Despite growing up as a Baptist, alcohol, drugs and college life threw John Edwards into a whirlwind, but did God abandon him? Read on to find out.
I was born and raised in a Baptist family in midtown Memphis. I never had a lot of friends in school, but I had a lot at church. That’s where my community was. I spent every day with these guys and girls, evangelizing and enjoying all the things that you did as a young Baptist. I loved that period of my life, but when I turned 18, my friendship group dispersed. I was still uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life while most of them went off to college leaving me, for the first time in my life, without a community. I was also at the point in my life where I had to decide what to do. I enrolled at the University of Memphis, a local university, and joined a fraternity. It was then I began to get involved in drinking, drugs, and chasing women. Unfortunately, I filled this void with all the activities that you see in a lot of movies and started drinking and chasing women. One night I made a bad decision–one of the worst decisions of my life–to do cocaine. It plagued me for the next 17 years of my life.
When I met Angela, my future wife, I overheard her say that the man she would someday marry had to be Catholic. I wanted to be her man. Even though I had not been to church for over 10 years, I wanted to marry this wonderful woman. Before we married, I went through the RCIA program and became a Catholic, but the truth of the Catholic Church never took deep roots in me because I was just going through the motions.
As I became a successful salesperson, I had a lot of responsibilities and stress. My income was entirely dependent on the commissions I made on sales and I had very demanding customers. If a fellow worker made a mistake, or caused an issue, I could lose our income. To relieve the pressure, I began to throw myself into drug use at night, but I managed to hide this from my wife. She had no idea what I was doing.
Shortly after the birth of Jacob, our first baby, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had just two weeks to a couple months to live and that really threw me over the edge. I remember asking God: “How can You let a lying scumbag drug addict like me live, but let someone like her, who has loved You without fail her whole life, die? If that’s the kind of God You are, then I don’t want anything to do with You!” That day, I remember looking up at the sky and saying: “I hate You and I will never worship You again!” That’s the day when I fully turned away and walked away from God.
I had some customers who were very difficult to deal with. Even at night, there was no respite, with texts threatening to take their business away. All the stress overwhelmed me, and I threw myself into the drugs more and more each night. One night, around two in the morning, I suddenly woke up and sat up in bed. It felt like my heart was going to blow out of my chest. I thought: ‘I’m gonna have a heart attack and die’. I wanted to call out to God, but my proud, selfish, stubborn nature would not give in.
I didn’t die, but I resolved to throw out the drugs and pour out the alcohol…I followed through with that in the morning…only to buy more drugs and beer in the afternoon. The same thing happened over and over again—customers texting, using drugs to fall asleep, and waking up in the middle of the night.
One day, my desire for drugs was so great that I stopped to buy cocaine on my way to pick up my son, Jacob, from my father-in-law’s house! As I drove away from the drug dealer’s house, I heard a police siren! The drug enforcement agency was right behind me. Even while I sat in the police station being questioned with my leg chained to a bench, I still thought I was going to get out of this. As a super salesman, I believed I could talk my way out of anything. But not this time! I ended up in jail in downtown Memphis. Next morning, I thought it was all just a nightmare, until I hit my head on the steel bunk.
When it dawned on me that I was in jail and not in my home, I panicked. This can’t be happening…everybody’s going to know…I’m going to lose my job…my wife…my kids…everything in my life…” Very slowly, I began to look back over my life and think about how this all began. That’s when I realized how much I had lost when I walked away from Jesus Christ. My eyes filled with tears and I spent that afternoon in prayer. I would later realize that this was no ordinary day. It was Holy Thursday, 3 days before Easter, the day when Jesus chided His apostles when they could not watch one hour with Him as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. While I talked to Him in prayer, I received a deep sense of certainty that Jesus had never left me, even when I had walked away from Him. He had always been with me even in my darkest moments.
When my wife and my mother-in-law came to visit, I was filled with anxiety. I was expecting my wife to say: “I’m done with you. I’m leaving you and taking the children!” It felt like a scene from Law and Order where the prisoner talks on the phone to his visitor on the other side of the glass. As soon as I saw them, I burst into tears and sobbed, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” When she spoke, I could hardly believe my ears. “John, stop…I’m not going to divorce you. It has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with the vows we made in the Church…” However, she told me that I couldn’t come home yet, even though she was bailing me out. My sister was supposed to pick up that evening from jail to take me to my father’s farm in Mississippi. It was Good Friday when I walked out of jail. When I looked up it wasn’t my sister waiting for me but my father. I was nervous to see him but we wound up having the realest conversation we had ever had on the hour and a half car ride down to the farm.
I knew that I had to do something to change my life and I wanted to start with Mass on Easter Sunday. But when I pulled up at the church for the 11 o’clock Mass, no-one was there. I began to hit the steering wheel with my fists in disappointment and anger. For the first time in 10 years, I wanted to go to Mass and nobody was there. Did God care at all? The next moment, a Sister pulled up and asked if I wanted to go to Mass, then she redirected me to the next town where I found the church filled with families. This felt like another crushing blow because I wasn’t with my own family.
All I could think about was my wife and how I longed to be worthy of her. I recognized the priest. The last time I saw him, many years ago, I was with her. When Mass finished, I remained in the pew asking God to heal me and reunite me with my family. When I finally got up to leave, I felt an arm on my shoulder which surprised me, since I didn’t know anybody there. As I turned around, I saw that it was the priest who greeted me warmly, “Hello, John”. I was stunned that he remembered my name because it had been at least five years since our last meeting, and that had lasted for about 2 seconds. He took my hand and told me, “I don’t know why you’re here alone or where your family is, but God wants me to tell you that everything’s going to be alright.” I was flabbergasted. How could he know?
I made up my mind to change my life and go to rehab. My wife came with me when I was admitted and returned to bring me home after 30 days of outpatient care. When my children saw me walk in the door, they cried and threw their arms around me. They jumped all over me and we played until it was time for bed. As I lay in my bed, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude to be there–comfortable in my house with air conditioning and a TV that I could watch whenever I wanted to; dining on food that wasn’t prison slop; and lying in my own bed again.
I smiled as if I was king of the castle until I looked over to Angela’s empty side of the bed. I thought to myself: “I need to change my whole life; stopping the drugs and alcohol isn’t enough.” I opened my bedside table, looking for a Bible and found a book that Father Larry Richards had given me at a conference. I had only read 3 or 4 pages back then, but when I picked it up that night, I couldn’t put it down until I had read it cover to cover. I stayed up all night and was still reading when my wife woke at 6 am. The book quickened my understanding of what it meant to be a good husband and a father. I earnestly promised my wife that I was going to be the man she deserved. That book set me on a course to start reading Scripture again. I realized how much I’d missed in my life and wanted to make up for lost time. I started leading my family to Mass, and prayed for hours on end each night. In the first year, I read over 70 Catholic books in that first year. Little, by little, I began to change.
My wife gave me an opportunity to become the man God called me to be. Now, I’m trying to help other people do the same through my podcast ‘Just a Guy in the Pew’.
On Holy Thursday, Jesus prepared to die, and I chose to die to my old self. On Easter Sunday, I felt that I was also resurrected with Him. We know that satan may be quiet when we’re on a path far away from Jesus. It’s when we start coming closer and closer to Christ that he starts to get really loud. When his lies start to surround us, then we know that we are doing something good. Never give up. Keep on persevering in the love of God, all through your life. You’ll never regret it.
Article is based on the interview given by John Edwards host of “Just a Guy in the Pew” podcast through the Shalom World program “Jesus My Savior”. To watch the episode visit: shalomworld.org/episode/jailed-cocaine-addict-finds-christ-john-edwards
A few months ago, during a conversation about a “difficult” colleague, my immediate superior remarked: “If I am not able to be a source of solace to such people in my team, then all my spirituality is in vain.” It was a wake-up-call; I had often been in the habit of judging this colleague, so this left me in shame. I realized how badly I had failed to be a true witness to my faith, at my workplace. All of us are surrounded by difficult people, maybe in the form of a nagging spouse, an envious neighbor, an irritating colleague, or a domineering boss. In fact, Jesus dealt with difficult people on a daily basis, giving us the perfect example of compassion. This Lent, let’s be thankful to God for all these difficult people in our lives. Instead of judging and avoiding them, let’s try to be like Jesus. Let’s do to them what Jesus would have done for them if He was in our place. And let’s not forget that it’s not the good people but the difficult people who purify us.
There is a regrettable interpretation of the Cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, an appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath. But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.”(3:16) John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather, God is a parent who burns with compassion for His children who have wandered into danger. Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus, God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right. Saint Anselm, the great medieval theologian who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off. In so doing, of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion. Jesus said that any disciple of His must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.
Q: My Protestant friends say that Catholics believe we need to earn our salvation. They say that salvation is by faith alone and that we can’t add to anything that Jesus already did for us on the Cross. But don’t we have to do good works to make it to Heaven? A: This is a pretty big misunderstanding for both Protestants and Catholics. It may seem to be theological minutiae, but it actually has a huge consequence in our spiritual life. The truth is this: We are saved by living faith—our belief in Jesus Christ that is lived out in our words and actions. We must be clear—we do not need to earn our salvation, as if salvation was a prize if we reach a certain level of good deeds. Consider this: who was the first one to be saved? According to Jesus, it was the Good Thief. While he was being rightly crucified for his evil deeds, he cried out to Jesus for mercy, and the Lord promised him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) So, salvation consists in that radical faith, trust, and surrender to what Jesus did on the Cross to purchase mercy. Why is this important? Because many Catholics think that all we have to do to be saved is ‘be a good person’—even if the person doesn’t actually have a living relationship with the Lord. I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me something like: “Oh, my uncle never went to Mass or prayed, but he was a nice man who did many good things in his life, so I know he’s in Heaven.” While we certainly hope that the uncle is saved by God’s mercy, it isn’t our kindness or good works that save us, but the saving death of Jesus on the Cross. What would happen if a criminal was put on trial for a crime, but he said to the judge, “Your Honor, I did commit the crime, but look at all the other good things I did in my life!” Would the judge let him off? No—he would still have to pay for the crime he committed. Likewise, our sins had a cost—and Jesus Christ had to pay for them. This payment of the debt of sin is applied to our souls through faith. But, faith is not just an intellectual exercise. It must be lived out. As Saint James writes: “Faith without works is dead” (2:24). It’s not enough just to say: “Well, I believe in Jesus, so I can now sin as much as I want.” On the contrary, precisely because we have been forgiven and become heirs to the Kingdom, we must then act like Kingdom-heirs, like sons and daughters of the King. This is very different than trying to earn our salvation. We don’t do good works because we hope to be forgiven—we do good works because we are already forgiven. Our good deeds are a sign that His forgiveness is alive and active in our lives. After all, Jesus tells us: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) If a husband loves his wife, he will seek concrete ways to bless her—giving her flowers, doing the dishes, writing her a love note. He would never say: “Well, we’re married, and she knows I love her, so I can now do whatever I want.” Likewise, a soul that has known the merciful love of Jesus will naturally want to please Him. So, to answer your question, Catholics and Protestants are actually much closer on this issue than they know! We both believe that we are saved by faith—by a living faith, which is expressed in a life of good works as a sign of thanksgiving for the lavish, free gift of salvation that Christ won for us on the Cross.
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) Do you remember hearing these words as a child? They seemed simple enough—just go to your room, close the door, and pray. I remember hearing them and being confused. Simple words, yes, but it just didn’t make sense that we could only say prayers, in our room, by ourselves. But my child-like faith told me to believe these words. As I grew, so did my faith and understanding of this Scripture. I came to realize these beautiful, profound words meant I could go into my room, turn my heart to the Lord, anytime, anywhere. My prayer life blossomed. How wonderful to spend quiet time with our Father and receive His love. Every time I hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I appreciate the Lenten season even more. It’s a reminder of God’s love and how much He desires our friendship. Love heals. For me, that’s the reward when I go into my room and pray.
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