“High school was a place where I was different than everyone. I didn’t really fit in.”
At some level, that’s a sentiment most people can identify with. Between figuring out what you like and wrestling with who you are, the mantra for many has been to fly under the radar. The less you stand out, the better. But recent Valparaiso High School grad Juan Gil has reason to believe that the path of least resistance might not always be the most fruitful one. Initially, the course of Juan’s path was fueled primarily by his passion for basketball. “I wanted to play in the NBA,” he says. “It sounds funny, but I was really serious about it. I would train all the time.” Things began to shift, though, during the basketball season of his junior year when Juan encountered roadblocks that would redirect his heart and mind. It started on the court. “I just wasn’t playing well. I was anxious.” Where he was once seemingly self-sufficient, Juan found himself in need of guidance. What started out as a quest to quench his basketball deficiencies, though, turned into a search for more than that. When asked what changed his perspective on his circumstances, Juan responded without hesitation:
“It was when I started reading the Bible.”
So he did what most people do with books; started in the beginning and read to the end. Over time, the Scriptures began to bear weight on Juan in a way that changed the trajectory of his life. The energy he once spent on physical training and athletic success was now redirected toward discovering who God had revealed himself to be in the Bible and how those revelations applied to daily life. But this process didn’t happen in a vacuum. Juan sensed an increasing desire to be a part of a church that could help shepherd and guide him along the way. At the time, he was a part of weekly pick-up basketball games put on by Calvary Church for local kids. And as providence would have it, Juan just so happened to live right down the street from the church. So at the intersection of faith and desire, Juan found himself attending Calvary one Sunday morning. “I had been learning a lot from reading the Bible, so I wanted be around people who went to church and were reading the Bible just like I was.” He’s been attending Calvary every since.
As excited as he was to get plugged into a local church and a youth group, it was a decision he made without the help of parental influence. “It is challenging and I want [my parents] to go with me,” Gil explained, “but I guess I’m just used to it.” His decision to step out on his own to pursue God wasn’t an easy one, but the fact that Juan was pushed to take personal ownership of his faith early on has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. And it’s given birth to a genuine desire to pursue Christ and share the gospel. Because of this, the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8 aren’t just an idea to Juan. They’re a daily reality.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28
It’s easy to read a passage like that and insert our own definition of “good” into Paul’s words. The good Paul is referring to doesn’t translate to our own momentary happiness as much as it does God’s glory. And while Jesus’ command to seek first God’s kingdom is not without difficulty, that seeking is what brings us to a place where our deepest needs are truly met. When asked what motivates him to step outside his comfort zone and share his faith with others, Juan struggled to find the words. But it wasn’t because he didn’t know what to say. His answer was surprisingly simple. “There’s nothing else to do,” was all he said at first, but then he went on to unpack that statement. “God made us to live a certain way. [Following him] is what we were made for. Before, we used to like sin. We used to hate righteousness. Now we love it. It’s my new nature.”
For Juan, this leg of the journey is just the beginning. Even his future plans are being impacted by his relationship with Jesus, as he plans to pursue a degree in Biblical Studies at Grace College this fall. And in the spirit of that transition, Juan is compelled to share what he hopes is an encouraging word to anyone willing to listen. “The first thing is that you need to be born again. When we’re born again is where it all starts. The more I read my Bible, the more I understand how things are supposed to be and my mind is conformed to the mind of Christ. It changes your thinking.”
Like a bell sounding the exchange of hours, Juan’s words ring out with clarity and timeliness. In the words of Jonathan Edwards “true religion is religion that stirs the affections the heart.” For Juan Gil, that stirring has begun. And whether people are ready for it or not, his affections are spreading.