From a young age, Mark Goodnight experienced great suffering, including sexual abuse, alcoholism and depression. These events caused him to doubt God. As his life spiralled out of control, Mark reached out to the God he didn’t believe in and began to experience healing and restoration
It is often thought that religious people are religious because that’s how they were raised. It is the context in which their beliefs were formed. The same can be true of atheists, who may have absorbed their beliefs through their home, culture or life experience. Context sets the stage towards belief or disbelief in God. While context does not determine the truth of the belief, it can and does bear influence on the acceptance of a belief, upon its plausibility, on what seems true or what seems attractive, whether it is worth considering in the first place.
It’s not surprising then, that someone rejects God because of bad things that happen in life, especially as a child. When life is difficult, it becomes hard to see how a good or caring God exists. If God did exist, why did he allow such horrible things to happen? Couldn’t he have prevented it? Why didn’t he?
Former atheist Mark Goodnight strongly rejected the existence of God from an early age, embracing everything that was the opposite of a healthy life, moving into some very, very dark realities. Now he lives and speaks as a bold and vibrant ambassador for Christ. What happened that changed Mark’s mind about God and changed his entire direction in life?
A turbulent life
Even though Mark grew up going to church with his mother and believing in God as a child, he soon left faith behind following in the footsteps of his father. An alcoholic and workaholic, his dad had little time for church, for God or for Mark who also became addicted to alcohol at an early age for pain was his constant companion.
Through sexual abuse from his babysitter, neglect from his father, brokenness and divorce in his parents’ marriage, Mark struggled emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. His unanswered prayers caused him to leave behind any childhood belief he had, thinking: “God never actually cared enough to interact with my life.”
By the time he reached high school, Mark had attempted suicide. At age 14 he left God behind for good, “asked Satan into his life” and began dabbling in the occult. In college, he began taking drugs, which only worsened his psychological state. He eventually dropped out and fell into heavy drug use:
“There were probably three, four years where there wasn’t a waking moment that I was not chemically altered in one way or another. And by the end of it, I would tell people, ‘Drugs are my god. Drugs are the only thing that care about me.’”
Hitting rock bottom
Mark was kicked out his mother’s house due to his crippling addiction. She could no longer enable his devastating lifestyle. With no place to go, he landed in Dallas far from home, knowing that if he continued on his present course it would lead him towards death. One night in desperation, he called his sister at 3:30am telling her everything that was going on, asking her to see if there was a way he could get back home. He recalls their conversation:
“I said, ‘Look, things are looking bad. Things are going to get worse.’ And she told me, ‘Hold on!’ She said she was going to call mom first thing in the morning, and then she was going to reach back out to me. She told me, ‘Just stay strong, hold on, and I’ll call you in the morning.’ I got off the phone and I said the first prayer I’d said in years. I didn’t even know if God was real. I didn’t know if I believed in God or anything like that. But I said, ‘God, if you’re real, I need help.’”
An answered prayer
At 7:30am the next morning, Mark’s sister called telling him that their mother would let him come back. But, he was several hundred miles away and they didn’t know how he was going to get home. Encouraged, he set his phone down. No sooner had he said goodbye, his phone rang again. It was his cousin who was visiting Dallas from Kansas City and wanted to see him.
Mark couldn’t believe it! His cousin would provide his way home! It was at that moment he realized: “Wait a minute, God. You’re real.” He couldn’t deny the felt reality that God is real and answers prayers. But, his first response was just the beginning of a long and winding journey. Belief does not mean personal surrender, but it was a start.
Help from surprising places
Addiction is hard to break. Mark got kicked out of his mother’s home due to his ongoing drug use. Moving from place to place, job to job, his depression and suicidal tendencies resurfaced. Desperate for change, he wandered into a bookstore looking for answers. In the appendix of one book on how to cope with depression, the author mentioned that 90 per cent of people with depression turn to religion for help. Hopeless, he thought, “What else have I got to lose?” so he asked his mum for a Bible.
Mark began reading the Bible every night after coming home from his graveyard shift. One morning he was flipping channels on the television and happened across a pastor who was talking about Jesus. Interested, Mark listened in and found himself responding to the preacher’s call to “ask Jesus into his life”. He put down his drugs, got down on his knees, lifted up his hands, and repeated a prayer of surrender to God. At that moment, he “felt something that invigorated him”.
Partying the very next night he told his friends about his surprising decision to become a Christian. They were all stunned, himself included.
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A changed life
For the next nine months, Mark was still getting high every day, reading the Bible, and realised that he needed to make some changes in his life. Although God accepts us the way we are, he doesn’t leave us the way we are. Changes were slow, but they came. He moved from overnight stocker at the grocery store to becoming crew chief. On Easter, he started going to church with his sister.
One Sunday, a guest speaker came and prayed for people who were addicted to drugs. Knowing his need, Mark walked up to him, received prayer and immediately “any desire for drugs left him”. He went straight home and threw away all of his drugs without a problem.
Three weeks later, he received prayer and was relieved of his depression, feeling better than he had ever felt. That is, until the next morning when his suicidal tendency returned. He recalls this pivotal moment:
“I get up the very next morning, and that depression and suicidal hurt hits me like a ton of bricks. I was standing in the bathroom with a razor to my wrist, which wasn’t anything new and these words come out of my mouth: ‘I can’t be about these things anymore. My life is not my own now. I belong to God.’ And as soon as I said those words, depression and suicidal tendencies left me like that.”
Since that time, Mark’s depression has not resurfaced. Deep and lasting relief further convinced him of the reality of God along with his ability to leave a long-standing addiction to cigarette smoking. One day he put his cigarette out, threw his pack away, and decided to rely on God’s strength and endurance instead of his own failing willpower through multiple attempts. Again, Mark felt the deliverance of God.
27 years later, he remains a Christian who reads his Bible every day and wants others to know that God is not only real and good, but is also true. He has spent the last several years studying and sharing an intellectual defence of Christianity. Mark’s life is a vivid reminder that no one is too far from God.
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. Her forthcoming book is entitled, Unlikely Stories of Atheists Finding God: Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.