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EPISODE 81: God Showed Up - Jon Wilke's Story
Former atheist Jon Wilke had no desire for God and wanted to go his own way. After years of living on his own terms, he became open to the possibility of God, and his life completely changed.
- Contagious Faith by Mark Mittleberg
Hello and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or a skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. If you can hear more of our stories at our website at sidebstories.com. We also welcome your comments on these stories on our Facebook page. You can email us also at [email protected]. We love hearing from you.
As a reminder, our guests not only tell their stories of moving from disbelief to belief in God and Christianity. At the end of each episode, these former atheists and skeptics give advice to curious seekers as to how they can best pursue the truth and reality of God. They give advice to Christians as to best [00:45] how to engage with those who don't believe. I hope you're listening in to the end to hear them speak from their wisdom and experience as someone who has once been on both sides. We have so much to learn from them.
There's something extraordinary about an extraordinary life change. When someone's before looks dramatically different than their after, we lean in, and we want to know what happened. In the context of religious conversion, in this case from atheism to Christianity, you would expect an observable change in the way that someone thinks and lives. And that’s typically what you find. Everything changes, and not in subtle ways. Life looks and feels different in very significant ways.
Former atheist Jon Wilke says that his life is hardly recognizable from the man he was before he met Jesus Christ and the man of God he has become afterward. I hope you'll come along to hear his story of dramatic transformation.
Welcome to Side B Stories, Jon. It’s so great to have you with me today.
Thank you for the invitation, Jana. It's always a pleasure to be able to share what God’s done in my life, and maybe somebody who's listening or watching will be encouraged by my testimony.
Oh, I'm sure they will. I'm sure they will. Before we get into your story, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself now.
Yeah, sure. Thank you. Professionally, I am a media relations guy, so I work with a lot of reporters who want to talk to ministries and see what God's doing in and through those ministries. I’ll share more about how I got into that maybe later. But I’m a dad, a middle-aged dad, and I love being a dad. I have an 11-year-old and 14-year-old girls. And the essence of who I am is as father. So I'm kind of your standard middle-aged guy with two kids. And I take them to the park. We go to the pool. We ride bicycles. We ride skateboards. I take them rock climbing and that kind of stuff.
Well, that sounds fun! Sometimes as an adult it’s really great to have kids. They just keep you young.
All right. Let’s start your story now. Tell me about your family, where you were born, your home life. Was it religious at all? Did they talk about God? Did you go to church? What did that look like?
I grew up in a large southern family, so there's a cultural side of religion that's in there. We had a giant Bible on our coffee table. We occasionally went to church, VBS, Vacation Bible School, was a great daycare for working families. They could drop their kids off for a week at a time. So I had some of those experiences. But my family… I have six brothers, four sisters. I come from a family where my mother was widowed, and then a couple things didn't work out, and so I am the baby boy of eleven. I have a younger sister. I have six older brothers that are all really big, macho, tough guys.
But as far as religion, we would say grace at family functions. My uncle would share a prayer. Just this real simple basic cultural Christianity here in the South. You grow up with this understanding about what's a little bit of right and wrong, what's a little bit of morality, but not necessarily anything that's gospel focused. My sister and I have had many conversations, Jana, about… we’re so thankful that the Lord rescued us from where we grew up from. A lot of times, you can tell a lot about a person by where they came from and where they left and where they live now. But my best friend growing up, my whole childhood, he died of a drug overdose, and that could have been me easily. The county I'm from in Kentucky is called Muhlenberg County, but it's jokingly referred to, sadly, as “Methenberg County.”
So there's a lot of drug use there, and so we're really thankful for being able to escape that and get out of that. But, as far as religion goes, we kind of knew who Jesus was, but it wasn't something that our family took seriously. There were some token displays of religion, as pretty much most southern families know.
So you had some kind of touch points of God or church and VBS. Did you have any sense even as a child? Did you pray to God? Did you believe in God? Did you believe what they were saying?
I felt like I had a religious experience when I was about seven years old. I was at a Vacation Bible School. But I remember my best friend at the time, a guy named Derek. He professed Christ, and then walked down the aisle to get baptized. And we played baseball, we rode motorcycles, and we were always a very competitive friendship. So part of me… I walked down the aisle when I was like seven, and I got baptized, but it didn't stick. There was nothing really there. I had a couple of points in I would say middle school years, where I began to just take a look at the Bible. I remember reading some stuff about predestination. I think it was in 1 Peter or something like that. And that just was kind of interesting to me.
But one of the main themes I did have in my whole life is I was terrified of death. Growing up…. Being 47, I was just a child during the Cold War in the early eighties. I was just terrified of nuclear holocaust. I mean, all the movies…. There was so much pop culture on this. And so what happened to someone who died, how you died, that was just something really mysterious that caused me a lot of angst, anxiety, just as a boy. And I carried that for quite a while.
Yeah. I would imagine that that would be difficult. You said your mother was a widow. And I am sure even just personally experiencing the loss of a parent, that that probably brought that issue a little bit forward for you and makes you think about it a little bit more seriously, especially when it’s happened so close to you.
There was always this kind of ghost in our home, Jana, where my older siblings’ dad, there were full-size pictures on the wall, like this one of the Eiffel Tower. In our house, there were always these thoughts and these conversations, and I had this whole separate family that was his family. But there were these talks of Jimmy—that was his name. Jimmy was watching down. He was looking down on people. There was always this kind of ghost of a person that was in our home and was talked about often, and so there was a presence of death and a bit of taste of afterlife that did definitely flavor my childhood.
I wonder. When you experience something like that, does that make you want to know more about God or supernatural reality or the question of death?
I had questions, but I didn't really know who to ask. Because there were no real experts in my life. But, truth be told, we were such a poor family, my mother widowed. She worked two jobs. At different times, she worked at a furniture store, and then she waited tables a few nights a week, and then, in that part of western Kentucky, it was what they called a dry county, and so they would set up these illegal bars, where people would bring their own alcohol in, and my mother would be the bartender, so she would do that one or two nights a month to make extra money. So we were just so poor that it was like a survival mode. We moved nineteen times before I graduated high school. So it was just constant transition. And I think that really put me in the moment a lot, just a very existential, “What do we do to get through the day?” And then, when you move that much, when you move to a new school, the girls liked me, and the boys didn't. So there were a lot of fights. There was a lot of trouble. And so I think I just really was in survival mode most of my childhood.
But let me just be honest: My mother was a sweet, loving, wonderful mother. She was my best friend. We’d sit and drink coffee and talk for hours. I could talk to her about anything. She'd been through so much she had a lot of wisdom to share, but she's just a really kind, wonderful woman, and despite all of these challenges, I had a great childhood. I mean we had a lot of family, had a lot of cousins around. There was always family things to do. Back in those days, they would just send you out in the summertime on your bicycle, and you’d spend all day playing with your friends and come home for dinner.
So I had a wonderful childhood in that sense, that it was very loving. It was very supportive. There was lots of family and friends. And lots of fun, to be honest with you. But we didn't have much. We got a cake for our birthdays. I never went on vacation as a child. One of the fun stories… I think it's funny now, but I think it was my ninth birthday, I got a Dairy Queen M&M Blizzard. That was my gift, Jana. And I was happy.
So there was a contentment that was with that, because you didn't have any other choice. So you just learned to be content in those situations.
Right. Right. Yeah. I can imagine with, goodness, eleven children and just being in survival mode, but in a way, although there was no doubt, incredible struggle, it gave you a heart of gratitude for something so simple, as a Blizzard for your birthday. We have a lot to learn from that, I think, in terms of contentment. But it sounds like you were blessed in many ways, even with a simple upbringing. But as you're moving on, you have ten siblings. Was faith among that culture at all? I mean, did your brothers or sisters believe. Did you start questioning it as you got older? How did that work its way out?
I had a sister who got involved in a church for a while, but that was because there were teenage boys there. But then sometimes God uses those things. My brother, one of my older brothers, he wound up falling in love with a woman who was very involved in a great family and a great church. And so he began going to church regularly with her. And then mom started going with him, and then occasionally I would go with her.
And so we started hanging out with that family from time to time through my brother. And I just got to see a little bit different way of life. His in-laws, who’ve both passed away, were just wonderful people, wonderful Christian people, and it made me really go, “Wow! I missed a lot.” Dorothy and Graham were just incredible people, and they raised wonderful kids and grand-kids, and they all lived close to each other. They were just a really strong Christian family. So I did see the effects of Christianity as a young man, a teenage boy, and I thought, “Okay. There’s something different here with this family,” and it really did have to do with Jesus. It took me years later to understand why that was.
Well, I'm glad that you got a good, embodied example of what a Christian family looks like, even though it may not have been the fullness of that in your own family, but at least you had some kind of positive example. So as you're getting older, are you pushing back against faith or Christianity? Or are you kind of like, “That’s for them. It's not for me.” Or what started happening in your life?
I started dating a girl whose dad—and they were very charismatic, so I remember going in this church, and this guy's having some charismatic faith practices that just kind of freaked me out. But I liked this girl, and her family always was there, and her dad would occasionally preach. And so I was around a different kind of Christianity. It made me think, “Okay, what's going on here? I don’t really understand all this.” I did begin to read the Bible. I remember reading in John, and I thought it was really interesting, and then 1 John about love. And so I had a couple of touches with the Bible. I don’t know if I would say God was really…. God was probably pulling me in at that time, but there was a resistance.
I was a hell raiser. I was a kid who got in fights at school. I was drinking at a young age. I stole my sister’s car. I made keys to my mom's car when I was 15 and would drive it around when she was out bar tending at night. I did all those kind of things growing up. And so there was a part of me that was like, “Okay, if God is real, then I'm going to have to change the way I live, because obviously this is not the right kind of way to live.”
So, yeah. It wasn't something you were really eagerly looking for. Yeah. As a teenage boy, I'm sure the last thing you wanted was some kind of cosmic authority in your life telling you what to do. So it was just easier, and I presume more fun for you, to live in the way that you wanted to live.
Well, sin has a particular appeal to it when you're lost, and obviously, Satan’s really good at temptation and keeping people in that way. I do think now, many years later, that he was very fearful of the fact of what would happen when a man like me came to Christ. The times that I did touch into the Bible, there was always something that came up. There was always something that happened, with girlfriends and not living the right way, and accumulating a past that’s not to be proud of. But I would have called myself, at that point, a nonbeliever, an atheist, because it's like, “I don't want God to exist.” So I'm not necessarily a full-blown anger towards God. I didn't really understand God. God was this very intangible thing. But I’d obviously seen the fruit of what a tangible faith looked like in the family that my brother was involved in and those kinds of things.
I did see that there is something that happens when you follow Christ and you live a good life. I mean, these people were good, wholesome people. But when you're a young kid doing what you want to do and chasing after the things of the world, that's kind of boring. It doesn't appeal to you, and you’re like, “Oh, maybe that’ll be something that happens when I get older.”
So did you, at that time, when you were pushing away from God and the things of God, I guess, you called yourself an atheist? You identified? I mean, you rejected that there was a God? Or that you just didn't want there to be a God?
There's all these big questions. I didn't have questions of really my purpose. I didn’t have questions about really necessarily the afterlife. It was more of the morality. I didn't want God to be…. I didn't want anybody to tell me what I could or couldn't do. And that’s just really where I was. So we can talk more about my military stuff, I guess, in a few minutes, but when I went in the military, I had atheist on my dog tags.
And how far was it from high school to your military service? How old were you when you entered into military service and decidedly put atheist on your dog tag?
It was only a couple years. So I graduated high school not too long after I turned 17, and I joined the Marine Corps pretty soon after I turned 19. I was just a big party guy. And so I didn't wind up lasting in school but a couple of semesters. And so I was moving home, and my brother, who's a pastor he loaned me his truck to move out of the dorm, and so I called my best friend up. He came to the dorm to help me move, and on the way back to move home, we stopped to buy some drugs, and we got busted. I’d already talked to a recruiter once. But it didn't really go anywhere. I thought, “Oh, there’s no way I could go in the military,” with all the authority issues I had and no control or whatever. So I was kind of forced.
So I remember walking into this foyer. And to my left was the Navy recruiter and to the right was the Marine Corps recruiter. So I walked in the Navy office, and there was nobody in there. And then the Marine recruiter said, “Hey, hey! Why don’t you come in here?” So I was like, “Okay.” I just kind of walked over there, moseyed over there, and we got to talking, and he said, “Well, have you taken the ASVAB?” And I said, “No, sir. I skipped school that day.” And so I had to take the test, and I would up taking the test, and in maybe a day or two, he called me back, and said, “Hey! You can do anything you want. You scored really good on the test.” I said, “Okay, great!” So I was like, “What are your “Public affairs,” and I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “It's like you’re a journalist. Have you ever seen Full Metal Jacket?” He says, “”You’ll be Joker.” He said, “You go, and you write stories, and you tell the Marine Corps story to the community,” and he was like, “And then when reporters want to talk to Marines, you usually help them out and help them get their story.” I said, “Okay. Sign me up for that.”
And that’s how I got out of drug charges, and that’s why I joined the Marine Corps, which was a dramatic shift in life for me and really helped change the trajectory of my life. I’m really thankful for the Marine Corps.
Yeah. So that's how I joined the military, and I then I wound up putting atheist on my dog tag. And so I did carry that title into the Marine Corps. And then, when I was in boot camp at Parris Island, the only time the drill instructors wouldn’t mess with you was if you went to church or chapel. They’d leave you alone. So I actually started going to church. I started going to chapel.
Just to get left alone by your superiors?
Yes! Just to sit there and doze off. Just to sit in air conditioning. Because on Sunday, it was a light day, but before noon, you’d go to chapel and then you’d go to chow, and you had a couple hours of free time. And free times was usually like, you work out on your own or you polish your boots. You write letters to mom and dad. Or you get ready for the inspection that’s coming up the next day, or whatever. Those kind of things. But for that little bit of time, that an hour, hour and a half, you didn’t have an instructor barking at you, which was a nice reprieve. But I did start carrying a Bible in the boot camp, and I read it from time to time, and I carried it in my pocket.
As an atheist. As an atheist.
Now, why did you start reading a Bible and carrying one with you? Does it haunt back to those early days of worrying or wondering about death?
Well, that's a great question. I see why you have such a great show. It gave me something to do a lot of times. I mean there was a lot of hurry up and wait, where you would move somewhere as a unit and then you’d sit down for an hour, waiting for somebody to come, supplies to arrive, whatever, the training to begin, and so you’d get there early, and you’d just sit there, or you’d stand there. And so, if you had a Bible, you could pull it out and read it. But you couldn’t talk to anybody. It was boring. And so the Bible gave me something to do and something to read. And I remember… This sounds silly, but I remember just looking at the clouds a lot and just thinking, “I wonder if there is a God and if He’s happy that I'm reading this Bible.” And that somewhat gave me a bit of comfort, just to escape from the… I don't know. The quote-unquote hell of boot camp. It just gave me a way to mentally get away from that place and think about something else.
When you were reading the Bible, were you reading it as something, “This might have actually happened in history,” that Jesus was a real person? Did you look at it as, “The Bible is myth and fairy tale. It's unbelievable.” What was your perspective in reading the Bible?
At that point, the veracity of the New Testament was something that I couldn't grasp, how true the Bible was, Jesus as a real person, but there were these fantastical stories in the prophets and in Revelation, and there was this wisdom Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, and then there were stories about Jesus. I didn't really get it, but it was just something that… I think it was just something to do to entertain me, just give my mind some kind of exercise to do.
But if we fast forward a few years, I got out of the Marine Corps, and I moved back home, and I was going to use my GI bill and go to college. At that point… you’ve got to realize my time in the Marine Corps was really exciting. I got to do a lot of traveling. First time I wore a suit or a tie. First time I flew on an airplane, because as a poor southern guy, we just didn't have… this wasn't a part of my life. And so I got to live a pretty exciting life as a journalist, especially single, no kids, so I got to write incredible, fun stories.
But if we fast forward a few years, I got out of the Marine Corps, and I moved home, went to college, and then I joined the Army National Guard on September 7th because they had 100% tuition reimbursement.
I joined on September 7th, and then September 11th happened. And then I got called up, and we got deployed. And it was on that deployment where I gave my life to Christ. So this is where the Ecclesiastes comes in to play, because a man gave me a copy of the Bible and said, “Here. Keep this with you,” and I had heard the stories about George Washington and the superstition of stopping a bullet and all this kind of stuff. We were literally just going to Germany to relieve the army, so the army could go to Afghanistan and relieve the Marines. So it wasn't a difficult deployment in that regard. But nonetheless, he gave me a copy of the Bible. And I did carry it with me.
And then, on the day we deployed, one of my soldiers, he had been married for two years and had a 2-year-old kid, and his wife said that she's leaving him. And so he's my soldier. And he was broken. I mean, this guy was distraught, just crying, bawling like a baby. His whole life was over, but he was getting deployed, so he couldn't do anything about it. He had to leave or go AWOL. That was his only two choices. So one of the first sergeants said, “Well, take him to see a chaplain. I hadn’t been in a church in I couldn’t tell you how many years. At this point, I'm 24, I don't think I've been in church since probably I was 17, 18. I might have visited a church when I went home to see mom. I don't remember any particular time. And so I walk in the chapel. And I remember thinking, “Oh, if God's real, I'm going to catch on fire as soon as I cross over the threshold of this place.”
For all the hell raising and bar fights and all the things I had done that I’m not proud of when I was in the Marine Corps and so forth. But the chaplain talked to the guy, encouraged the guy, whatever. I don’t remember what he said to him. That was one example where I was like, “Okay, this guy's broken, and I have no idea how to fix this kid,” because he's only maybe 19 or 20. But he's my responsibility. I'm his sergeant. I'm in charge. And then I had another guy, a giant of a man, a big 6’8” tough guy. He lost his cool in the middle of a patrol and just threw his weapon down and cried like a baby because he was missing home, and he just had a nervous breakdown. I had no idea how to fix this guy, either. He was very angry, and so I was like, “What is going on with these people?” And then, not too much longer after that, I had another soldier whose son had passed away. He had three boys, and his oldest son died. He was only 13 or 14. So we got the Red Cross message, and I had to go get the soldier, bring him to the captain's office, then I and the captain had the tell him, “Your son has passed away, and you need to go home and bury him, and then you need to come back on mission in thirty days because we need you here.” And you’ve got orders, you know?
And so it was those examples where I actually pulled that Bible out, Jana, and I started reading Ecclesiastes, because that's what I knew. And at this point in my life, you’ve got to realize, you know hell raising, drinking, fighting. I mean, I was not a man who’d want to go to the Bible for anything, but I opened up Ecclesiastes and there it is: “Hey, everything you've done is in vain.” All those women you chased. That’s not worth anything. The money that you've had, it's not worth anything. There’s nothing new under the sun. And so it was like, “Whoa! I've done the same thing other people have done, and there's nothing new about that.” But it's all fruitless. It’s all vanity. And then I got over to the New Testament. And then that's where I experienced Christ for the first time in a real way.
I was reading and interacting with these people from all different strokes of life, from the Samaritan woman, the rich young ruler, to calling Peter and Andrew and these guys. He knew what was in their heart. “I saw you under the tree,” you know? And just all these things. And I was like, “Okay. Something about Jesus understands the heart of people.” And so that drew me to Him because the problems I was facing with my soldiers was how to help what was broken on the inside of them, and I didn’t know how to fix that. And that affected how they were able to perform on mission and what kind of soldiers they were, what kind of people they were, and if they stayed out of trouble or not. So I was like, “How do I help fix these guys on the inside?” And I didn't know. So that's when I began to read and got over to some really interesting verses, because I had been a journalist and been a writer, so I was pretty comfortable with the English language.
I got over to some verses like John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me,” and I remember thinking, “That is the most exclusive sentence I’ve ever heard in my life. You have these definitive articles. Either this is true or it's not true. This is a really strong thing. Okay, this guy lived in early days in Jerusalem and walked around. Okay, was he real? Was He [UNKNOWN 36:20]?” I didn’t think about that? I was just thinking, “Whoa! This is….” Now, I would understand that was a truth encounter, right? I was having a truth encounter. God had begun to draw me in through some of these scriptures. I remember reading Jesus asking his disciples, “Well, who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Okay. That doesn’t get any more exclusive. “You are,” which is like the present, “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Okay, so these verses really stuck in my head and just caused me a lot of thought. And so, those were the initial parts of making me think more about the Lord, and, “Okay. Maybe there's something to this.”
As you were reading all of this, whether it’s the Old Testament or the New Testament, about the Person of Christ, and Who He was and how He engaged with people, were you talking with other people about what you were reading? Was there a chaplain around that you were having good conversations with? Or was this something you were processing on your own? I wonder what you were thinking. “Is this guy real? Is this for real? Is there something to this that I need to be considering more deeply?”
Yeah, I don't remember, at this point, having anybody to talk to. I mean, me and my buddy Joe, we were the company and battalion hell raisers. We were the guys you wanted to go party with. We were the guys that were cool and fun and all that stuff. So none of the good guys really wanted to hang out with us. There were a few Christians in our unit. One of them was our sergeant major. So like the top enlisted guy. This guy was as straight-laced as they come. He didn’t cuss. You barely saw him lose his temper. And for a sergeant major in the army, I had expectations of what those would look like. I was looking at him through a Marine Corps lens, so it was a little bit different perspective, but there were a couple of guys that I knew were Christians, and they lived differently. But no, I didn't talk to them at that point. They didn't want to talk to me.
But one of the things that did happen is I wanted to quit smoking. I was smoking cigarettes like crazy, and one of my soldiers, his name’s Aaron. I’m leaving off last names, but Aaron gave me a “What would Jesus do?” bracelet because I told him. He was one of my soldiers and said I wanted to quit smoking. He said, “Well….” He had seen me reading my Bible. He and a guy named Chris had been… they saw me read my Bible, and they were both Christian guys, and so this guy gave me a “What would Jesus do?” bracelet. And he’s like, “Anytime you want to smoke, just think, ‘What would Jesus do?’” So I put it on because he had honored me with that, and he had given that to me, and he was rooting for me, and I was like, “Okay. I going to wear it because he gave it to me. I'm not going to be a jerk about it or whatever. I'm just going to honor his little gift here.
So these were things, but God was working on me. These were convictions, now that I understand what was happening. These were convictions that began to happen. And God put these little pieces in place to start making me think about him and how to live,
None of these guys actually ever witnessed to me directly. None of them actually shared the gospel with me, came to me with scripture. They lived differently.
But they didn't ever actually preach or pray for me or even explained scripture to me or even witnessed to me. There weren't gospel conversations, but there was obviously a wholesome witness that they presented.
And was that attractive to you in some way? Or was that more repulsive at that time?
It was honorable to me because I had been such a bad person. I stole. I was a womanizer. I would drink and try to fight my best friends, and I'm trying to go out with them the next night, and they wouldn’t want to hang out with me. I mean, I wasn't proud of who I was. And I wasn't raised with my dad. Like I said, my mom was widowed, and she married a different man and had me. And he was an alcoholic. He was very angry. And I only saw him a few times a year, but one of the worst statements that could ever be said to me was, “You’re just like your father!” And so it was in those moments where I was like, “I'm becoming my dad.” And what's funny, Jana, is I look exactly like my dad. Minus the blue eyes. Like we are twins.
But anyway, there was a wholesomeness to that. It was honorable to me that they wanted to live differently and wholesomely, and I remember thinking back to the Grahams and the Dorothys of the world that had been just wonderful family context you think of when you watch TV and see all these wholesome families. That was not what I grew up in. I grew up in a home where I remember waking up on Christmas morning, I had one present under the tree, and there were bunch of people passed out… there were like a dozen people passed out in the house. I didn't know who they were . I was 12 or 13 years old. I mean that’s the kind of home I lived in.
Oh, my! Yes.
But there was something about these guys that lived differently. And that was attractive to me. It was like, “Okay. There’s a different way to live that doesn't come with all this trouble and drama.” And that was a little bit attractive to me.
And you knew they were Christians, but they just lived their lives in front of you. They didn't try to push it upon you.
Never. They were honestly quiet Christians. I don't remember seeing anybody really witness to anybody. So that is kind of fascinating now that you think back on it, how God wound up bringing me into his family.
Right. So then what happened? You were observing. You were reading.
Yeah. I got into a huge cussing fight with our company sergeant, so one of the top guys. And he was a nice guy. I don’t want to give him any credit, but I had a difference of opinion about things because I had come from the Marine Corps, and so my expectations of professionalism and service and devotion and all that was very different, so there were a lot of deeper philosophical issues. And I just remember getting into a huge fight with him. And we were just yelling, cussing. So angry at him. And he was two ranks ahead of me, so he probably could have got me on some kind of insubordination charge or whatever. And it didn't resolve, but I remember walking back to my barracks. And some of those songs from the chapel came back. And so I just started having a little talk with Jesus, and telling Him about my troubles, because that's what the song said.
You know, these old southern gospel hymns. Just a few of them. I don't know hardly any of them. But I just remember saying, “God, if you're real, I am 6,000 miles away from home.” Excuse my French. “My life sucks!” Like, “I'm a bad guy. I am not happy with where I'm at in life. I’m a paycheck to paycheck drunk. I'm fighting my best friends. I am just a mess.” And I was like, “God, if you're real, I need You, and I need You now.” Like, “This is it. I need You to show up if You’re real.” And then the sergeant major came around the corner. And you’ve got to realize I only went to the company office a handful of times in a year. And the sergeant major’s…. Here I am. I’m in the Army at this point. I'm a sergeant in an army, even though I earned my sergeant stripes in the Marine Corps. I maintained my rank. And so here I'm supposed to be this tough sergeant guy, right? And I'm crying. I’m just bawling. Snotty, messy bawling. I’m walking down the street in uniform, the sergeant major comes out, and he's like, “What’s going on with you, Wilke?” And I was like…. I knew he was a Christian, you know? Everybody did, because they always made fun of him because he’d never go drink and he wouldn't do all this stuff. But anyway, I was like, “I’m just having a little talk with Jesus, and I’m telling him about my troubles.” I have no idea what he said to me. It was probably 30 seconds, but he encouraged me, right? That’s probably what we'd say about it now. But I can't recall what he said.
Then a few minutes later, one of the other Christian guys was there, a guy named Charlie, and he saw me. He was like, “You okay?” And I was like, “No, I’m not.” He said some words to me, and I don't know what he said, either, Jana. And then I went back to my dorm room, my barracks room, and I was crying, and I was just upset. And then I get a knock on the door. And so I go to the door, and it's Russ. And I'm like, “What are you doing here?” Russ never comes to my room, right? Russ was the exact opposite of what I was. And Russ said to me, “God told me to come talk to you.”
And he hadn't talked to the sergeant major or the other friend. He just-
So I have no idea how long Russ stayed. He may have stayed two minutes. He may have stayed twenty minutes. I literally don’t remember, don't remember what he said. I have no idea. The only thing that stuck out was, “God told me to come talk to you. So I'm here.” So he’d heard the voice of God, and he obeyed God. And so he's talking to me, and I'm just sitting there thinking, “Whoa! Wait a second,” and then Russ leaves, and as soon as he leaves, I was like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.”
You had just prayed, and Russ is knocking on your door. That's crazy! But I guess it's not crazy if God is real, right?
Right. When he left, I said, “Wait a second, this is…. Wait. God just…” and people have taken issue with this theology over time, and again, I don't care. This is my experience with the Lord. I said, “Wait a second. The God of the universe just heard my prayers, stopped what he was doing”—that's where people have a problem—“and showed me He was real.” And He didn't send a flash of lightning. There were no unicorns running through the heavens. There was nothing crazy, right? It was really three people who I knew were Christians and respected as Christians that He had put in my path within moments, minutes, after I had prayed, “God if You’re real, I need You, and I need You now.” And God showed up in His people, and that was all the proof I needed.
The verses of scripture, all that stuff, all that would come later, right? Understanding the Bible. But at that point I knew God was real, and if God was real, those things I’d been reading in scripture had to be true, and if that was true, then obviously I was feeling convicted as a sinner. And so my knees hit the floor, and I said, “God, I'm so sorry. I’ve done a horrible job at living, and so I'm done. I can't do this my way. You’re obviously real. You obviously care about me.” It was His love that he gave me. It was this overwhelming love of God, that He would stop and notice me of all people.
Paul talks about being the chief sinner, and I would take him up on that when I get to heaven. No. Literally. I was like, “Okay. His love. Wow! He stopped and noticed me.” And that broke me, Jana, that just broke me, and I said, “God, I'm done. I can’t live this life like this anymore. However, you want me to live, I’ll do it.” And then that was it.
And then literally my next question was, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
Listen, I had nobody disciple me. It was me and the Word and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God took the Word of God and showed me the truth of God and revealed to me the Son of God and changed my life. And my next question was, “What do I need to do to be a Christian?” and God led me to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And that has been the very basis of my faith ever since, because I was like, “Oh, God, it's easy to love You. You have done so much for me. You've forgiven me so much.” And I do not deserve His grace, mercy, forgiveness whatsoever. Loving people, on the other hand, is going to take a whole lot more work. And I’m still working on that. That’s the sanctification process.
Oh, yeah. Living is messy, right? People are messy. We all are. Sometimes unlovable, seemingly unlovable. Yeah.
Well, and to bring it full circle, there was a little chapel that some of these guys I talked about, Charlie and Russ and a guy named Mike and the sergeant major, they literally went down to this one room, turned a footlocker on its side, and it wasn't much bigger than a one-car garage, and the sergeant major played the guitar, and somebody would sing, and then somebody would preach. And so I began to go to this little chapel. And it was on Father’s Day of 2002. So what would that have been? Father’s Day’s in June? One of the guys—I don’t remember who it was—got up and shared about God being our Father. And I realized, “Wait, wait, okay. God is my Heavenly Father. He is my Father. He's the Father I've never had. He was there with me. He was walking with me. He was talking with me, and He’s real.” And this means that all of those expectations and disappointment I’d had towards my earthly father didn't really matter anymore.
And I remember having a conversation with a guy about this in the laundromat as we were sitting on the washer, and we’re talking about our deadbeat dads and all this kind of stuff. And I remember being impressed by the Spirit. “You need to forgive your father.” So I literally went and picked up the phone within a few moments and called my dad after that conversation and said, “Dad, I just want to tell you that I forgive you.” I forgive you for all the things you did do that were awful and all the things you didn't do. But I'm a Christian now,” and I remember telling him, Jana, “God is my dad, and I will love you as my earthly father, but God is my dad, and He provides me all that I need as a Father.” And I don't know how that sat with my dad at that point. I was still thousands of miles away from home. But that was a turning point in our relationship, that now, looking back, I was able to love this man who had had so little impact but so great impact at the same time-
… on my life.
That I was able to love one of the most unlovable people that… I mean, I still have siblings that still can’t forgive him and love him. And that made all the difference in the world. When I came back, we became very good friends, and I got to spend a lot of time with my dad before he passed many years ago.
Wow, what a beautiful redemption story that is. Truly.
It really is. I’m thankful for that gift.
Yeah. I just got chills, actually. The thought of being able to love someone who has, intentionally or unintentionally, harmed you deeply, in so many ways, but yet, you can love with the love of God, the love of Christ, through the love of Christ, the one who is unlovable. Because that's what Christ did for us, right? So it becomes… It’s never really easy, is it, to do that, but yet, you were obviously compelled by the Spirit of God to do that. And what a relief for you, and I'm sure for him as well, the grace that you were able to extend in that moment, I'm sure, had a tremendous impact on him as well as you.
I would like to think so. But it was a great gift that I had with my dad, that friendship that we could have, but it was only through the power of God to have the love of God in me. But it was like, “Okay, if God can forgive me of all the things that I've done against Him and Him only, and I'm not like, ‘I can truly forgive somebody.’”
But it was also this provision of God, like the provision of God was, “Okay, I provide all that you need,” emotionally, obviously spiritually, even physical strength at times, to get through difficult, long days and things like that, you feel God just give you energy to get through these kinds of situations.
Yeah. What a relief it is sometimes. When we put so much pressure on other people to be a certain way for us and towards us, and certainly, we all desire a healthy relationship with parents and all that, but the reality is we live in a broken world with broken people, and no human will ever fulfill us or love us in the way that we desire, other than a perfect God with a perfect love, Who’s willing to give, when we just come to Him. And I love that you were obviously humble. I mean you came to a place of humility when you came to ask God, “If You’re real?” You were humble enough to do that. And then how gracious of Him to so immediately provide for you, to show you in such tangible ways. What a gift that must have been to you. It sounds like that there was really no doubt after that happened.
There has not been any doubt in my mind the existence, truth, reality, and; even the Person of God and the personality of God as my Father and as my Lord Jesus Christ. There’s no doubt that has been in my life in those years. There have been doubts about where I've stood and doubts about where I'm living and doubts about obviously trying to figure out living out and working out your own sanctification. There's doubts with that, but there's never been a doubt about the reality, truth, existence, and awareness of God in my life in twenty something years.
That is a huge gift. I would imagine the difference between those years of living without God and then living with God in a much more contented, settled, loved place, where I presume there's no fear of death anymore. Talk to me just a minute about how things have changed for you, juxtaposed to your life before and after.
Now, I don't want to put too academic on it, because I'm not an academic guy. I am a public schoolboy from Kentucky, with a basic education from college, but there’s this idea of redemptive lift that happens when you give your life to Christ. I got off drugs. I got off alcohol. I quit smoking. But then the Lord provided real friends. Like, all my drinking bodies immediately went away. I mean all of my party buddies immediately went away. They wanted nothing to do with me. So I was without friends. And then immediately He provided Mike and Adam and some of these other men, and then we began to study the Bible. So He provided community immediately for me and deep friendships, like a true source of koinonia fellowship, of a bondedness with these man through the spirit of Christ that I didn't have within my own brothers, my own blood brothers, and then, once I got back home and began to go to church, I began to see what a godly father was. I began to understand a lot more truth about God.
Now, I had several years that I was… I didn’t know how to live out the Christian life. Literally, growing up, there were only a couple of family members who were married. I didn’t know what any of this was. I didn't know what life looked like. I didn't know what life could look like. So a lot has changed in the simple fact that God showed me there's a different way to live.
A lot has changed. Some people take this the wrong way when I say it, but there's two sides of it. I don’t know if I can…. Jesus says he who has been forgiven little loves little and he who has been forgiven much loves much. I’ve found that to be true with a lot of the really, really strong brothers I have been around in life, who really made a mess out of their life. When they get into a deep vine and pruning vineyard attendant, a sheep and a shepherd relationship, a very close father/son relationship with God, they’re just on fire. And they love him because they know where they've come from.
God has brought beauty from ashes, it sounds like, and restored the years that the locusts have eaten, all of those things, in the last 20 years? You said since 2002?
It would be 2002, so now yeah. It’s been 21 years that I’ve been walking with the Lord.
Which is wild. I mean, I tell these stories to people, and it's like I'm talking about a different person. When I came home, Jana, I mean it was the music, how I dressed, how I talked, things that I thought about, my dreams. I mean I have all kinds of dreams about God. Just everything. I literally was a new creation. Same skin, same flesh, same background, but I'm literally a brand new person. And people didn’t recognize that.
Yeah. Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure. It’s like, “Where did Jon go? And who is this guy?” Yeah.
Yeah. Yeah. So now it's funny, 21 years later, when I tell these stories, I’m like, “Who is that guy?” I mean, you get to telling some of your story and you get used to sharing some things, but we've skipped a lot obviously. It’s been 21 years. But it’s like people don't even recognize that guy.
Wow! There’s such beauty and power in that kind of transformation, though, Jon, that's so inspiring. Truly. I think that you can reach so many people with your story, because so many people are in that same place, are trying to figure it out. And I'm thinking about those, even who might be listening right now to your story, saying, “I'm that guy. I'm that guy,” or, “I'm that woman,” who is a hell raiser, or just whatever, and, “How I would like to find something different or something more, or actually have a piece of that obvious love that you have and contentment in life and change.” You know that change. I think, if anything, you demonstrate that change is possible.
All things are possible with God.
If He loved a sinner like me first, and that's why I know what love is.
Yeah. So if somebody is listening like that today, what would you say to someone like that? How could you encourage them to… Is it saying a prayer to God? “Are You real?” Is it connecting with Christians? Reading the Bible? I can think of…. You actually took time to try to figure something out even though you were on your own for quite a while. How can you guide someone towards Christ?
I would challenge people to just pray that prayer. “God, I need you.” When you get to that little moment in life. “God, I need you,” and I have faith that He’ll show up. I have faith that He will walk into your situation and help you understand where you are and what you need. And He’ll show that He’s real, and He’ll show that He loves you. I would love to see people have that experience with God, where, you know, I first had a truth encounter with the word, and then I had an experiential encounter with God in that way of providing people.
I would also say you can't discount the Christians that you know are around you. We’re all not perfect in what we do, but sometimes just asking the question, like, “What happened to you? I don’t expect you to be perfect, but how did you come to know God?” I mean just asking that question, because we do that all the time. “How do I fix a shingle?” “How do I change a tie rod?” We look up things on YouTube. We look up things all the time. We ask other questions all the time. So if you’re struggling in your faith, if you're trying to figure out if God is real, just, one, ask Him. And, two, ask other people, because God uses His people, as broken and as messy as they are, He used people. He's still sovereign, and He’s still going to work it out, but literally His people are a representation of Him, even in their mess and their struggle in life. People of faith still have a lot that they can share, and the Spirit of God is in them, and so the Spirit of God can speak through them to you and guide you to scripture and give you wisdom in life that you just would never have expected.
That's perfect. And then, again, it seems like there were several touch points, that God had Christians or believers in your life at different points, even as a child, you saw that beautiful family as representative of something good. And then later, those men in the Army who were again just touch points. Maybe not pushy. They weren't pressing. But they were living in such a way that you knew that they were different. What would you say to Christians in terms of how we can best engage with people who are… some may be looking. We don't know it. Some may not be looking for God.
We, in this world, it has become so polarized and so vitriolic, I guess is the word. And so politicized. It's hard for some people to separate, when they’re looking at Christians, the politics from who they are as people. So to Christians, I would say, just do the best you can when it comes to how you’re living. I'm literally at the pool yesterday, and I'm there by myself. The kids are off with the grandparents and stuff. And my neighbors are out drinking. So I just get in the pool. It's hot. I get in the pool. I go over there and just sit down and talk to them. They're drinking. They're talking. And the guy’s, like, “Hey! Would you like a beer?” It’s like, “No. No, thanks.” And so literally I hang out with them for like an hour and a half. And we’d talk about some pop culture, we’d talk about some music, some movies, some news that’s happening. But through the conversation, I would just kind of drop little things. “Oh, you know what? I'm just kind of a straight-laced guy. I don’t drink and do those kind of things anymore.” But then, through that friendship evangelism, one of my mentors and friends, he wrote a great book about contagious faith. And it's different styles of evangelism. With my neighbors, they obviously know something's different, and I'm hoping those conversations will come up. And they see me obviously get ready for church and come home from church. They’re not hearing me cussing. They’re not seeing me drinking and hanging out. But those little things that I saw were, “Okay, there’s something different about this guy,” but I’m still relatable and I’m still fun, and I’m still cool enough to hang out with that they don't really care if I'm not getting drunk with them. And sometimes Christians… I guess here's the thrust of my answer, Jana. Christians get in their bubble so much they don't know how to hang out with sinners anymore.
And that is a sad thing, because our Lord walked with people to the point where they thought He was one of them. Even though He never partook in the same life that they did, and they accused Him of all kinds of horrible stuff. I don't want to be accused of false accusations or anything. But if people see me hanging out on my porch over here with these neighbors that drink a lot, I’m okay if they question where I’m at.
Not because I like to hang out with them and drink and they watch a lot of basketball and football, and I don't watch any sports. But they know, “Hey, we can talk about anything.” And we can hang out, and I’m not going to judge you. I’m not going to be angry towards you. But when the bottom falls out of their life, I expect that they're going to talk to me. And I’ve found that to be true over these 21 years of following Christ, that if I can just be a constant witness that’s not judgmental, that’s not angry, and not living like the world, sooner or later, when the bottom falls out, they’re going to pick up the phone and call me.
I think that's beautifully said. I think there's something very, very powerful about just being in relationship with someone. As I've heard many say, just play the long game. I mean, be in relationship with genuine friendship, not project-related friendship, but genuine friendship, so that, as you say, when opportunities do come, and they’re at point of need or desire for something more, that they know who you are, and they know what you have, what you hold, and that you have something different, and you have something to offer. Yeah.
Jana, the Lord put a lot of people in my life really quickly, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without those people, who said, “Hey, you need to do this Bible study.” “Hey, you should be learning what it means to fast and pray, and you need to really be sharing your faith,” and I had other people say, “You need to stop cussing when you're talking about Jesus,” because I didn't know that was really a taboo thing. And then, “Hey, you really should start tithing.” All these people that God bought in my life just helped put the structure of obedience in my life. “Here are ways to obey God.” When I was like, “Okay, God. How do I follow You? What do I do?” He provided all that. It didn’t all come overnight. It came over a few years, but don’t discount the community of God.
Yeah. That's a really good word. I think, too, what's interesting about your story is you kind of came to faith as a Lone Ranger, as it were, so I appreciate your emphasis on the fact that your growth, your becoming a Christian and knowing what that means, what it looks like, what it is to live as a follower of Christ, all came in the context of community, and that that community provides such support, not only spiritually speaking and guidance, but also just in every other way. It's really beautiful the way that God has designed things, that we are meant to be together and to belong together, and like you say, be in a right place, where it’s not just about receiving. It’s about serving, and it's about giving, and it's about growing. Which, obviously, you have done all of those things. So thank you for commending us there at the end. I think that's a word for probably a lot of people.
So thank you, Jon. What an extraordinary story! Again, I never, ever tire of seeing God show up when people are calling out His Name to see if He’s real and then to hear and see the difference that He can make in someone's life. What a beautiful testimony that you’ve given us today. Thank you so much for coming on and telling us your story.
Thank you very much for allowing me to share. I obviously can't take the credit for it. It’s God’s story of what He’s done in my life, and He’ll do it in anybody else's, too.
Yes. Well, thank you. Thank you for being such a strong man of God.
All right. All right.
Have a great day.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Jon Wilke’s story. You can find out more about him in the episode notes below. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me. Again, our email is [email protected]. Also, if you're a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with a former atheist with questions, please contact us on our Side B Stories website or again on our email, and we'll get you connected. This podcast is produced through the C.S. Lewis with our wonderful producer, Ashley Decker, our audio engineer, Mark Rosera, and our video editor, Kyle Polk, who posts these podcasts in video form on our YouTube channel. If you enjoyed it, I hope you'll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.