BY ANNA NORTHUP
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JACK MYHRE
Angry, Uncertain, and Insecure
Junior year of high school. I’m an ardent atheist, but not a satisfied one. Having walked away from the church years earlier, I had embroiled myself in an eating disorder and struggled deeply with self-image, destructive thoughts, and obsession with food. I had pulled through an unhealthy attachment that shattered my values and a breakup from which neither of us left on good terms.
My heart was broken, my mind in turmoil. I was having a difficult relationship with my family as my temper broke and crashed like waves against rocks, and I withdrew to hide myself from the pain I was inflicting. I devoured websites and literature trying to make sense of my suffering; I’m sure I was the poster child for self-help books. But nothing filled my confused void. I was tired with suggestions that taunted me; I wanted truth I could chew and taste and savor. In my search to find satisfaction in everything, I was finding it in nothing.
I was at a point, I think, with which many of my peers are familiar – tossed around by the changing claims and expectations of society, searching for a truth that no one seemed to agree on, at the mercy of other people telling me who and what I should be. I had no rock and no firm foundation on which to stand. I was ready to give up and just resign myself to never really finding what my heart was thirsting for, and now, I couldn’t even be happy in my atheism. Why was God, if he existed, doing this to me?
The Transforming Moment
And this is when – late June or so – God truly began to open my eyes.
I had a Bible. I had a lot of free time. And I had nothing to lose. I eyed it warily for weeks, as if light might start coming out of the pages and say my name. But as it sat there gathering dust, my heart gathered curiosity. Questions rang through my mind:
“Where do I start?”
“Will I become one of those weird Bible thumping Christians?”
“Can I even read that Old English stuff?” (My Bible was NKJV – phew).
I decided I’d start in the Book of Ecclesiastes. I’m glad no one asked me then how to pronounce it – I couldn’t even spell it. Part-hoping, mostly-skeptical, I took my Bible outside and opened to the right page, and as I started reading, my jaw dropped. It was – dare I say – as though God was speaking to me directly through the words on the page.
The author of Ecclesiastes was right. His raw wisdom cut me deeply:
What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
…There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4,11, NKJV)
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:4, NKJV).
If I was honest, these soulful inquiries had plagued me for months. Every path I’d taken was not fulfilling, was not satisfying, did not assuage those desires I had deep in my heart – and all those paths were fleeting. They didn’t, and wouldn’t, last. Why did that thought depress me so much? Why does that tend to depress us as people? If all of these things were meant to pass, why haven’t we gotten used to it? Why does it hurt so much to let go? Why do we cling to them so?
I won’t go into the answers I found for these questions. To answer them all would take books. But I did find answers, and they were more satisfying, more beautiful, more glorious, and made far more sense than anywhere else I’d ever looked. My mind was being opened to a reality I had scorned and a real, historically-grounded narrative I had so close-mindedly ridiculed in my atheism.
And I thought hard: Wasn’t I a fool for gaining what I could not keep – popularity, material success, this world’s approval – and giving up what I could not lose? Was it true that “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake would find it?” (Matthew 6:25, NIV)? What if I really could trade this heavy weight for freedom (Romans 8:1-2, NIV)? If I gave up that pursuit of worth in my grades, my track times, my relationships, even my family – could I gain exactly what I was looking for, forever? Could it be real?
Meeting Jesus Christ
Though I was already beginning to get acquainted with God, I truly met Him in the Gospel of John. What I read filled my eyes with tears and my heart with sorrow. I saw a man who had every reason to walk away from His chosen people but decided to stay – to suffer a life of pain, rejection, hatred, and eventually, crucifixion – and die for her. I saw a man who healed, who loved, who was incredibly strong in faith, unprecedented in wisdom, and remarkable in courage. I saw a man die a horrific death for the people He loved. And when I realized that it was my sins He had died for, I also realized He was my only hope for a transformed life – a life in right relationship with God. I fell into open arms.
After that – joy unspeakable (1 Peter 1:8). I recall the hours spent each day that summer poring over the Scriptures, learning about this man who had given his life to save mine. I was fascinated; I couldn’t put the Bible down. His voice through those written words became my lifeline, and everything changed. There was light in my step, a laugh in my heart, a song always on my lips. I began serving the people around me, eager to share this newfound treasure in any way I could. I wanted to go out in the world and serve others for the glory of Christ. At the time, I didn’t even know if I wanted to attend college anymore, even after being accepted to Duke. I started praying for my family, friends, schoolmates – that they would come to the knowledge of Christ I had, and hopefully even deeper.
That summer, God healed me. He flooded the deepest crevices of my heart with warmth, forgiveness, and love. He healed scars I didn’t know I had, years of hurt, loneliness, anger, and insecurity. He poured out so much more on me than I had asked for or expected. I was filled, that summer, with an ethereal joy, the likes of which I’d never experienced in my life before and by God’s grace continue to be filled with today.
God, Duke, and Beyond
In the truest sense of the word, I hated God when I planted myself against Him and blatantly chose my sin above him. But despite my rebellion, God gently and with infinite love opened my eyes to who He was and what He had done for me. I did not “decide” with objectivity that I would give my life to Christ. I didn’t “make the decision” or “pray the prayer”. When I opened the Bible, I was broken by what I read – and knew that He had done it for me. With that knowledge, there was no way that I could refuse God – could I refuse the one who gave His very life for me and gladly took the punishment that I deserved? Could I walk away from such love? Heaven forbid! My heart was captured, and my mind ultimately satisfied. There was no question, no choice. He called; I followed.
Today, at Duke, God remains my wellspring of confidence and hope. His love sustains me through trials here that would have crushed me, enabling me to sing when before I would have cried and hid. He has given me courage I never had, grace I never imagined, and a joy that forever burns in my heart. I can step foot on campus without fear of my future; I can rest in knowing my God carries my identity, my career, my grades, and the rest of my life. My natural inclination to perfectionism (and I’m sure I’m not alone) finds rest in Jesus’s perfect character, which He imputed to me at the cross. Whether it’s a C+ or nailing my final, I can trust my Savior’s faithfulness and rest in a world of hurrying and heavy burdens. While Duke provides an exceptional environment to hone our interests and prepare to enter the workforce, it can’t tell you what is truly meaningful in this life. A 60k gig isn’t bad for an entry-level job (some of you are snickering behind your coffee); but what will you spend it on? What do you love? Who do you love?
Reader, the answer to that question can unlock the fulfillment, joy, and meaning humankind has always searched for, and so much more. Be brave enough to ask, and let it lead you to the One who loves, heals, and restores every heart that comes to Him (Ps. 61:16-17). He has, does, and will speak.