No Turning Back - Matt's Story

03/09/2013
Matt L.

Have you ever imagined what your life would be like if God gave you exactly everything you wanted?  How happy do you think you would be?

Luckily for me, I don’t have to just imagine.  It happened.

And I was miserable.

I grew up in San Dimas, California.  For most of my life, my identity was firmly rooted in academics. I loved school, and I was good at it. I believed that if I studied hard and got good grades, I would be able to attend a top university and become very wealthy and successful. And really, what else do you need to be happy?

I had this mentality until my senior year at UCLA. I was ready to graduate early and enroll in a top corporate law school. However, I still had not satisfied one of the university’s graduation requirements: I needed to take a year of foreign language. I decided to study abroad for five months and do an accelerated language program. I chose Italy, because it was close enough to Spanish, and I heard they had pizza over there.

Studying in Italy completely rocked my world. For the first time, I realized that there was nothing “normal” at all about my life in Southern California. My apartment building in Italy was constructed around the year 1100 out of stone, so you can imagine the quality of plumbing, water pressure, and internet access. During my time in Italy, I visited 10 countries in Europe and developed a completely new appreciation for my blessed life back home.

Italy radically changed my worldview. I had developed an insatiable thirst for novelties like traveling, culture, and diverse perspectives. Additionally, I had become a moral relativist. How could there be any absolute truth when each culture had so many stark differences in their perspectives and values? I ended up nixing law school completely, and during the next four years I visited 23 different countries and lived in South Korea for two of those years teaching ESL.

There was a lot of drinking and partying in my life during my time abroad. Only God knows exactly how many bars I visited. I have seen them all; from multi-leveled, trendy European dance clubs to jungle bars on the beaches of Southeast Asia. Turns out, being a traveling vagabond isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I remember being in a literal bat cave in the Malaysian rainforest when I decided that the next time I traveled, it would be for a purpose. I needed a project or a mission of some kind. I couldn’t just keep traveling around for my own personal mind expansion, cultural learning, and alcohol consumption. It wasn’t fulfilling me anymore.

During my last three months living in South Korea, I had been watching a lot of TED talks online. One evening in my apartment, I came across a particular video called “A Life of Purpose” by a man named Rick Warren, who I’d never heard of before. He said things like “spiritual emptiness is a universal disease” and “most people aren’t living, they are just existing.” Considering what I had been going through in my own life, I was inspired to learn more.

The next day, I Skyped a friend from California. Her name is Ashley, and she was the one Christian friend that I had from UCLA. I said, “Ashley, I don’t know about Jesus and God or whatever, but I saw this TED video from a guy named Rick Warren. He was talking about the purpose of life and stuff. Have you heard of him?”  

Ashley responded, “Yes Matt, I have been going to Saddleback Church since I was 5 years old.  Rick Warren is my pastor!” I was simply blown away by the coincidence.  

I came back to California three months later and was definitely in transition. I was thinking about my next adventure, and it came in the form of a beautiful Korean woman from Seoul who visited me in California for a month. We traveled and camped around almost the entire Pacific Southwest region of America during that month, hitting Yosemite, Santa Barbara, San Diego, and even the Grand Canyon and Sedona, AZ.  From a Hollywood perspective, it was absolutely the ideal life.

I had everything during this time. Lots of money, a ton of traveling and culture experience, and a very attractive, exotic woman who was sexually open and wanted to continue going on adventures with me.

It should have been perfect, but it wasn’t. I knew in the deepest part of my heart that I was feeling very unfulfilled, and it bothered me. Why wasn’t I happier? Didn’t I have everything I wanted? What in the world was I missing?

After my friend went back to Korea, I knew I needed something. I was feeling pretty low about my life. Ashley invited me to come watch her pastor at Saddleback Church. I figured I didn’t have too many opportunities to watch a free TED talk, so I agreed to come.

My first time at Saddleback was right smack in the middle of the Crazymakers series about relationships. Pastor Rick talked about “Six Keys to Peace in Relationships” and “How to Find the Love of Your Life.”  As a moral relativist, I was shocked by what I perceived to be absolute truth coming out of his mouth. It was like lasers of truth were shooting across the room, from his mouth and directly into my heart. I wondered, “Is he getting all of this information from the Bible?”  

Rick continued to speak truth week after week, and eventually I decided that I had to give Jesus a chance. I decided to sit down and research the historical Jesus and make sure that this “resurrection” wasn’t some fairy tale that people use to make themselves feel good.

Over the next three months I read all kinds of apologetics resources, watched countless debates on Youtube about the existence of God, joined a small group, enrolled in Saddleback’s Foundations study, went to Celebrate Recovery for sex addicted men, and made a ton of new Christian friends.

In case you don’t know, there is a lot of solid evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, despite all of that, I can honestly say that the best evidence for Jesus exists in my heart. It is so clear to me now that he was watching over me the whole time, protecting me with his army of angels and preparing me for his purposes. As I reflect back on my travels, God reminds me of the extreme poverty I saw in the Philippines, the human sex slaves I saw in Thailand, the spiritually dead and high suicide rate I encountered in Japan, and the hopeless alcoholics I met partying around Korea. My heart breaks for all these people. They are God’s lost children, and he so desperately wants to welcome them all back into his family.

Remember that project I was looking for when I was in that cave in Malaysia? That “higher” purpose for traveling somewhere? I found it. Or rather, it found me. It’s the PEACE Plan...Saddleback’s vision to care and serve the world. I’m now an intern on the PEACE Team, and am committed to helping plant the 12 Saddleback Churches around the world with the goal of evangelizing the remaining 3,000+ unreached people groups. I’ll be going on my first mission around fall of this year, and I plan on moving indefinitely to one of the cities to help plant a campus.

Jesus has completely changed my life. I know what it’s like to live in, and around, the world without the Holy Spirit in your heart. I’ve been there, and it’s a dark place. I think the biggest injustice in the world is that some people out there haven’t even heard of Jesus. I am humbled, not only because I get to work with real-life superheroes at Saddleback, but because I feel like God specifically chose me to be on his team. All of my experiences have prepared me for this work. It’s unbelievable. And I’m never going back to living in that dark place.

I went from being a non-believer to being a missionary in about six months. Only God can do that.