Jana Harmon shares the story of former sceptic Susan Leonard who saw no need for faith until a personal tragedy led to a profound encounter with God
Our lives tell a story. We can look at someone’s life and get an idea of who they are, what they believe, what they pursue, what seems important to them. But more than that, our individual lives are usually lived within a bigger story, a worldview has a storyline all its own, a view of the world that says what is real, why we’re here, who we are, and where we’re going. Religions tell stories, creating narratives that answer those big questions. With so many religions in the world, though, it begs the question: Are religions only merely stories?
Are they invented to help people get along in life? Is there one that’s truer than another? In today’s culture, many people want to create their own story, create themselves and create their own answers. But even that self-created narrative is housed within a larger story, the worldview of postmodernism or relativism or secularism, where there is no absolute truth but only truth decided upon by a person, or by a group. It’s a matter of power or survival.
Former sceptic Susan Leonard rejected all the religious stories of her youth to embrace the worldview of a secular humanist who did not believe in religious stories. Now she’s a strong defender of the Christian worldview, a story of reality she is convinced is more than merely a story but is objectively true in the deepest sense.
A pluralistic family
Susan was raised among a stirring pot of religions in her family. Her mother was from the Appalachian hills of Virginia, an Advent Christian who married a cultural Christian from the South, but her grandfather was a Jew from Pennsylvania. Her family believed that “no religion was more superior than any other religion” and that religious tolerance was virtuous. There was a little tiled sign hanging in her grandmother’s kitchen which read, “Shalom, y’all”, a sentiment that summed up her religious heritage well.
She felt like “a pinball in a pinball machine, bouncing to and fro in between ideas”, which became like a mosaic in her, a confusing and mismatched ideology. In her mind, God was the same for all religions, not a person, but rather an energy or force, another word for the Universe but that was all.
At age 7 when Susan began to excel in gymnastics at national level, her family stopped going to church. As she grew up in the 1980s, she absorbed the culturally reinforced secular worldview of capitalism and consumerism. Independent and opinionated, she was in charge of her own destiny. She had no need for God or any religious story.
Created for worship
Susan grew up in the shadow of the capitol building in Washington DC. It set the trajectory of her life. In her mind, the culture had successfully divorced the intellect from faith. Faith wasn’t something she needed. Without a desire or need for God, she turned her worship towards self and political achievement, recalling:
“We’re created to worship, and we all worship something and then seek to achieve something great, right? In the Christian story, we’re worshiping Christ and we seek to give God the glory. What I did was to worship myself and to place that glory in something. It had to go somewhere. What did I want to glorify? And so, in my life, if I could get into those buildings and work in them, I would then create this strong self. I would achieve glory. I’d be working at the pinnacle of the nation. I would be at the top. And so that’s what I did and that’s what I pursued.”
A highly confident young woman pursuing a career in the centre of US politics, Susan ignored questions that occasionally arose in her about her own life, about death. When she was 25, she stood in front of the casket of a friend who had died wondering: “Where did he go? It’s just a shell. What happens to us? Where’s the self? What’s it for? Does our life matter? What difference does it make?” But her fleeting existential crisis soon faded as she turned her attention once more to her ambitious aspirations on Capitol Hill.
An unexpected experience
At 30, Susan met her husband working for a congressional campaign in DC. He had long since abandoned religion before they met, and they never discussed religion before they married. However, their happy life together was disrupted by a devastating miscarriage. It was the door opener for another existential crisis, which prompted her to ask: “Who gets to decide who dies? Why did that happen? Why wasn’t I allowed to die instead? How do you answer these questions?” For Susan, this moment was a “horribly frightening place to be”. That evening, she went to bed and had a powerful life-changing experience:
“I went to sleep that night and had a powerful experience seeing a vision of someone, a person, tapping someone’s shoulder to turn to look at me, and I heard a voice say: ‘Hold on to your husband. His faith will heal you.’ I threw my body up out of a dead sleep, wide awake, screaming. My husband woke up. I held on to him, and he said I was freezing cold, almost to the point where it was burning his fingers. So, my pragmatic, even-keeled, steady New England husband is holding on to me as I’m freezing and literally, he said, feeling the warmth come back into my body.”
Susan went back to sleep, waking up the next morning with tears in her eyes. She had no idea what had just happened to her but remembered, “feeling a presence like I had never felt in my life”. For her, it was an experience with God, but it didn’t stop there.
“I got up, and I took a shower, and I remember standing in the shower and saying: ‘Wow, I’m just being cleansed.’ And I thought: ‘Why did I just think that?’ Then I went out to get the mail, and the wind blew, and I heard a voice say: ‘This is my wind.’ And then I went upstairs, and I sat down at my desk and I started writing down all these words and explaining what was happening, and I heard a voice say: ‘This is my word.’ And I remember I came to learn later that it was God’s Word. I had an experience of water, wind and word, and I remember thinking, at the time, it didn’t make sense, but it made sense.”
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Seeking after God
After these extraordinary experiences with God, Susan decided to find a church, looking for Jesus Christ. She was searching for an explanation, something that would help her make sense of what had happened to her. Slowly, over time, she eventually found a church and began teaching at a Christian school. Her students often asked her challenging questions, and she was looking for substantive answers.
Susan began asking deeper worldview questions, reading former atheist CS Lewis’ books, and eventually discovered Christian apologists who had studied the reasons for the Christian worldview. From experience, she “knew the resurrected Lord of the Universe had shown up in her life”, but she needed to make sure there was good intellectual reason to believe outside of her personal experience.
Susan decided to go graduate school in theological studies to learn the basics of the Christian faith. After that, she completed another graduate degree in Christian apologetics so that she could understand the evidence supporting Christianity as objectively true. Through that study, she came to see, in light of competing worldviews:
“The Christian worldview, in my estimation, shines brighter because it has an answer to all the pieces of the story. It answers questions about the beginning, how we got here, the best. It answers questions about evil and the Fall and why there are bad things in the world the best, why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. And it answers with the best evidence and reasons on how the world is redeemed and then restored.”
A transformed life
Susan now believes her life has been radically transformed through her belief in Jesus Christ and the truth of Christianity. She now lives free from the tremendous fear that once inhabited her, knowing she is never alone because God’s presence is always with her through his Spirit. Susan describes the change:
“I lived with tremendous fear. I think fear dominated my life. And I think that can happen to a person without them knowing. And we try to cover that fear with as many things as we can and hide that fear. But that fear is gone. And that fear is not just simply answered with a narrative script or use of an ideology. It’s answered with the person of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I live now with a Presence that’s palpable. I don’t have a sense of being alone in a world that is so big, and that’s real to believers. Had you told me that when I was 25, I would have looked at you curiously, like: ‘What is she saying?’ I would have no concept of that. But I know now it’s real.”
Susan also feels a strong change in her personality for the better – she is more calm, cool and collected. Patience was not something that came easily to her prior to finding faith, but others have noticed something different in her that has only come through knowing Christ. She now recognises change in herself, but also in others who know Jesus in a personal way. For her it is nothing short of “glorious” and “fascinating”.
If you’d like to listen to Susan Leonard tell her full story, tune into the Side B Stories Episode 77 www.sidebstories.com.
Jana Harmon hosts the Side B Stories podcast where former atheists and sceptics talk about their turn from disbelief to belief in God and Christianity. She is a teaching fellow for the CS Lewis Institute of Atlanta and former adjunct professor in cultural apologetics at Biola University where she received an MA in Christian apologetics. Jana also holds a PhD in religion and theology from the University of Birmingham in England. Her research focused on religious conversion of atheists to Christianity and related book is entitled Atheists Finding God: Unlikely Stories of Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.