Changing From The Outside In

God reshaped Youssef’s world so He could reach his heart.

Youssef was only seven years old, the eldest son of devout parents, when he began after-school religious training.  By the time he was twelve, he was teaching others, correcting those who were reciting holy literature, and making followers wherever he could.  His friends called him “Teacher Youssef.” 

The routine was predictable for a boy growing up in the majority faith of a closed country of the Middle East.  His father would kick him awake in the morning to pray. “If you do not pray, your grave will be full of snakes.  You won’t go to paradise. You will be punished,” he would warn.

Guilt gripped Youssef, but so did his need.  One day he met an overwhelming situation and, in his fear, believing he would gain more credit than praying at home, he went to a worship place to say his daily prayers.  “I prayed for God to protect me, help me. I was desperate.  But I saw no answer.  I concluded he did not wish to help me just when I needed him the most.”  It was only the beginning of Youssef’s disillusionment.

He remembers going to religion class where he sat under an angry teacher who twisted his hair for misbehaving in class, slapped him across the face for talking to a questionable person, threatened  him with shame if he didn’t study his lesson, and sent him home if he wore shorts. 

It was a sad time.  One night Youssef dreamed he was standing before God. To his horror, he realized he had not done enough to be saved from hell.  His mind panicked to figure out what he’d done wrong, to think how he could earn more points to avoid the fire.  He awoke with a burden to try harder, to do more good, but his efforts were not enough to numb his sense of failure.  More than once Youssef slipped a knife out of the kitchen, locked himself in the family’s bathroom, and tried to plunge it into his stomach.  It wouldn’t go in.  

Standing at a Crossroads

One day, on the way to his religion class, he paused at an intersection.  Impulsively he turned onto the road to the football field instead of heading to religion class.  His teacher reported him absent but Youssef, older by then, told his family he would not go back to class. About that time his family had to move.  “It was a convenient time for me to quit religious training, to quit praying, to quit reciting,”  he explains.

That’s when Youssef bought his first mobile phone.  He met the online world, a tantalizing  lifestyle, ungodly interests, and a new circle of friends.  Hoping to connect with freedom beyond his conservative neighborhood and to attract foreign women, he set up a Facebook account under a false identity.  Translation apps bridged any language differences he met.

One girl began responding regularly.  After a few personal exchanges she demanded to know his real name and where he was from.  She admitted she wasn’t a strong Christian herself but scolded him for using the platform in a dishonest way.  He kept in touch with her, though, and even decided it would be worth his time to learn her language.  With a good app, earplugs, and the time it took to ride his bike to work and back, he became proficient in Spanish.  It was the bridge God would use.

Helping the Foreigners

Youssef was working at his family’s auto repair shop one afternoon when he noticed a couple waiting to have their car serviced.  He could tell they didn’t know the language, so he approached them with his best English, “Hello, where are you from? . . . Oh, not America?”   Youssef quickly switched to the little bit of Spanish he knew.   They were delighted, like they’d found longtime friends.  He was satisfied with an opportunity to practice his language skills. He shared his mobile number with Mateo, the husband,  and hoped something would come of it.

Youssef remembers Mateo didn’t connect for a long time, and when they finally arranged to meet at a restaurant, Youssef felt uneasy.   “Nobody showed up.  And I waited a long time.  I thought, ‘Ach, he is not an honest man.’”  But he decided to send a single text message.  He learned Mateo was also waiting, but in the non-smoking section of the restaurant.  As Mateo explained why he didn’t smoke, Youssef quickly sensed Mateo was a different quality of person than he’d ever known before.  “He had values.  And he was kind to me. I felt accepted. He wasn’t at all like the people I usually hung with, even my family,” Youssef admits. 

They began meeting every week.  One of Mateo’s friends joined them.  The conversation often drifted to religious topics, so they agreed to study together about the prophets.   One visit Mateo and his friend presented him with a Bible in his mother tongue.  To return the favor, Youssef searched out a bookstore and asked the manager for a holy book to share, “I have two Christian boys I want to convert,” he explained.

“I could tell Mateo and his friend were happy to receive my gift.  I figured they wanted to know more about my religion,”  Youssef recalls.  He invited them to his home for an evening where his mother had prepared an elaborate meal for his friend and their  families.  She was irritated when only two men showed up.  Youssef felt the pressure. “I  could hear my mother telling my father that these foreigners needed to know more about the truth of our faith.”  He sensed they wouldn’t accept his new friends easily.  Following that evening, he always arranged to meet Mateo and his friend at a nearby cafe or restaurant.  His family knew nothing of the changes taking place in his life.

Watching and Curious

The more time he spent with Mateo, the more curious he was about why his new friends were so different.   He remembers the day he ventured into a church in his neighborhood to find out more about Christianity.  “You cannot enter,”  he was told gruffly.   “I hadn’t seen that side of Christianity from my friends.  I didn’t know what to make of it.” Youssef observed.

He began translating for activities Mateo and his friend held.  Youssef watched them treat the poor gently and help those who had needs.  They related to everyone with respect.  He met their families and noticed how they treated their wives.  

One day, in the middle of an errand together, they stopped by Mateo’s church.  At least that’s what Mateo called it. But when Youssef stepped inside, he saw only a simple meeting room with a Bible on a table.  No pictures, no writing, no statues, no cross.  Nobody had prohibited him from entering either.  He decided it would be nice to meet his friends there to study the stories from the Bible they gave him instead of always going to a restaurant. 

In a way, Youssef wasn’t surprised when one day his father, noticing the Bible on the shelf by his bed, began lecturing that the Bible was not holy. “I just shrugged,” Youssef remembers. A few days later the Bible disappeared.  He knew what had happened.  He told his father he needed something important he’d left in the Bible.  His father admitted he had the Bible, and warned him not to let people change his mind.  “Oh, they are not going to change my mind.  They are good people, Father.”  With that, he retrieved the Bible, took it to the church for safekeeping, and downloaded a Bible study app on his phone.

Stepping Out

Youssef noticed that his Facebook friend didn’t mind his new friends at all; they were from her country and she felt they could help him visit her.  Besides, he was excited because she seemed interested in his faith.  He began building a strategy to leave home.  He set up a phony bank account, secured fictitious employment papers, applied for a visa, and scheduled a visa interview.

Very early one morning, Youssef gathered his papers and money together, wrote his family a goodbye note, and boarded a taxi for the two-hour ride to the capital for the interview.  “I never intended to see my family again,” he remembers.  But as his taxi approached the center of the capital, they met sirens, flashing lights, and streets crowded with angry people waving flags and signs.  Then relatives began leaving messages on his bleeping mobile demanding that he return home.  That night he cried himself to sleep. 

When he awoke, he didn’t feel like meeting his appointment at the embassy.  Instead, he bought a flag to tie around his head and he joined the protestors on the street.  “My family began messaging me that my father may die if I don’t return,” he recalls.  Having missed his interview, unnerved by the angry atmosphere around him, he flagged a taxi and headed  home. 

He was surprised.  “My family welcomed me home royally.  They were delighted to have me back.  They seemed to respect me more.  But they took my passport.”  His Christian friends didn’t seem overly concerned by his brief detour; they welcomed him home too and their studies continued.

In fact, he met Mateo’s pastor and they agreed to study the unique beliefs of the Adventist Church.  “I didn’t feel a deep conviction to become a Christian, much less an Adventist.  But I sensed I was relating to good people who had my best interest in mind.  As I studied,  each topic seemed reasonable and right.”  He didn’t feel strongly about things, studying just seemed to be another step, like so many before, in the process of his changing life.

Making a Decision

“When we got to the study on baptism, I thought it would be good to be baptized; I wanted to  make good decisions like my new friends,” Youssef remembers.  The pastor patiently explained it was a big step and needed some changes in his life.  He pointed out that if Youssef wanted to  keep the Sabbath holy, he would need to do something about his Saturday work.

 “That was a tremendous challenge for me,”  Youssef shares.  “Saturday was my busiest day; that’s when I brought in a lot of money for my family.  Inside I didn’t feel I could do that, but we prayed about it together.”  At the very same time, he received an offer to do advertising for a local company.  He reasoned he may not need his job at the shop.

“I didn’t understand the meaning of Sabbath like I do now,” he admits. But one Saturday he called in sick at work so he could join a Sabbath retreat with his new church friends.  He didn’t register that he was being less than honest.  He only remembers  it was a beautiful experience of prayer and encouragement like he had never experienced before in his life.  In a testimony of God’s patient work in his life, Youssef looks back and realizes that “even in my limited understanding, that Sabbath was the next step in the process of God changing me.” 

As his circle of friends changed, his world changed.  He began translating for the pastor.  He listened as the pastor visited, encouraged, and  taught others.  He saw the kind of life he wanted to live. “It only seemed natural that we set a date for my baptism.  Like Jesus, I wanted to be baptized in a river, even if it was midwinter, even if it was icy.  I understood that what I was doing was something new in my life, something important, but it was not a feeling.  It just seemed right.  Today I believe God was pushing me through the steps that I mentally and emotionally could not take on my own.” 

Changing On the Inside

“My inner journey began the day I was baptized.  I watched as my heart slowly began changing.  Without a job, I spent hours, even whole days, in the park praying.   I began helping the pastor more and more.  I spent time serving others, not just myself.  I began loving God’s Word.  I realized He had done so much for me that I wanted to give my whole life to serve Him,” Youssef’s testimony continues.

“My family isn’t aware of the outward changes God has made in my life.  They don’t know my new friends.  They can’t see the brand new world I have joined.  As an adult son, I come and go on my own plans.  But I have committed myself to being a good son–helping them whenever I can, caring for their needs.  I have learned to love them.

“My heart overflowed with praise the other day my mother said to me, ‘You have changed.  You are a kind man.  I trust you.’  God has finally reached into my soul and changed me inside, filling my heart with  love, joy, peace.  I know this is the gift of His Spirit, not my own work.  The more I let Him work in my life, inside and out, the more I can be like Jesus.”