When I was six years old, my father walked out with another woman. Night after night, I prayed that God would send my daddy home, but it didn’t happen. The message I got from Dad’s abandonment was, “Jay, you’re a loser. You’re nobody.” After he left, Mom hit the bars to find love; she was blind to the destruction and violence she brought into our home. I started sleeping with my Louisville Slugger baseball bat, and used it more than once to stop the man who was beating my mom or beating me.
I would say, “Mom, let’s get some help,” but she was too embarrassed. “We’ll be okay,” she’d answer, hiding her pain behind plastic smiles. I got used to men moving in and out of our house, until the summer that one of them brought his older son. That’s when I learned firsthand about sexual abuse.
Six or so men came and went from our home, and then one came who promised to stay. He said, “Jay, you can call me Dad.” I was so excited that I went to school the next day and told my friends about my new dad…but it wasn’t long before Bob was out drinking night after night. I was ten years old and desperately wanted a dad, so I rode my bike to the bar and pleaded with him to come home. He said, “Jay, I tell you what—if you’ll get on your knees and beg me, I’ll come home and be your dad.”
So I got down on that filthy, sticky floor and begged, pouring out the last drop of hope in me. But Bob started laughing, and just as quickly, the men in the bar joined in.
The light went out in me that day. Tears no longer came, and I decided I would never ask anybody for anything again. I blamed the God I didn’t know for the pain and abandonment I felt, for the violence in our home, the adultery that destroyed my mom, and the abuse that scarred me. Years passed, and my life became one of drugs, alcohol, arrest records, and destruction. I began as a victim, but soon became the villain of my own life, making one poor choice after another.
I’ll never forget the first time one of those Jesus freaks in high school said, “God wants to be your father, Jay.”
I scoffed, “If God is anything like my father, forget it!” Inside, I hoped there was something to it, but the darkness in me overruled. I pretended the shame and the pain didn’t matter, but the lonelier I felt, the louder and more destructive my behavior became. Yet, when everyone else turned away, God came looking for me.
All it took to get me to that first home Bible study was an invitation from a couple of cute girls. I had no idea that my life was about to change forever. I sat on the floor, shirtless, listening and shaking my shoulder-length hair to cover the shame on my face. My heart pounded as the host called out, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done—God loves you and has a plan for your life. You can always start over. Stand up tonight and give Him your heart.” My mind flashed to summers with drunken shrimpers as they sorted through the trash in the nets and threatened to throw me over with it. “Why would God ever want my life,” I thought.
The need to believe pulsed through my body, and I jumped to my feet, praying aloud, “God, I give You my life.” For the first time in years, tears flowed. I went home, flushed my drugs, and waited for whatever would come next.
Was it real? Would the feeling last? I had no idea.
I was 17 years old, and from that first day, God began to heal me. The school allowed me to graduate (just to get rid of me, I think), and I was finally ready to believe in the promise of a new start. But the kid from the wrong side of town with learning disabilities, an arrest record, and a drug habit wasn’t well received. Turned down by five colleges, I replaced hope with anger and a “who cares” mentality. That became my protection against the pain of more rejection, and I declared it loudly.
And yet, God showed up for me. He became my best friend, my confidant, and yes, a Father. He sent people into my life who cared, who poured into me, and who held me accountable to keep moving forward. I remember them with deep affection to this day. I fell in love with the Bible, going back again and again to the promises. Somehow—I can’t even tell you how—I landed in the office of the president of Charleston Southern University. He listened to my story and with grace said, “Jay, you’re in. You’ve got one semester to prove that you’re for real. Don’t blow it.”
I immersed myself in Bible study and healthy relationships, declaring within that I would not fail. This D/F student graduated college cum laudein two years instead of four, went on to earn my masters and doctorate degrees, and answered the call to spend the rest of my life telling people, “If I can overcome, anyone can. God has a plan.”
There are not enough words to tell you of the grace of God in my life these last four decades. Every turning point in my life began with surrender—first to salvation and then to His will for my future.
I remember falling to my knees one night and saying, “God, I will go anywhere You want me to go; do anything You want me to do.” The next morning, I got a call. “Would you go and share your testimony in Immokalee?”
The hippie made his way to a little white church where 15 people stared at the wall rather than acknowledge me. But I was on fire with a story I had to tell and, for the first time, stood to tell how God had come looking for me.
Since that day, I have been honored to pastor the church whose bus windows I once threw rocks at; to speak in over 10,000 high schools, to numerous professional sports teams, NASA, the Air Force Academy, and to preach the Gospel to millions in stadiums and churches in some 40 countries. Recently, I was the commencement speaker for a college that once rejected me, and a guest for dinner at the White House. I currently serve on the president’s faith advisory council. I say none of this to brag, but only to say that God’s grace can do anything with anyone.
If I could sit with you personally, I would ask you two things: First, do you remember when the light went out in you? Every offender I have ever met says yes. And to that, Jesus tells us, “I am the light of the world.” Second, do you feel as I did, that those of us who never follow through and don’t keep our promises aren’t capable of a new life? I almost let that thought keep me from praying the prayer for grace that changed my life.
Jude 1:24 declares: “Now all glory to God, who is able to keep you from falling away and will bring you with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault.” The good news is that it’s up to Him, not you. There are no limits to His power; His compassion is fresh every morning; His love is completely unconditional.
Grace … God’s amazing grace will always be my song of praise. I can say without hesitation that my greatest joy is still to share the love and mercy of Christ, to speak face-to-face with someone and lead him or her to freedom and forgiveness. Whatever pain you carry from the past—abandonment, scars, shame, or guilt—you can give it to God today. In your moment of surrender, His grace will step in and make all things new.
Written by Jay Strack
Photo by Peter Feghali