I grew up in Brazil in an athletic family. My sister played in two Olympic games, my brother was a well-known Brazilian coach, my father played beach volleyball, my stepfather was a professional soccer player, and my mother ran track and field. So as a youth, it was only natural that I would be involved with sports. I competed in swimming, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Eventually, I became a professional indoor and outdoor volleyball player in Europe. Today, I am a volleyball coach and personal trainer. I guess you can say sports are forever in my blood.
Ironically, it was through sports that God got hold of my heart. My uncle held sports camps every year in Brazil. Youth from various countries would come to this camp that was supported by a local Presbyterian church. I began going to and working in these camps at 10 years old. Every year, I would hear about Jesus.
When I was 12 years old, I felt God inviting me into a relationship with Him. I was at my uncle’s sports camp, sitting around a campfire with my friends while someone shared about Jesus. When the speaker asked if anyone wanted to follow Jesus, many people responded by going forward. I wanted to go—I wanted to accept Jesus into my life, but I didn’t. I was stubborn and afraid. What would people think if I walked forward? There was such a big fight going on inside of me. I remember hearing an internal voice say, “You don’t have to go down there.” So I didn’t. I went back home and continued with my life.
Not long after, I found a peace and myself being drawn to God once more. This time I was at my church’s summer camp. Just like before, we were all sitting around a campfire while someone shared about Jesus. When the leader finished, he asked if anyone wanted to give their life to Jesus. This time I didn’t wait. In front of everyone, I gave my life to God.
I can still remember the unbelievable sense of peace that overwhelmed me. Everything in my life suddenly became different…so alive. Back home, I immediately told my mother about my decision and shared Jesus with her. Even at 12, I wanted other people, especially those I loved, to know Him too.
In my early teenage years, my sister, who was a professional volleyball player, suggested I get serious about her sport. At that time in Brazil, the sport of volleyball was recruiting new players. My sister was certain I had the necessary skills to be successful. I got an invitation from a club in Sao Paulo to try out for their team. So, at the age of 14, I moved away from my family and attended a school where I could live, study, and play volleyball. My skills developed quickly, and I made the club’s team. I played there for five years.
During my time in Sao Paulo, I kept asking God to bless my volleyball career. I desperately wanted to be on Brazil’s national team. I worked hard and lived a godly life. I was convinced that if I was good, if I worked hard, and if I made sure everyone knew I was a Christian, then God would reward me with what I wanted. I was very performance oriented in my relationship with God. To make sure everyone knew I stood for Jesus, I put the Star of David on my uniform. I got bullied for this action. I wasn’t ashamed that I was a Christian, and I wanted everyone to know it—but my motives were off.
Looking back, I can see how offensive my actions were to people. I was very loud about my faith, but I didn’t have the love of God to back up my professed Christianity. Therefore, all people could see was the star on my chest and an arrogant person. They didn’t see Christ. Today, I know that Christ’s love in us is what draws people to Him, not our statements or proudly displayed symbols.
I was so very legalistic, very rule oriented. As I said, I was convinced I had to work hard for God’s blessings. But despite my efforts, I failed to get what I wanted. I didn’t make the Brazilian team. It was very confusing for me. Other players who hadn’t worked as hard as me and who didn’t live a godly lifestyle got promoted, while I stayed at the same level. It made me angry, and I had to ask: “What’s this about, God?” It just didn’t seem fair why they got good opportunities and promotions, and I didn’t. I was, after all, the one living for Him.
I was very immature in my relationship with God back then. I didn’t understand anything about His grace and love. I didn’t understand it wasn’t about what I could do, but what He had already done for me on the cross of Calvary. I couldn’t do anything to impress God or cause Him to bless me. I still can’t. I can only come to Him in faith.
After five years in Sao Paula, I was invited to play in Portugal. There, doors began to open. I played on a team that consistently moved up the ranking list. Very soon, I made the Portugal national team and quickly grew famous in that region.
But my time in Portugal was very difficult. I was very isolated there, as I had little support for my faith and was away from my family. I was also going through a divorce. But it was in this place of isolation, in my loneliness, that I heard God’s voice for the first time and found peace. He said, “You are My son, and I know your name.”
In my loneliest moment, I found peace and God spoke to my heart, reminding me that I wasn’t alone. He saw me, and He knew everything that was going on in my life.
I grabbed a piece of paper, wrote down God’s words, and put them on my wall. Habakkuk 2:2 says, “Write my answer plainly on tablets so that a runner can carry the correct message to others.” I knew I needed to keep God’s words of encouragement in plain sight. I needed the correct message about who God was and who I was in Him. He was my Father, and I was His son. He loved me and knew me by name. Whenever I felt tired and weak, I would look to God’s words on that wall. They gave me peace and became my strength.
This revelation helped me lean on God more, instead of on myself. I began to pray regularly every day and ask God to help me. I became so close to Him. As the scripture says, the more I drew close to Him in prayer, the closer He drew to me (James 4:8). God was so gentle with me. He never pushed Himself on me or condemned me for all my mistakes.
God doesn’t condemn you for your mistakes, either. Maybe you’ve been legalistic. Maybe you’ve tried to earn God’s favor to gain your own promotion. If so, I want you to know that there is a God who sees you, loves you, and knows you by name—and right now, He wants to show you a better way. He’s inviting you to lay down your efforts and come to Him. Draw close to Him, and when you do, God will draw close to you. He will fill you with His love and grace, and that will bring you peace and blessing. Through Him, you can be a light to this dark and dying world.
Does this story strike a chord for you? Read the entire May 2018 issue here.
Written by Luiz “Duda” Lustosa
Photo by Nathan Hanna