 16 years old, I was invited to my first party. Everyone was drinking, and I got drunk for the first time. I loved it. For the first time in years, I liked who I was. I wasn’t scared of what people thought of me, and I didn’t care if they rejected me. Other people seemed to like who I was when I drank, too. It was the only time I enjoyed myself and felt like the rest of the crowd. So, I started to chase that feeling of acceptance.
Soon, it became a vicious cycle. I hated people and myself, so I would listen to music that made me more hateful. I was anxious so I would smoke pot, and it would lead to more anxiety. I would drink because I was lonely, and it would lead to more loneliness. Then, during my junior year of high school, a friend offered me pain pills and I was hooked. That day was my first arrest — for possession — and the beginning of serious addiction and years of legal trouble.
Around this time, the girl I had been dating also broke up with me and I just couldn’t cope. I started drinking all the time. After one night of heavy drinking, my friend picked me up and I took my bottle of rum with me. Though I was plastered, I was still cognizant enough to recognize the red and blue lights that suddenly appeared behind us. The officer asked if I had been drinking and ended up pulling me out of the car. I threw up all over his shoes and eventually blacked out. I didn’t come to until some family friends bailed me out of jail.
The next morning, I was so bewildered. Again, I had gotten arrested. The only thing that had given me comfort — drinking, drugs — was now ruining the very little life I had left. I was heartbroken from the breakup with my girlfriend, from the arrests and probation, from all the legal trouble, all the shame, the anxiety, the loneliness, and I was done. I decided I was going to kill myself. I would drink a handle of whisky and throw myself off a bridge. But, out of nowhere, my dad called me. I expected him to lecture me but instead he asked, “Do you feel suicidal?” “How did he know?” I thought. I never told him I was suicidal. Then, it struck me, “God was involved in this,” and for that moment, I felt God cared about me. My dad prayed over me, and the notion of killing myself went away immediately from that day forward. However, the self-hatred and hatred for others remained.
After my senior year in high school, our family moved. That’s when my addiction reached its peak. I gave up on friends and trying to have meaningful relationships. All I wanted most in life was to simply be left alone so I could drink all day and all night without any interruptions. Sometimes I got my wish. But people around me could see how bad it was (lifting me out of my own pool of vomit; finding 20 empty bottles of whisky in my closet; being found sleeping in the wet grass). I started blaming God every time I felt pain. Lost my job? Why God? No money? Why God? Sick from withdrawals? Why God? The anger I had toward others and myself was slowly starting to point to God. He was up there. If He was all-powerful and cared about me, why didn’t He stop all of this? Why is He letting me suffer at all?
Around this same time, I started seeing a counselor for my anxiety, and he said, “You know God sees the stuff that you do, and it breaks His heart. So, next time just try saying you’re sorry.” So, one morning, getting up and still feeling a little hung over, I went to take a shower. I thought about what my counselor had said.
All I said was a simple, “Lord, I’m sorry.” That was it, nothing special. No long, meaningful prayer of repentance. Just, “Lord, I’m sorry.” Immediately, a rushing wave of love crashed upon me and instantly all that brokenness of hating myself and hating others, and the shame and the pain of being rejected and never feeling good enough, all of that was instantly gone as God’s intense love came rushing down. I fell to my knees in tears of joy. I felt a sort of electricity going through my hands and fingers and face. My hands were forced closed, and when I tried to open them back up, an electrifying force would close them again, as though God was holding my hands tightly, not letting go.
This love was so intense that everything I knew about the world — every person and every concept of reality — just disappeared and all that was left was Almighty God and me. Just this one-way conduit of love — overwhelming, out-of-this world, love. This feeling brought such a purposefulness that even though all those other people hurt me and didn’t care about me, none of it mattered. The One who created me, to be in a loving relationship with Him, was approving of me right then and there. I just wanted to stay in that moment forever. I never wanted to leave His presence. Even to this day, that was the greatest experience of my life. I’ve gotten sober, I’ve gotten married, I’ve even had a baby, and to this day, nothing compares to that presence of His love.
Everything just clicked…. I understood why my dad was doing ministry and setting up churches.… I understood why my grandfather would go around the streets of New York and preach to gang leaders who wanted to kill him.
As He was pouring forth all this love, I could picture Jesus on the cross, hanging there, and it was because of God’s love that He hung there. Right then and there it was as though everything just clicked. I understood. I understood why my dad was doing ministry and setting up churches, what the church was all about, and why we still meet in it to this day. I understood why my grandfather would go around the streets of New York and preach to gang leaders who wanted to kill him. It was because of Jesus and His cross. This is where the story of God finds its climax: at the cross where He showed the greatest demonstration of His love for His fallen creation. This is where we all find our forgiveness, our healing, our redemption, our purpose, in this one great act: Jesus dying on the cross and being raised from the dead. So, for the first time I understood that, and I never wanted to leave that place. I wanted to always remain in His presence and just know Him forever, with every glorious layer to His Being.
I know this is not an isolated message for myself. It’s God’s message to His children who have fallen away from Him that, much like me, were lost, looking for meaning and acceptance but always in things that bring more emptiness. All those things God sees. He sees the brokenness in every single one of us to its depth. He sees the brokenness that we have gone through and that we will go through. He knows it, He sympathizes with it, and His answer for it is His Son. His Son who meant everything to Him that He gave up for us.
Because Jesus died for our sin and our shame, we can be washed clean. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can have freedom and power over our past. As Scripture says, He rose “That we could walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). My life radically changed that day. Now, I still had to get practical help (counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, new friends, even medicine to help with cravings) but throughout it all, I held on to that one moment of being loved. I believe when we experience His love, the drugs and alcohol start to lose their power and we start to find our purpose in Him. After all, if God can raise Christ from the dead, He can certainly deliver us from our addictions.
A Ministry Heritage
Evan Wilkerson’s grandfather was legendary evangelist David Wilkerson, who led many New York City gang members to Christ. In his acclaimed book The Cross and the Switchblade, he recounts his incredible street ministry. After he led gang leader Nicky Cruz and his followers to Christ, Cruz and some of the other gang members turned in their knives, guns, and bricks at a police station, leaving the officers astounded. Cruz eventually became a renowned evangelist himself, following in the footsteps of his mentor. David Wilkerson was also founder of Youth Crusades and the addiction recovery program Teen Challenge and, later, the global ministry World Challenge.
Evan Wilkerson is the son of Gary Wilkerson, president of World Challenge, a global ministry that aims to transform lives through the message and mission of Jesus Christ. The ministry was founded in 1971 by Evan’s grandfather, David Wilkerson, who launched the outreach by ministering to gang members and drug addicts on the streets of New York City. Evan currently does youth outreach through the apologetics division of World Challenge, offering answers to tough questions and objections to faith in Jesus. For more information, visit WorldChallenge.org.