What happens when church is a reason someone leaves faith? How do we share the Gospel with those who may have been hurt by Christians? Meet Joy Sunyoung Fitzgerald, a woman who initially started Christianity Explored so she could learn to fight against faith better… yet unexpectedly fell in love with Jesus.
Below is an interview between Joy and Lauren Welch, staff at Christianity Explored USA. Answers have been edited for length.
L: Joy, you said you grew up in church. Can you tell me what your experience with Christianity was like?
Joy: Everyone in my family on both sides is Christian. But to me, as a child, Christianity was all about legalism and rebuke. Constant rebuke. There was very little sense that God is love, but only that he was lawful and legalistic. The church I grew up in became a bit of a cult situation. I have so many memories of my parents almost getting divorced because of the church’s theology. I watched my mom experience so much pain, pain she’s still healing from.
When we left that church, all of a sudden these restrictions I grew up with were lifted. So I began to think that Christians, faith and church were nothing but hypocritical legalism. Why would I ever be a part of such a group?
L: So how did you come to go on a Christianity Explored course?
J: That’s a long story! I was living in California at the time, in a great job and relationship. I was very anti-Christian, but I was still seeking truth. I began asking people, “What’s your truth?” Everyone had different answers for what was right and wrong. Truth seemed completely fluid as long as it was based on people’s opinions. This was so frustrating to me! I just wanted a firm foundation, but instead I felt like I was trying to nail jello to a wall.
Eventually, I decided, “If there’s no foundation and no objective right and wrong, then I should just do whatever I want.” The torment of not receiving any solid answers led me to make one bad decision after another, decisions I thought would never be a part of my story. I had always thought of myself as “the good daughter” or “the loyal girlfriend.” Yet as I realized just how easy it was for me to make such bad decisions, I knew I couldn’t stand on the truth that I was a good person anymore.
I ended up cheating on my boyfriend. Then he emailed my entire family what I’d done. I called my dad before he could read the email and told him everything that happened. So my parents ended up being very intimately involved in all of my sin, which was interesting.
I knew I needed to leave the situation I was in, so when my mom told me she was having surgery and needed care, I decided this was my ticket to leave California and move to Oregon with my parents.
L: What was it like being near your parents, who were Christians?
J: My parents were strong Christians who had never stopped trying to share Jesus with me. Yet because of my ex-boyfriend, they were also intimately involved in the details of my sin life. I knew that they loved me, but I didn’t want to keep hurting them by rejecting their faith. When I moved in, I told them, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings so please just don’t bring up Christianity at all.”
But then I went to church (Countryside Community Church) with them on the first Sunday I moved. Countryside happened to announce an upcoming Christianity Explored course they were running. I was anti-Christian, but I realized if someone asked me pointblank what Christians believe, I wouldn’t be able to tell them. I could only take pieces from my childhood and assume what Christianity was. But I couldn’t articulate the Gospel fully. And I had no idea who Jesus was. So I was interested in going to CE so I could learn more about Christianity and be stronger in my opposition to it.
L: How interesting! So would you say you signed up for CE more because you wanted to be against Christianity than because you wanted to learn about it?
J: Partly yes. But I think part of me really was searching. As I opened up to my mom about my struggle to find truth, she suggested, “Well, why don’t you just start with Christianity? Even if you reject it and explore other religions, you have to start somewhere. Why not here?”
L: I think that’s interesting for people to hear why someone goes on a CE course or why they start looking into Jesus. It’s good to use honest language about your motives.
J: Oh totally! It’s the most mortifying thing for your parents to know all the skeletons in your closet. But I think that really set me free to be able to say, “I’m a sinner and I need saving.”
L: As you went through Christianity Explored, did you find it easy to ask questions or push back against things you didn’t believe in?
J: Oh yeah. I would come in each week with this huge list of questions for my table leaders. Shawn and Callan were so patient and non-judgmental. If anything, I felt like they were enjoying the process of me asking questions. They were always responsive and receptive, so I never felt hesitant to ask any questions. And I felt like I had no other choice. I had to ask these questions, some which I’d had my whole life and some that came through studying the Bible. The way Shawn and Callan answered me made so much sense that I wanted to keep learning more.
L: What was your process of getting to know Jesus? Was it through CE, relationships with Christians, etc.?
Joy: Christianity Explored was a massive resource that God used to show me the person of Jesus. As I read Scripture for myself, I realized, “Wait… Jesus really isn’t okay with many of the things that I’m not okay with!” I had always connected every Christian’s failings with the person of Jesus. Yet my mindset wasn’t consistent with the man I discovered in the Gospels. As I came face-to-face with Jesus, I had to put every person aside and ask myself… what did I think about Jesus?
At one point, I knew I was falling in love with Jesus, but I thought in order to accept him, I’d have to accept all these other bizarre Bible stories, like Jonah and the whale or the virgin birth. I didn’t think I could do this! I told my mom and my table leaders where I was at and they all told me the same thing.
“Jesus is either one of three things: a liar, a lunatic, or who he says he is. You have to choose one.”
One week at CE, Callan drew out these options on a whiteboard and prompted me to look at what Jesus did, like his miracles, in order to answer this question. Just seeing the consistent thread of the whole Bible together, while falling in love with Jesus, presented this option that this Gospel story was either written by man or by God. Seeing the beauty of the Gospel, it was so clear to me that man could not come up with something so beautiful. It was impossible! This has to be God! And that was the push I needed to believe this was of God and Jesus is who he says he is.
L: You said you’d sort of pushed your family out of your journey into faith. When and how did you tell them what was going on in your heart?
J: One night I came home from Christianity Explored to my sister and mom sitting at the kitchen table. “So…” they asked, “what did you learn?” I brushed them off with a studious answer and went upstairs to my room. That night, we had discussed the crucifixion and I couldn’t get out of my head Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As a child, I’d always focused on the physical pain of the crucifixion, but here I was struck by the loneliness Jesus felt on the cross, even from his own father. I remembered the loneliness I felt before moving to Oregon. I don’t know why, but I began to weep… for three hours!
So my family knew something had happened that night. A week or so after that, I went to church on Sunday morning without my family, which was rare. The pastor shared from Romans 7:
“I don’t understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing!” Romans 7:16, 19
I felt like someone had just described the experience I’d had of making all these awful decisions that I knew were terrible, but not being able to stop myself. I knew I didn’t want to be my own god anymore. It was horrible!
As I sat there by myself, I just quietly knew I had to take the leap of faith. No matter the questions I still had, whether God answered them for me or not, I knew who Jesus was. I decided that was enough for me. It wasn’t this very intense, “overcome by the Holy Spirit” moment. It was just an intentional decision of, “Yes, I want to take this step forward. I put my faith in you, Jesus, because I don’t want to follow anyone else.”
Right after I made my decision, I didn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t till that afternoon at lunch, I spoke up and said, “Sooo… I accepted Jesus today.”
They were like, “What?!” and we all cried. It was a great moment! I emailed my table leaders a bit later to tell them what I’d decided.
L: What has life and faith been like for you since then?
Since then (nine years ago), I feel like God has had me on the fast track! Shortly after my salvation, I met the man who would become my husband. We now have two kids. God has blessed me so much through my family, but also through my career even as I’ve pursued more creative work. God has even redeemed my broken past, enabling me to speak into people’s lives who didn’t feel they could be open about their struggles in church. So little things here and there I feel like God has made the best of my mistakes. You just don’t know how God can use and redeem all of that.
L: What would you say to someone considering going on a CE course?
J: Just do it. You have nothing to lose but a few weeks of your time! Don’t look at Christians you’ve known or the pain that church has caused you. Look at Jesus alone.
L: What would you say to those leading a Christianity Explored course?
J: Don’t be afraid to speak the truth in fullness. Don’t be afraid to offend. The truth stands on its own and it’s not your responsibility as a leader to make sure no one is offended. It’s your responsibility to define truth and testify to it. Also, don’t be afraid to answer people’s questions, even the ones that seem completely off-base. Be patient, but not pushy. Don’t be afraid to enter those tough conversations. And definitely pray. I’m sure there was an abundant amount of prayer over me! Head knowledge can only take you so far. It has to be the Holy Spirit that actually changes someone’s heart.
Joy Sunyoung Fitzgerald is a Portland-based illustrator, calligrapher, stylist and homeschooling mother of two. Find her on Instagram @ madebysohn