A lot of what I hope to write on this site will be about mathematics and it’s history, as these topics form my career and are one of the great passions of my life. I also plan to write about other passions that I’ve developed over time, which include mental health and philosophy. Now, I write about the most important aspect of my life – my Christian faith.
Whatever your background, I hope you will hear me out. I know many reading this might know very little about Christianity, many others might have a host of agonizing memories associated with a church or family member who attends church, and many of you may also be Christians. I am trying here to write something that will be accessible and informative to anyone, regardless of background.
I am writing here a story, a story that in my faith tradition is called my testimony. The use of this word derives from how it is used in court – a witness’ testimony in court is their statement of what they saw or experienced that is relevant to the trial. Within Christianity, we often use the word testimony to mean our deepest, most meaningful experiences and stories that involve our faith. Very often, in their testimony a person might talk about how they came to believe in Jesus, how their life changed when they began following Jesus, and perhaps other major life events that were deeply related to their faith.
This, then, is my attempt at writing my testimony. I unfortunately have to skip a lot of details, I wish I could cover more. Maybe at a later time, I will. But I hope that in writing out my life story, I can shed light on what Christianity actually is, and is not, and open up the possibility for honest conversations.
I grew up in a household with two parents, both of whom are devoted Christians, and I grew up going to church. I considered myself a Christian growing up, and I knew the most well-known Bible stories and passages. All the way through high school, this is all Christianity consisted of to me – attending church and youth group and trying to “learn all the right things.” For reasons that I will explain later in my story, I would now say that I was not truly a Christian at this point in my life.
Most of the important developments of my childhood are in some way connected to my very early love for math. I was the kid that did math problems for fun at home and at school, from as early on as second grade. This passion has remained, and only grown over time. So, I was seen by others and myself as “the math kid” ever since I can remember. I have also had ADHD my whole life. I will say far more about this some other time, but in summary, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a medical condition that makes things like maintaining focus, picking up on social cues, and organizing one’s thoughts very difficult. All that needs to be said for now is that the combination of ADHD and being labelled “nerdy” from very early on made it difficult for me to make friends, and affected my self-confidence a lot at a young age and made me extremely shy.
I also had a very hot temper until fifth grade. That year, one incident got particularly bad, and I was overwhelmed by guilt by what I had done throughout my life in moments of anger. The emotional force of that guilt caused me to start repressing almost all of my emotions, whether consciously or subconsciously I’m not exactly sure. In a culture where men are supposed to be “tough” and never express emotion, this trend continued. My peers appeared to only see me as “the human calculator” (I was actually called that as a nickname for many years) and I saw myself that way for a long time. The only thing that was really important about me was my skill in math, not my emotion or anything else about me. This had a lot of negative impacts on how I think about myself, many of which I struggle with to this day.
The path I have taken towards breaking out of this mentality was complicated. The less complex part of this was the realization that a passion for math is emotional, just like any other. The creative genius of mathematician Leonhard Euler (one of the most important mathematicians ever to live) opened my eyes to the creative and emotional sides of math during my junior year of high school, and Euler and his work have stuck with me powerfully to this day.
While becoming acquainted with Euler’s work and life is one of the primary reasons I work in mathematics today (and is the primary reason I have been able to connect my emotional and spiritual life to my mathematical work) this was not the most potent emotional impact on my development. The first of the major moments was a ‘summer camp for nerds’ in my home state called Governor’s School. This was a place where the some of the most passionate math students, science students, history students, dancers, and musicians of my age group live together for more than a month on a small college campus and pursue their interests in an open classroom-like format.
This camp was the first time in my life anyone actually wanted to know why I loved math so much, and I gladly shared and learned from them about what they loved. There I made friends who were the closest I’d ever had. There were people who helped me recognize that I have an emotional life, and that my emotions matter. This was the first time in my life that people outside of my family took that kind of an interest in me, or at least the first time I felt comfortable with myself. I opened up, and began to actually acknowledge and experience my emotions again.
However, something very horrible ended up coming from this opening up. I don’t want to go into detail here. The short version of this is that I was emotionally and verbally abused within the same context in which I was first learning to think about my own emotions. The positive aspects of that situation prevented the abuse from hitting me until a particularly important friendship was severed, but once that friendship was cut off, I felt the depth of the wounds all at once. I feel totally comfortable sharing details of what happened to me, but for a variety of reasons I don’t think it is wise to put all of that here. I actually still very much value and care about the people involved with all of this, and I hold nothing against anybody. (If someone thinks they know what happened or wants to know, I ask that you respect my privacy and talk to me privately if you want to talk). I don’t really need to share details, as it will become clear quickly how badly this hurt me. I began to hold a very deep belief that I was not worth loving or caring about by anyone, for any reason.
The shock that set this in motion happened during my first year studying at Virginia Tech. A year and a half of horrible memories hit me all at once. In my mind, the only friend I’d ever had who truly knew me had rejected our friendship in the strongest of terms. That is an exaggeration of what actually happened, but that is how it felt to me at the time. I quickly fell into a very extreme self-loathing which almost instantly wrecked my mental health.
Within days of this, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were making it difficult to function (I ought to be clear at this point – I was never formally diagnosed with these disorders, but that is because I didn’t see a therapist until nearly 2 years after the fact, and I’d overcome a lot by then. However, knowing what I know now I am almost certain I would have been diagnosed with both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression). Getting out of bed was nearly impossible, I had very powerful temptations towards self harm, and I had regular flashbacks daily made me relive the darkest moments of my life. Quite literally, I did not think of myself as fully human, because I thought I was too broken emotionally to be considered human. The sentence “I care about you” sounded to me as nonsensical as “2+2=5”. I never had real suicidal thoughts, but I didn’t really see much reason to keep going either. Speaking about this time of my life can sometimes bring me to tears to this day. Those memories no longer have power of me because of what God has done for me, but the spiritual warfare that goes on behind the scenes with people who have suffered as I have is more than people usually realize.
It was during this trauma that I stopped calling myself a Christian. I didn’t really know what I believed, I flipped between atheism, agnosticism, or deism. It was a confusing and painful time spiritually. Since nobody could ever love me, or so I thought, there could not be a God who loved me. I was too broken. There were too many things wrong with me, I made too many mistakes in life, and I’d been hurt too much. Why would anyone ever love a person like that? Fortunately, these questions have answers, but it would be a year before I began to hear them.
Fast forward to my sophomore year. I joined the Virginia Tech marching band, and made some new friends there. There were plenty of good friends there, about whom I could say much, but for this particular story my friends Emily and Chelsea matter the most. I grew closer to Emily first of these two, as I’d known her as an acquaintance for most of my freshman year. We had very occasional spiritual conversations, and she regularly invited me to InterVarsity, which is an organized Christian community and social group on many college campuses. I had been unable to attend, and wasn’t really sure about going to a Christian event anyways. Nonetheless, I appreciated her invitations and was open to the idea of going.
One day, late in the semester, Emily experienced a breakup that took her by surprise and hit hard. Though she did a decent job keeping her composure in public, I could see in her eyes that day the same pain that had plagued me. I couldn’t bear seeing someone hurt like that, especially someone who had been kind to me. So, for the first time, I talked about what happened to me. Not very much, since I was far too scared of being rejected again to do that, but I wanted my friend to know that she was not alone.
Her immediate response to this was to tell me she knows what depression is like too, and she immediately started trying to comfort me. I was honestly confused by this. She put her own pain to the side, and tried to comfort me. That made no sense. Nobody had ever treated me quite like that before. I didn’t magically feel better, but that friendship became a lot deeper very quickly as she continued checking on me and wanting to know how I was doing and how she might be able to help.
Not too long after this, something similar happened with my friend Chelsea. She had a similar sort of painful experience, I reached out to her and tried to empathize and comfort her. Her response surprised me even more. She responded by telling me that she didn’t know much about depression, but that she wanted to understand and talk about it with me. This was even more confusing. Why would anyone spend time trying to understand why and how I was hurting? What sense does this make? I had no answers, but both of these friends kept checking in on me.
Once band season ended, I became extremely lonely. I knew that both Emily and Chelsea were in InterVarsity, and because of the friendship I’d built with those two, I accepted Emily’s invitation and went to their “large group” gathering. I felt as if the weekly talks given there were written for me by someone who knew my innermost private life and was going out of their way to help me. They kept talking about spending time alone with God, relationship with God, how God loved us and how He empathizes with our suffering. I cried at least once during every weekly meeting that whole semester, and several times at each of the first few meetings. On top of the messages, these people cared for one another in a way that was so different from anything I’d seen before, and I longed to be part of that. I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but there was something about these people I could not ignore.
Around this time, in February of 2017, I went on a weekend retreat with this InterVarsity group. There were many emotional moments in those 48 hours, more than I can really talk about but one is far more important than the others. The retreat had a series of talks about the God and prayer, and during one of those talks to speaker did a guided prayer with us. A time came during the prayer when we were encouraged to be still and listen for God. This is pretty normal Christian lingo and doesn’t normally refer to hearing a literal voice, but that night that’s what happened. It was in one sense like the voice of my internal dialogue, but it was in some way more powerful and louder, I could feel the words hit me through my whole body. And the words I heard were “It’s okay. You can love again.”
Obviously, this took me by surprise. That night, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what to make of this surreal experience. I had believed that I was so broken that I could never be loved, and because of this I didn’t truly let anybody in anymore. This was destroying me internally, and it was also destroying my ability to love others well too. What I came to see that night during my prayer was a radical, new idea to me – that I am both broken and valuable. This is at the core of the Christian faith. Even though we are all broken, imperfect people that do not deserve to be in the presence of a perfect God, He has such immense love for us that He paved a way to redeem the brokenness of the whole world and of our own hearts. And because we are too weak to fix our own brokenness, He became like us, entering the world as a human being in order to bridge the gap. There are whole books written that lay all of this out in detail (I would gladly recommend some to any curious readers!) but what I’ve just described is the way I processed it at the time.
That night, I began to understand how life-changing this message is. It is called “the gospel” for a reason; because “gospel” translates to “good news,” and this is the best news I’d ever heard. But at the same time, the message I grasped that day is so powerful that believing it would be nothing short of life-changing. For me, that meant being who God had made me to be – which in my case I realized included being vulnerable about my suffering. That night, in a room with 3 guys I’d never met, I trusted God for the first time and really began to open up my bloody and bruised heart again. This was the day I became a Christian, a follower of the message of redemption that Jesus brought to the world.
Everything changed after that, at a rapid pace. My friends at InterVarsity, especially the two I’ve already mentioned, took such great care of me. Within a month, their constant love enabled me to understand that I was worthy of love… I will never forget crying nonstop tears of joy for 20 minutes when this hit me. Another month later, something happened that I can only describe as a miracle. I won’t tell the whole story, but the only way I know how to explain this is that God sent a Christian therapist who specialized in helping people like me to InterVarsity on a critical day in my life. She prayed for me, and I instantly felt a wave pulse through my body, and I felt 100 pounds lighter, and the massive weight that had been removed from me was replaced by an indescribable peace and joy. I literally did not want to sleep that night, and I didn’t. Why would I? I could finally see through the clouds, and what I found was a God of infinite love who had gone out of His way to carry me home and patch up my wounded heart. That night, I spent enjoying the immense joy and gratitude that I suddenly found pulsing through me. I have still had struggles, but that soul-crushing weight has never returned.
God gave me an incredible community in which to grow as a Christian in this time. Emily taught me how to have spiritual conversations, Chelsea showed me daily how to be a loving friend, and my mentor Jake worked with me on pursuing openness and embracing my emotional life in a healthy way. The fall of my junior year, I was given the honor of leadership in InterVarsity, and I began a Bible study for the marching band, a community whose schedule often did not allow them to go to other Bible study groups. That same semester, I gave this testimony publicly for the first time, and through that I mentored a younger man with a story similar to mine. I had the blessing to watch him grow, and at the end of my two years as a leader, the roles had reversed and he was leading and teaching all the small group leaders, including myself.
I have had mental health problems again, though not to the degree I did before. I sought counseling to learn how to deal with my flashbacks, and through my group therapy sessions I met one of the closest friends I’ve ever had, who also joined and was deeply impacted by InterVarsity. I have had the blessing of being able to walk with others through their own struggles with anxiety and depression, to speak publicly about my own experiences, and to volunteer with campus counseling centers in spreading awareness of resources and working to debunk stigmas about issues surrounding mental health.
And it is not only the emotional aspects of life that have been revitalized. After following Jesus for about a year, I discovered apologetics. The ministries I found, of which some of my favorites are Reasonable Faith and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, tackle important intellectual and emotional questions related to faith and life. Through these and other ministries, I have grown and learned much; I have developed an interest in academic philosophy because of these ministries, for instance. Christianity is not just emotional, in fact it is deeply intellectual as well. Apologetics ministries like these have motivated me to think more deeply about all aspects of life, and I have a stronger sense of coherence between my career, my friendships, my faith, and my emotional life as a consequence.
This does not mean life is easy. I fall far short of who I should be on a daily basis, and I still struggle with many wounds that have not fully healed yet. I am still prone to occasional depressed moods, and the memories still haunt me and sometimes bring me to tears. But I know I have God Himself working inside me. He has given me strength to carry on when I feel like everyone has abandoned me, and hope enough to face the pain without fear. I know I am loved, and the whole world is loved. To close, I summarize my experience by repeating the famous words of Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”