I know God is real. He has proven His presence, power, and love to me many times over the years. He has given me undeniable evidence that He is involved in my life and cares about everything I go through. That evidence has come in various forms—circumstances, relationships, inner peace, and an inner knowing of what to do.
I gave my life to Jesus when I was a child, at an old Baptist church in Wilson, North Carolina. My neighbor invited me to attend, and I heard the message of God’s love. When the preacher extended the invitation for anyone to give their life to Jesus, I ran to the front of the church. Even at that young age, I could feel God’s presence. I remember standing there and thinking, “Wow! God knows me!” And I was excited that I could know Him too.
From that day until now, I have never questioned God’s love for me—but I can’t say I’ve always understood His ways. I’ve walked through some painful experiences, and I’ve lost many precious things—including my arm, my parents, and even my son. Our family fought for ten years against my son’s drug addiction; we lost him when he was 29 years old. But even then—especially then—I saw God’s hand at work. He has always given me glimmers of hope, reminders of His faithful goodness and His promise that everything would be okay.
When I lost my arm, I discovered the power of prayer and the peace of God. I was working at my father’s meat-packing plant when my glove got caught in the meat grinder and pulled my arm into the machine. Before I knew it, half of my right arm was gone. It took an hour for the rescue team to arrive on the scene. While I waited, all I could do was pray, “Lord, please don’t let me die.”
As soon as I uttered those words, the pain went away, and the bleeding stopped. God had shown up in an obvious way. I spent a month in the hospital after that, fighting a nasty infection. But as I trusted Him, God gave me His peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:6–8). I was only 14, but I knew God had saved me, and I trusted that He would help me overcome my new limitations.
My father struggled more than I did. He felt so responsible for the accident. He visited me every morning and evening, before and after work. I could see the grief and concern all over his face. But that all went away the day I asked him for a pen and paper.
It had occurred to me that school would be starting soon. Summer break was coming to an end, and I was supposed to enter the tenth grade. Being that I was right-handed and no longer had a right arm, I knew I needed to get busy learning to write left-handed. When Dad saw my commitment and ability to adapt to my situation, he knew I was going to be okay.
I don’t know why, but I never looked at my missing arm and thought, “I’ll never be able to do [this] again.” Instead, I thought, “Let me see what I can do.” Philippians 4:13 says that I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. So I set out to see what I could do with God’s help.
That attitude brought me many victorious moments.
I did make it back to school that fall, but playing sports again was not on my horizon. About a year after my accident, however, the varsity football coaches approached me and asked me to try out. The idea both excited and challenged me.
My high school had a competitive football program. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to make the team, but I was willing to try. It took a lot of hard work and determination, but I earned a spot on the varsity team as a junior.
Recently, my class celebrated our 40th year reunion. Teammate after teammate shared how my attitude and persevering spirit had impacted their lives. I was blown away by their comments. These were guys I had looked up to! It had never occurred to me that I had influenced them in a positive way, but God uses us to encourage one another even when we don’t know it. We can be going about our day, just being ourselves and doing what we love, and the whole time, God is working behind the scenes in ways we can’t imagine.
God has used many people in my life. He used my neighbor to lead me to Christ. He used those coaches to encourage me to hit the gridiron. Then He used a water-ski enthusiast named Tommy to encourage me to try that sport, and that’s where, ultimately, I found an international platform to tell others about the Lord.
I was 17 when I stepped off the dock and into water skiing. As I considered Tommy’s invitation, I remembered watching a teenage amputee skiing when I was 12 years old. I decided, if that guy could ski with one arm, I could too.
That weekend, I learned how to ski on two skis and even dropped a ski and skied on one. I also tried to get up on one ski but was unsuccessful. I figured I needed a bigger ski, so I went to the local ski shop and bought one—but I still couldn’t get up. I went back to the store and bought a water-ski glove, but that didn’t help either.
The owner of the shop, Sarvis Bass, took it upon himself to build me a special ski handle that would help balance out my body weight and provide stability. He gave me the handle, told me to go practice and then come back to see him after I could cross both wakes.
It wasn’t long before I was back at his shop completely hooked on the thrill and challenge of water skiing. Sarvis began teaching me the basics of running a slalom course. He got me involved in local and regional competitions and continued to build special tools to help me advance in the sport. It’s been 45 years, and I’m still skiing. In fact, in 2019, I represented the United States at the International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation’s World Adaptive Waterski Championship in Skarnes, Norway.
I worked with Sarvis until I moved away for college. There in a new town, I started working at another water-ski shop called Overton’s. God used the owner of that company, Parker Overton, to be an encouragement to me—both in skiing and in life.
I was working at Overton’s when I got the news that my father had passed away. Parker called me into his office, hugged me, reminded me that I wasn’t alone, and asked how he could help. I’ll never forget that moment of God’s grace being extended to me. It was a simple but powerful gesture.
Just like when I lost my arm, God’s presence and peace helped me face life without my father. I took comfort in knowing that my dad was a believer in Jesus Christ, because that meant he was okay. I knew from the Bible that the moment my dad died, he had stepped into the presence of God for all eternity. I would see Dad again. My heart still hurt, but I had hope.
Years later, God used my son, Hunter, to teach me many things, especially about extending grace and forgiveness. Hunter passed away the day after Thanksgiving in 2015. It was the end of a long struggle with drug addiction.
As a father, I desperately wanted to fix my son’s situation. I often wondered, “What in the world is wrong with this kid? Why doesn’t he just quit drugs?” I simply couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t make better choices. I grew more frustrated with every trip to rehab and jail, angrier and more unable to trust him with every broken promise and lie.
There were moments when I wanted to physically lay a hand on my son. I couldn’t stand it when Hunter would disrespect my wife—his mother. It wasn’t right. One night, after he verbally berated her, my anger got the best of me and I charged him. But in the middle of the scuffle, I heard the Holy Spirit say, “What are you doing? This isn’t the way.” His voice stopped me in my tracks. I felt so ashamed.
It wasn’t until I prayed, “God, please soften my heart and open my eyes” that things changed for me. No, life didn’t get any easier, but having God’s heart and His perspective on the situation enabled me to move forward with peace. I promised the Lord I would never lay a hand on my son again and determined to fight every battle God’s way—in love and with peace.
Hunter’s situation grew worse. There were times we saw him walking down the street of our town and didn’t even recognize our own son. He looked so empty. One day, I stopped my car to see if it was him, and it was. I sensed the Lord telling me to invite him home and feed him. That night, he asked us to put him up in a hotel so he could get clean and go to rehab. After praying, I felt peace about helping him again.
The rehab center rejected Hunter because he still had drugs in his system. This rejection sent him spiraling deeper into the darkness of his addiction. But then one day, he called and begged me to take him back to the center.
I couldn’t imagine they would accept him into the program, but I picked him up. As we drove there, Hunter wept and started telling me all the things he had done. He was so brokenhearted. I told him I didn’t care what was in his past; all that mattered was how he was going to move forward. My heart hurt when he said, “Dad, could you ever forgive me?”
Jesus’s story of the prodigal son immediately came to mind, and I shared it with him. Hunter needed to know that not only would I forgive him, but God would too. He had never heard how that young man had left his family and squandered his inheritance with what the Bible calls “wild living.” He also hadn’t heard how that, when the son finally came to his senses and returned home, the father completely and immediately welcomed, forgave, and restored him to his rightful position as a son (Luke 15:11–32).
As I shared that story of how God, our heavenly Father, welcomes us back, forgives us, and restores our lives when we return home to Him, I saw a wave of relief come over my son.
I told Hunter I forgave him and encouraged him to get right with the Lord, to keep moving forward in God’s strength. God hadn’t left Hunter to fight his battles alone; Jesus would help him. Hunter just had to give his fight to Jesus.
We arrived at the rehab facility, and the counselors took him back for the required drug test. He didn’t pass, but the counselor accepted him anyway because he recognized the change in Hunter’s attitude. He didn’t know that it had just happened during the car ride there.
Hunter was sober for 23 months before he fell back into his addiction and, as a result, was released from the program. My wife, Ginny, and I met him at the bus station. We could see he felt he had failed us again, but we decided to bring him home—23 months of sobriety meant something to us. We did have rules though, including “you use, you leave.”
For the next nine months, we had many wonderful moments and conversations with our son. But right before Thanksgiving 2015, we began to notice things missing from our home. We confronted Hunter, and he admitted to pawning those items to get money for drugs. We reminded him of the rule, and he told us he understood as he packed his bag and left.
I’m so thankful that I hugged my son that night and told him I loved him, because that was the last time I saw him alive. Hunter was hit by a car two days later while walking down the highway.
I grieved the loss of my son, and I often wondered what more I should have done to help him. Thankfully, God sent a man named John Paul to comfort me. He was a case worker at the funeral home and had known Hunter. A recovering addict himself, John Paul explained addiction in ways I’d never considered.
I had been struggling because I didn’t know if Hunter had chosen Jesus as his Savior. I didn’t have the assurance that I would see him again, like I’d had with my dad. But then, John Paul handed me a paper cross that had been in Hunter’s pocket the day he died. It had a prayer of salvation written on it. My heart was encouraged.
Not long after that, a counselor from the rehab center called. He assured me that Hunter had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He even shared some of the deep conversations he and Hunter had had about the Lord. God used both these men to bring to me understanding and closure.
He also used the testimonies of many of Hunter’s friends at the funeral. Young person after young person told me how Hunter had been a source of hope and help to them even in his darkest hours. He had always been willing to help others. I was so comforted by their testimonies.
I’ve learned that God uses His children to comfort and encourage each other. Sometimes we’re on the giving end of that help, and sometimes we’re on the receiving end. Both ends are equally important, but it’s up to us to be willing to be used in the giving, and then to receive it when it comes our way.
Who can you encourage today? Even the simplest gesture—a smile, a hug, a listening ear—can make a huge difference. People all around you are facing difficult times. They need you!
On the flip side, is it time for you to receive the hope and encouragement God is sending your way? Who has been there for you, offering light? You are not alone. Give your fight to Jesus, and let Him and others help you move forward.
GREGG STOKES has experienced great loss and heartache, but a steadfast faith in God keeps him moving forward. He enjoys time with friends and family and is blessed to use his passion for watersports as an opportunity to represent Christ.