Tifton, Georgia is a hot, muggy, sandy place on I-75, about one hour north of the Florida state line. Around 1981 we moved there from Collegedale, Tennessee, living in first one house and then another. I don’t remember a whole lot about my time there, just bits and pieces here and there, and that my family was glad to leave in 1982.
In the mid 1984 my family purchased a house on Blueberry Lane in Ooltewah, Tennessee. At that time, interest rates were high, 14.5%, and my folks paid and paid and didn’t make any headway on paying the house off.
After a year of this, they decided to get out from under that burden. My dad prayed, “Lord we will go anywhere you want if you will help sell this house. Just not back to Tifton, Georgia.” Well, God doesn’t seem interested in partial surrender. The house sat on the market for six months with hardly a nibble. Desperation began to set in. Finally, my dad prayed, “Lord, we will go anywhere you want, even back to Tifton, Georgia.” We had three offers in three days, and a month later the moving truck again aimed south on I-75.
I read an article by a lady who talked about hearing others share their testimony and finding the life before they met Jesus far more interesting than the life after. I used to identify with that. In high school I had a job cleaning and found a series of books by a rescue mission in one of the large cities that would tell the story of the fall and wickedness of that person until they hit rock bottom. In the last chapter they would come to the mission, find God, and turn their life around. The life of sin was far more interesting than the same old salvation story at the end of the book.
Not long after I came to know God, I wanted to write my story of the life before. I picked a title, drew up an outline, and wrote a page or two, but it just wouldn’t come together. Honestly, the last thing I want to do is rehash the years I lived as a son of Satan, or to glorify any of that life. I did evil in the life before. Is it necessary to relive the sin vicariously in my mind for you to understand that? “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23). All need a Savior. All have a life before, full of sin, selfishness, self-righteousness. That’s not a place to dwell.
Just a few highlights, so you know where I’m coming from. I was raised an SDA, baptized at 10 to please my parents, educated exclusively in the SDA education system until my second year of college, but never really converted. The weed-choked ground described my spiritual experience, hearing the Word, getting excited about it, yet I became choked by the cares of the world. I spent my twenties listless, jumping from career to career, job to job, never satisfied, never happy, until I joined the military at age 29.
Basic training was rough, but prayer and faith sustained me. The military won’t send physically broken people on to new units, so I ended up as a hold over from February to April, and with the pressure gone, my faith went as well as I spiraled into computer gaming addiction. Seven years were spent this way. I stopped attending church, stopped praying (because my prayers were only selfish), and caused great heartache to my family.
I got off active duty in August 2013, and started going back to church to please my wife, although I would drop her off, go run around in town, visit pawn brokers, etc. and if I made it in time for the opening song, I was doing good. I promised my family I would stop the computer games when we moved back to the States, but relapsed briefly until I got rid of the big games in October. Still, I had chess and sudoku on my phone.
God’s ways are a mystery to me, but one day a church member asked me if I would be a greeter. “What do they do?”
“You would stand at the door, greet each person who comes in, and give them a bulletin.”
“Oh, door guard. I can do that.” After all, I was infantry, and my first general order was, “I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved.” Guarding is what the infantry does, and I had plenty of practice. So, the next Sabbath, I shadowed the greeter, learning the ropes of my new post, and by the third Sabbath, I felt confident that I could guard the church. So, there I stood, .45 caliber pistol at the center of my back, sizing up each person who entered the door, while pretending to smile. “Hi, welcome to Jasper.”
Remember the second half of my first general order in the army? Well, no one relieves a door guard at church, and no good infantryman quits without relief, so I stayed in the lobby throughout church. By the time service starts, it’s rare to see anyone coming or going, so my job became quite boring. This led to perusing the literature rack. I flipped through the Amazing Facts studies (only the pictures had changed since I was a kid), read the mission magazines and Adventist Review, and went through them all again.
On the shelf was just one book, called “The Great Controversy.” That was staunchly ignored, for I grew up in what I call, “the waning era of the hammer of Ellen White”, where the old saints would get up in your face and shake their finger at you while saying, “Now sonny, Ellen White says thou shalt not…”.
From there they would lecture me about some sin in my life like bike riding or swimming on Sabbath, and I began to believe that my faith was based on Ellen White, rather than on the Bible (that we professed was our sole guide in life).
So, I chucked everything by Ellen White, and would challenge them to “show me from the Bible”. I had no plans to read anything by that author, but I had read everything else on the rack two or three times and only “The Great Controversy” remained unread. One exceptionally boring Sabbath, I pondered, “I wonder what is really in that book,” so I picked it up and started to read. To my surprise, it was a history book, and I love history. I took it home with me.
Reading the Great Controversy
Of course, the devil knows that book, and there are few things he wants to see less than people reading it. So, the distractions were many, and the priority that I gave the book was pretty low — which meant that a chapter or two would be read, and then it would sit for a few weeks or a month before being read again.
In June 2014 I went to North Dakota for MOS training for my new job with the army reserve. I debated taking the book, but decided it was small enough to fit in a cargo pocket. My laptop was a 10 lb gaming brick with 50 minute battery life that wasn’t conducive to easy transport, so I tossed it in to give me something to do during those long wait periods the army is famous for. It came in handy, especially during surveying when I stood around for hours holding a rod while other soldiers shot points. In the evenings—everyone was usually trying to use the internet—and slowed it down so I couldn't watch movies. So I read the book.
In chapter 29, Mrs. White describes the origin of sin and the character of the devil, and reading that was like reading about me. It shook me to the very core, for I had always considered myself good enough, for I didn’t murder or drink or smoke or fornicate like those around me, yet here I was reading about the character of Satan and it was my own. Truly, when Jesus said, “You are of your father, the Devil” (John 8:44) He was speaking of me.
I didn’t feel comfortable, or at ease as I continued to read, but God in His mercy kept calling me, and kept making it impossible to engage in worldly pursuits, so I kept reading. The last three chapters describe the Second Coming, followed by the Millennium, and the return of the New Jerusalem to earth, culminating with the destruction of sin and evil once and for all. Reading that brought tears to my eyes for I want to be part of that, so I rolled off my bunk, hit my knees, and pleaded Psalm 51,
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—That You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me (Psalm 51:1-10).
The Old Man
My life before happened. It’s not something I want to dwell on, except to learn the lessons that I need to retain, to see the good work God is doing in my life, and to praise Him for how He is changing me. I do not miss those days. I do not miss the pain and agony. I do not miss the ugly person I was.
I pray daily that God leads me on, that He creates more of His character in me, that when people see me, they really see Him. I regret much of what I did during the life before, but I’m thankful I serve a God who is in the business of mending broken people, who can use those people to accomplish an awesome work for Him. I am thankful for the lessons I’ve learned, that teach me to depend on Him, to seek Him, to trust Him, because depending and trusting in me got me into the mess I was in during that time. The life before happened, but I do not have to stay caught up in that life, in regret over it, or in sorrow because of it. I can take the lessons He taught me because of it and move forward in service to Him.
“Seeing then that we have a great high Priest, which is entered into heaven, even Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high Priest, which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all things tempted in like sort, yet without sin. Let us therefore go boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Stay tuned for part 2 of this story, how I survived an 80-pound bomb blast in Afghanistan.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Russell Wickham traded in his M-16 for the Sword of the Spirit in 2016, and makes a living as an auto mechanic. He is married with three children and lives in Hohenwald, TN.