Can a self-satisfied atheist become a Christian? Of course she can. But sometimes, it might come through tears.
Nicole Cliffe might have been named “the person least likely to become a Christian.” It’s not that she was hostile to Christians or Christianity, like Richard Dawkins or the apostle formerly known as Saul. No, Nicole had become an atheist since her college years, and thought her Christian friends suffered a benign delusion that probably helped them deal with life.
Nicole wasn’t afraid of dying, either. She actually found the idea of life ending at death “mildly reassuring in its finality.” She had no deep sense of untapped longing. In fact, she seemed to have it all—a good marriage, children, a budding vocation as cofounder and coeditor of a website. Nicole Cliffe just wasn’t a likely candidate for conversion.
But then one day, she became worried about one of her children, and found herself saying aloud to no one in particular, “Be with me.” She quickly shook it off as an aberration, and the situation with her child resolved itself. But then other strange things in Nicole’s life, detailed in an article in a recent Christianity Today, started happening as well. One day she was surfing the Web and came across an obituary for Christian philosopher and author Dallas Willard. It was written by Pastor John Ortberg, who is the father of two of Nicole’s friends. Intrigued, she clicked on it and read this passage:
Somebody once asked Dallas if he believed in total depravity.
“I believe in sufficient depravity,” he responded immediately.
“I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, ‘I merited this.’”
The words brought Nicole to tears. And that was the start of a pattern. “Later that day,” she writes, “I burst into tears again. And the next day. While brushing my teeth, while falling asleep, while in the shower, while feeding my kids, I would burst into tears.”
Stunned by these sudden, uncontrollable emotions, Nicole tried to get to the bottom of them. So she bought a book by Willard—and cried again. She read another one, by Lewis Smedes—and wept. Knowing that this couldn’t go on, Nicole emailed a Christian friend to talk about Jesus, who of course said yes.
In the days leading up to the appointment, Nicole regretted asking. But in the hour before the two would talk, she knew that she believed in God, in fact—that she was a Christian. When the call came, Nicole told her friend what had happened, the two laughed and prayed, and the atheist who was, was no more.
“What happened during that hour was the natural culmination of my coming to faith,” Nicole says. “I had been cracked open to the divine, I read books that I would have laughed at before the cracking, and the stars lined up and there was God, and then I knew, and then I said it out loud to a third party, and then I giggled.”
Nicole came to Jesus without apologetics or heavy theology. God uses all kinds of means, and all kinds of people to draw unbelievers to Himself. Augustine’s long journey through philosophies and life experiences, for example, came to a culmination in faith when his pagan heart was touched by a child who chanted the simple words, “Take up and read.”
Oxford professor C.S. Lewis came when he could no longer shut out the “Hound of Heaven.” As Lewis wrote, “You must picture me alone at that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me . . . I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
With God, no one’s unbelief is safe. So take courage. Reach out to others with the love of Jesus. Share the Gospel, because even the most unlikely people are not immune to God’s grace. Our job isn’t to convert people ourselves, but to be faithful. God will do the rest.
Making an Atheist Cry: You Never know What Means God Might UseRead Nicole’s account, as well as others, by clicking on the links below.
How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life
Nicole Cliffe | Christianity Today | May 20, 2016
The Hound of Heaven
Francis Thomas (1859-1907)| Bartleby.com
The Conversion of Augustine
Why I Am a Christian
John Stott | InterVarsity Press | January 2004
The Sacrament of Evangelism
Jerry Root, Stan Guthrie, Lyle Dorsett | Moody Publishers | April 2011
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